When Two Worlds Collide: Art vs. Social Media

Debates continue to rage within the social media photography community, over issues like “comp stomping” and what amounts of post-processing are acceptable. Occasionally the pot boils over, then briefly returns to simmering, only to boil over again in the coming weeks. 

If I released a cover of your song, of course I’d credit you. Why don’t photographers do the same? Shouldn’t they?

Similarly, how is it fair to a photographer who runs their business by creating honest photographs, or does some blending to compensate for camera limitations, but doesn’t drop in skies from other days – when someone else can just drop their sky in and get more attention? It’s not fair, right?

But this is social media. This is business. This is a society that worships likes, comments, and dollars.

Photography isn’t any of those. Photography is art. What are the rules in art, anyway? There aren’t any. Who are we to impose our personal beliefs and limitations on others? If I say one thing is OK, but something else isn’t, who am I to make the rules for someone else?

Both sides are right, really. But it’s the approach that determines the opinion.

The real, underlying problem is when one tries to put all photographers on a level playing field on social media, while everyone is taking different kinds and amounts of steroids. This is a world (a bubble, if you will) where all work is the same -- “photography” -- and competes for likes, favorites, comments, and other forms of attention. Money may be involved, too. Success is typically defined by the amount of attention an image gets. In a social media world, it absolutely isn’t fair if your honest image, which you worked hard for, gets 100 likes, while someone drops a sky over the same scene in 10 minutes and gets 1000 likes. And it isn’t fair if your fresh image, which you worked hard to scout for, gets 100 likes, while someone else copies your composition, doesn’t credit you, and gets 1000 likes.

But wait a second – are we talking about photography, the art, or are we talking about social media? Those are different!

If you insert a sky from halfway around the world, you have obviously taken steroids. If you move the contrast slider or add a tone curve, you have also taken steroids. And if you use a single long exposure to blur moving water, you, too, have taken steroids.

“But what I do is different,” you say. “I stretch reality, but it’s believable. It’s natural. It’s not fake.”

What the hell are you talking about? Get off your high horse. Of course your work is fake. You altered the raw file that came out of your camera, which didn’t represent reality in the first place. Who cares?

Social media cares, and rightfully so. Because it isn’t fair to have everyone play the game using different kinds of steroids on a level playing field.

But we have to understand something here. Social media does not promote art. The web promotes competing for attention and business, and by rewarding replication of trending topics, it ends up suppressing creativity as much as it fosters it. That’s one of the reasons why I recently stopped posting most of my images on social media, and just direct them to my website.

Interestingly, since I’ve stopped posting online, I’ve noticed myself doing new kinds of blends and other Photoshop experimentation that I wouldn’t have done before. I’ve blended blue hour city lights with a sunrise burn and a post-sunrise sunstar. I’ve dropped in a similar Milky Way from a day later to fix a couple issues with the original one. I’ve stretched the hell out of whatever I want. And I’ll copy any damn comp I feel like.

Why? Because I don’t have to prove to anyone that it’s real, original, or worthy of their like or comment. I don’t have to brace myself for comments from trolls and self-proclaimed experts. I don’t have to weather the storm of photographers defending “their” comps. I simply don’t have to give two shits what they think. It’s not like I’m trying to use the comp to get 1000 likes, to draw attention to my work, to drive traffic to my workshops page. I’m back to making art. And I enjoy that. I still have personal guidelines that I generally adhere to, but… really, once you remove the competition and comparison, who cares?

Seriously, who cares?

Ah, right – social media cares. Artists couldn’t care less.

-jl

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