Until a year ago I was quite convinced of my work as a photographer and image editor / retoucher. This self-confidence was based on the fact that I did not filter my input. Above all, Facebook had a devastating effect on my sense of style and I am now very glad to have found a way in the right direction. But let’s start from scratch.
In October 2015 I attended two workshops and had the chance to talk about 10 pictures with Natalia Taffarel. While the results of this might have taken a while to kick in, it did change me. I really should warn you, this story might seem quite confused with lots of tangents that does not appear coherent. I will try to be as succinct as possible.
The mental database
We learn through everything we experience and see. Everything influences our actions, our perception, and our self-assessment. This starts early in life: as a child you might run into the edge of a table and feel the pain, but not necessarily associate the pain with the table edge. Eventually, if you bang yourself against the table enough times you will make the connection between the edge of table and ‘Ouch!’ You will likely make a subconscious connection between things that resemble the edge of a table and bruising yourself, too. You repeat this same principle with the cat, with hot water, and with cacti. We are constantly filling our mental database with this sort of information, which then influences our actions.
If we see someone successful, we want to emulate them. This can manifest itself in anything: clothing, language, taste in music… whatever. It is doesn’t have to happen consciously. A new jacket might make us feel more confident because we feel more beautiful, or even interesting. If we use the same camera has a photography idol it can make us feel ‘professional’ and help us to achieve our goals.
Throughout our lives we continue to fill our mental databases with everything we see, hear, smell, experience. This is pretty much involuntary and, really, that’s a good thing. However, as well as the significant things, our mental databases are also filled with information from the likes of Facebook, and from advertising. It’s to Facebook that I would like to turn now.
The Facebook feed
When you open up Facebook, you’ll see the feed first. It’s designed to be everything that we want to see. Facebook has developed an algorithm that wades through the multitude of information you’re exposed to, separates what it perceives as relevant from irrelevant, and makes the platform even more attractive to us by showing us what it thinks we’ll find interesting.
If I am Facebook-friends with only one person and I have a virgin account, I will see everything that this friend likes, posts, comments on, and which events interest her or him. In addition, I’m assigned to a target group for advertising (through my connection with this person and my interests) and ‘appropriate advertising’ is displayed in my feed.
The larger my environment—or virtual circle of friends—the more of this information is displayed to me. Well, at least until the moment when there’s simply too much information for me to process. At this point Facebook helps and shows me only the things that its algorithms consider particularly relevant.
Pages with which I interact appear in my feed more often. This is something about which website operators often complain. Posts that encourage interaction–games, quizzes, events–game the system and more and more of it shows up in your feed. I found that because I once left a comment somewhere about something, it kept on reappearing in my feed.
What’s left and what we see are the ‘popular’ posts. But popular is not synonymous with ‘good’ and neither does it mean the same as ‘relevant’. As a consequence, we’re left with a colourful mixture of posts filling our mental database.
I’m talking about a push mechanism here, because I’m not looking for the content myself–rather, I’m pressurised into seeing it. And whether I want to or, I absorb it all into my mental database. Of course, I cannot dictate to my friends what they should like and comment on, which means I do end up seeing a lot of rubbish in my feed. There’s a lot I’m not interested in, and a lot that I just find bad. This is particularly true for friends who are photographers whom I follow only because I know them or appreciate them because every now and again they post a picture that I like.
Our own style = the sum of our impressions
As a photographer or image editor, as a composer or as a model, we are always being influenced. From family, friends, colleagues, and magazines, everything has an influence on our mental database and therefore on our work. Whether it is ‘good’ or bad’, it has an effect.
The logical conclusion is thus: you must only look at ‘good’ art, read ‘good’ magazines, take notice of ‘good’ advertising, and the like. Basically: surround yourself with good work’. And by ‘good’ I mean here work that you aspire to producing or creating.
Then, you begin to fill your mental database with what you need to see as the basis for your own work. Since you’ve surrounded yourself with work that’s better than your own it’s conducive to improving the quality of what you produce.
The difficulty with this situation? You can not control what you file in your mental database, nor can you control from where it comes. Even when you see something and think: ‘This is really bad’, you nevertheless file it away in your mental database and it doesn’t contribute positively to your quest for style. On the contrary, it becomes a negative factor in your aim to create your own style.
Style influence can only work in the positive. We see something and think ‘Boy, this person has learned their craft so I can, too!’ When we become self-employed, we have to balance our work with what we have stored in our mental database, and make a judgement on it. Depending on the quality of the data in our database, we can evaluate our own work (and, of course, the work of others). This helps us to improve our accumulated data.
The quality of the impressions we consume (not always voluntarily or consciously) decisively determines whether and how we improve.
A dash of statistics
To visualise this, I asked two randomly selected people to categorise the first 100 posts in their Facebook feeds according to the following categories:
- Friends (things I see because I’m friends with someone)
- News (everything that has to do with the day)
- Advertising (all with the addition “sponsored”)
- Relevant (the things that are stylistic)
The first two pie charts show ‘uncleaned’ feeds. These feeds have of course been determined by what Facebook’s algorithm calculates to be relevant. The values and categorisation are vague and subjective, of course, but they do give you a good insight. Stop what accumulates over time and the algorithm considers relevant. The third pie chart shows my feed after cleaning.
My feed consists of more than 50% relevant content and is really fun.
How to ‘clean’ your feed—my way
I started filtering my feed to cut down on ‘not relevant’ or even ‘potentially dangerous for my style’ matierial a year ago. Everything that isn’t associated with passion and ambition (good photography) has ‘unliked’, blocked, or I’ve unsubscribed from it. It was a fairly slow and laborious process, but it has been worth it. The quality of my feed has improved significantly, especially since I got rid of all groups, many friends, and the news. Then something interesting happened. The people who really were relevant or important to me began to show up more frequently and these are people from whom I can learn. Eventually, the people populating my feed changed, for the better.
Unfortunately, my filtering has also managed to discard some people whose feeds I would have liked to keep. They probably played too much CandyCrush, shared too many events for their favourite clubs, or simply had too many friends with pseudo-political / social / critical / vegetarian / … posts.
I love my newsfeed.
Now if I want to see what photographer XY or page YZ has to say, then I enter the name into the search box and scroll through their feed. This is the pull principle; I engage with the information that I want.
As far as styling is concerned, I think the shift from push to pull is more important than anything else. It gets rid of so much of the general ‘noise’. If I ever want to see something, I make a point of visiting the respective page or publication.
Everything you acquire by the pull mechanism are things that you deliberately file in your mental database. Pretty cool thing that.
Has my photography changed, my editing, my style? I think so, but I do not know if it is only because of my filtering…
I’ve found these sources to be terrific:
- Institute Magazine
- Emily Soto | Fashion Photographer
- Nice! Magazines
- Jute Magazine
- Solis Magazine
- OOB mag
- Lindsay Adler Fashion Photography
- Lara Zankoul Photography
- SZYMON BRODZIAK Photography
- Stefka Pavlova / Retoucher
- Papercut Magazine
- Kirsty Mitchell Photography
But this is, of course, only a limited list of recommended magazines and artists. You can find a whole lot more on my feed.