Would You Photograph if You Couldn’t Share?

The following article appeared in summer/fall 2016 issue (#38) of Outdoor Photography Canada (OPC) magazine. Subscribe to get this great magazine delivered to your mailbox. The latest issue (#43) is one of the best yet!

©Darwin Wiggett

I recently found myself pondering a rather strange question…would I still photograph if I could never share the resulting images with another soul? This thought got me thinking about why people photograph in the first place. Most of us do share our memories, stories, travels, and life events with others. Without an audience to view our pictures what’s the point of making photos? Indeed, among art circles there is the contention that for art to exist there has to be a ‘connection’. You can’t have connection without an audience. By this logic art can only exist if there is someone beyond the artist to view it.

©Darwin Wiggett

The point here is not to debate whether art needs an audience to be art but rather to get to the fundamental question of why we photograph, or why we create in the first place. Beyond recording memories and experiences, I suspect we photograph for many different reasons just like people write or paint or compose music for many different reasons. And, as with other art forms, I think we photograph because of internal and external motivations at heart.

©Darwin Wiggett

Henry Darger was a custodian by day and a painter and writer by night. He spent most of his adult life creating fantastical paintings and writings in his spare time, and no one around him knew anything about his creative life. It was not until after his death when his landlord came to clean out his room that his art was discovered. Henry did not create his pieces with an audience in mind; he kept his art to himself and made his art for his own pleasure or more likely for his own therapy to work through his difficult childhood as an institutionalized orphan. Darger’s motivations and reasons for creating art were internal.

I wonder if there are few Darger’s out there in today’s era of social sharing. I can think of plenty of artists, probably the majority, who produce work for external reasons. They feel they have something to share with the outside world whether that’s simply to share the joy and beauty of nature as they see it or to make social statements about the world around them. They make art showcasing how they see the world but knowing at the time of creation that they will present their work to the world.

©Darwin Wiggett

There are dangers to both approaches. For those who do it purely for internal reasons there is a danger that what you create will be too personal for anyone else to understand should it ever be seen. On the other hand, because the work was not created for an outside audience it will be pure of intent. When producing work to share with others the results are often more accessible but there is the likely possibility that the responses of your audience will inform the content of your art. I see this latter point a lot in photography where social media responses to a photographer’s work colour what and how they photograph. Personal work that does not get a lot of ‘likes’ is abandoned for a style of photo that generates many positive responses. There is the real danger of creating homogenous and predictable or fashionable and trendy work.

©Darwin Wiggett

In the end, I think we all need to look at why we photograph and what camp of artists we generally fall into. Are you a navel gazer or a social sharer? Once you know your true motivations you can then try and avoid the pitfalls that lie in wait with either approach. In my own photography I started out making images purely for my own purposes without expectation or need to share. Later on my photography became all about sharing what I saw with others. It soon began to feel like I was creating for an audience and not for me. I am now returning full circle to creating for internal reasons and I feel a new spark of inspiration. Will I ever share this new work? It’s hard to say but for now I am creating a new body of work just for me and it feels great. So would I photograph if I couldn’t share the results with anyone else? The answer for me is a resounding yes! What about you?

©Samantha Chrysanthou

About the Author

I am a Canadian landscape and outdoor photographer who loves long hikes in the woods, yummy food, hairy dogs, good company and a good guitar jam.

11 Comments

  1. Jeff Bingham
    September 26, 2017

    That’s a good question, I’ve always photographed for me first , everyone else is a distant second. Social media has put intense pressure on people to post consistently or face being “left behind. It’s the reason we see people do foolish things to get a good shot, which goes straight to FB and instagram. I’m in the process of re-evaluating social media.

    Reply
  2. Byron Robb
    September 26, 2017

    What a thought provoking and thoughtful article. I was a daily poster on Facebook, but for reasons unrelated to photo sharing I have been absent for 9 months. I’d like to share more of my photos, but I don’t feel compelled to do so. And when I share I find that I feel a duty to look at photos posted by my friends and give a like or, in some cases, a comment. This makes me think that a lot of people viewed my photos out of a sense of obligation. Who needs that kind of audience? I have a few photos on Instagram, but same thing: obligation. And a compulsion to get more followers. Most followers follow you in the hope that you will follow them. In the end we end up with hundreds or thousands of followers who never actually look at our photos.
    So, currently I’m not sharing anything on a regular basis.

    Cheers,
    Byron

    Reply
  3. Larry Momczka
    September 26, 2017

    The story of Vivian Maier comes to mind. Only by chance did her lifetime body of work avoid the dumpster. She created entirely for personal reasons, yet her work, once discovered, shone light on the human condition as powerfully as did the photography of Cartier-Bresson.

    Reply
  4. Chris
    September 26, 2017

    Wonderful article that really makes you think. I enjoy this type of article and it is really relevant in the world of social media and everything that is going on in the world that gets so much attention good or bad, just because it is out there and so accessible. For me it is fulfilling to photograph just for myself and I love it when I am in the moment. However, it is also rewarding to get some sort of feedback from time to time. I think it helps to keep me going with what I love to do. Its kind of like when you are learning something new in school and you need some encouragement and feedback to say you are on the right track. It helps you to move forward to the next level with more complicated subject matter or skill. For me photography is much the same because it is learning process and feedback is helpful. When you start to do it because you just cant help it and it is primarily for yourself, it has then become your passion.

    Reply
  5. darrel
    September 26, 2017

    thx Darwin………..great thoughts!

    Reply
  6. Anil Sud
    September 26, 2017

    Funny you should ask this question, Darwin…a couple of years ago, I started asking the instructors leading photo workshops I was attending the same question but framed with slightly different language: “If you were the last person on earth and knew that no one would ever see your photograph, would you still take a picture?”

    To paraphrase Brooks Jensen of LensWorks, ‘one of the most important qualities a photographer can develop is empathy’ – empathy for the viewer so that the photographer can try and place him/herself in the shoes of the person who will ultimately view the photograph and figure out how best to convey a message that the viewer can relate to.

    I tend to concur and believe that a critical part of the art creation process is getting feedback from the viewer. Shooting in isolation with no intent to ever share is depriving the artist of valuable information which can help him/her grow and achieve greater potential.

    Social media does have the potential to pollute the art making process if the artist is not cognizant that he/she is being swayed too far off course in the search of likes, popularity, etc. It is ultimately the responsibility of the artist to stay true to their vision while respecting the perspective of their audience simultaneously. One thing to consider; artists in search of “likes” on social may not actually be abandoning their original vision but rather, may become much more selective in what component of their artwork they choose to share.

    Social media is not the sole culprit here. Before the age of the internet, one would shoot chromes or negatives, and then possibly wait days or weeks to achieve (make a print/receive slides in the mail) a final product and then wait even longer before it might be shared (usually in person) with the audience. The artist could still be swayed by the opinions (“likes”) of the audience just like today but the delay between art creation and feedback would simply take longer. In todays world of instant gratification and accelerating technology, social media has simply permitted the feed-back loop to practically reduce that interval to even mere seconds. So, it’s possible that artists could always have been creating work to keep their audience happy but today, they get feedback on an accelerated schedule.

    Would I still take I photograph if I was the last person on earth? I still struggle with that question, but despite absolutely loving the process and often the final product, suspect the answer would probably be no.

    Reply
    • Byron Robb
      September 27, 2017

      A very thought provoking comment. I guess I just gave it a “like”.

  7. Pat Donaldson
    September 27, 2017

    Quite a thought provoking question and article Darwin. I absolutely enjoy looking at exceptional paintings, sculptures, photographs and all things beautiful, but am reluctant to share my work on social media for a host of reasons (theft – had an image stolen once & used in a glossy magazine), time constraints, interest, pressure to post etc.). While I share a few, and am often tempted to put more out there, I don’t feel I need to seek ‘public recognition’ or ‘acceptance’ to try to achieve my own ever changing and growing personal photography development. Social media mediocrity may very likely push more of us away from it in any event. But I still love seeing outstanding art.

    Reply
  8. Martin Prentice
    October 6, 2017

    This is rather a belated response to a provocative question Darwin. My perspective may be different from most of those previously submitted. I am strongly motivated by the need to share, but not on social media (I terminated my involvement on Facebook about a year ago due to my despair over much of its content) or with other photographers; I share to spread enjoyment among those who are not privileged like myself to be able to access the many locations I am able to visit and photograph. While I certainly enjoy the challenge of photography as an art and improving my techniques, I also partake in much “travelogue” style photography (if that is a correct description) that basically document my travels.

    The real joy I receive from capturing images of my journeys is to share with others, most obviously my friends (they frequently fall asleep), but most importantly the two local seniors facilities in my town where I regularly provide 40-60 minute photo shows. Nothing gratifies me more than hearing: “thanks for sharing your photo memories of places we have never visited and now never will”. Of course, these presentations are a good ego polisher of my rather basic photo skills. These seniors are much more generous critics than my wife.

    Reply
  9. Connie
    October 11, 2017

    A late response but thought I would share anyway. I photograph for myself and family. The need to share is more because I am excited about the photo, for fun or to get some critical feed back to see where I need improvement. If I never got to share on social media I would still photograph.

    Reply
  10. alex
    October 11, 2017

    Very good question, for it makes me ponder why I took the photographs in the first place. Photography is my creative outlet, even though I may never show anyone my work, it is my memory of a place, time and instant in my life. It takes me back to a place and time that I can only re-visit in my memory. On the other hand I love to show my photos to family and friend. It is photographic paper trail of me and who I am. It is a small porthole into my past and my families past.

    Reply

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