I have a well-respected photographer and filmmaker friend who often refers to the personality of the photographer as the most selfish of creatives—so selfish, in fact, that they only allow one eye to see the image they are creating. This is done, of course, with a twinkle in the eye and their tongue stuck firmly in their cheek. And yet, there is an element of truth to this statement.
The photographic medium is one without set rules. In photography, 2 and 2 does not equal 4. It can, in effect, equal whatever you want it to. As a result, the photographer requires a strong constitution and sense of worth to avoid slipping into a malaise of insecurity. As such, many photographers find it difficult to meet fellow photographers when things are not going well for them financially, creatively or spiritually. The one meeting place that they had was the commercial darkroom, which became a community hub for many dropping off film and picking up work.
The advent of digital photography saw this meeting place diminish in number or disappear entirely, leaving many photographers with only a computer screen for company as the digital darkroom is not a natural meeting place for casual chat and coffee. It is perhaps no surprise then that so many photographers have seen Twitter as a communication lifeline and an invaluable forum for conversation with like-minded souls. But what is its true value to photographers and photography?
I will admit to being slow to the Twitter party. In its earliest days, I couldn’t see its value or relevance to me as a person or to my practice as a photographer. My understanding of the platform took time and some research as I searched for people who were using it with intelligence and consideration. In essence, I was looking for writers who understood the art of publishing to inform and inspire, not merely to promote or self-market. I gradually found these people and I began to join their communities, and as a result my own community began to develop.
Now, eight years on from those early tweeting steps, I find myself with a following of more than 11,000 and a wealth of evidence of how positive engagement with the platform can be for anyone working as a photographer or within the creative industries. The negative experiences I’ve had have been few, but they exist and I’m happy to share those with you also.
Let’s deal with the negative first, as it is the negative aspects and stories surrounding social media that are most often used as reasons for non-engagement. Over the last eight or so years, I have only blocked three people and each one of those was for the same reason: stepping over the line that exists between sharing an opinion and making accusations/assumptions in the belief that someone who has never met you knows who you are, what you’ve done and how you think. To the best of my knowledge, I have been blocked by three people: one of whom I have blocked, one that disliked my expressing an opinion as to why they received a Queen’s honor, and I have no idea why the third one took a dislike to me. (But that’s life!) I have had a few ‘strong’ debates and conversations on Twitter but I try to always end them politely if possible with a thank you for the verbal badinage.
However, in my experience, the positive far outweighs the negative. I have found the photo community on Twitter to be supportive, kind, considerate, inspiring and only rarely infuriating. They are willing to share knowledge as well as opinions and rally together to expose issues, support fellow photographer’s projects and debate issues that all photographers face. The community is strong and its reach in both content and approach is broad and inclusive. The conversations are, in my opinion, essential to any practitioner’s understanding of where the medium has been, where it is now and where it may or may not be going. You may not want to be part of that conversation, but I would question as to why you would want to not be at least listening. Of course, like all good conversations there is no point in joining if all you want to do is shout, either about yourself or at others. Twitter can be an extremely effective marketing tool, but that is not its sole purpose for existence.
In essence, it is a communication, broadcast and publishing tool, and therefore its rules of engagement are in line with those disciplines. Understand that and you will find yourself in control of the type of conversations and engagements you will enter into.
To my mind, Twitter fulfills a series of different functions—all of which are essential to my continuation and growth within the medium. It’s my personalized notice-board of what’s happening and what’s being published, discussed, and shown. It’s an effective tool for me to let others know what I am and have been working on. And it is a forum for conversation. Sometimes I make comments from a personal perspective, other times I comment on others’ thoughts, but most often I retweet others to share information with those who I feel will benefit from the information contained within the tweet.
I am, of course, not alone in this and there are many who are better at this than me. After all, that is what makes a community worth engaging with: a variety of skillsets, engagements and experiences. With more than 81,000 followers, there can be few within the photographic Twitter community as enthusiastic and engaged as Andy Adams (FlakPhoto), a lynchpin of the independent online photo community. The use of the word ‘independent’ in describing the Twitter photo community here is important. We all know that brands, institutions and organizations have their own Twitter accounts, but it is the individual that brings the personality and the ‘social’ to the media. And it is that sense of the personal that can be so important in giving a feeling of connection that the darkroom once offered.
I am aware that there is no shortage of research concerning the addictive nature of social media use and it is not hard to see that many photographers are continuously ‘live’ on the platform, but the importance of those interactions to the person’s psyche can be seen as a positive force in the sense of community and validation they receive from those interactions. The knock on from these is the sense of knowing and meeting fellow photographers that geographic location would otherwise prevent. The result of this for me has been that my personal online connections have often come to fruition through collaboration and meetings in person. Twitter has made the introduction and I have followed up by creating a dialogue and a relationship.
I can safely say that without Twitter a number of my recent projects would never have reached completion, grown in the way that they have or received the exposure that they have. They would also not have been as much fun to complete without the conversations I have had concerning their growth with the Twitter community.
As I have previously mentioned, I cannot see how you can be engaged with the medium and not be part of the conversation those within and connected to the medium are having. It’s good to share, listen, see new work, know what’s happening, be supported, and be supportive—but perhaps most importantly, it’s good to talk in person and online.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography,
a Senior Lecturer in Editorial and Advertising Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book #New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in January 2019.
His documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay will be screened across the UK and the US in 2018.
You can follow Grant on Twitter and on Instagram @UNofPhoto.
Text © Grant Scott 2018