Checking Our Ego
We had an unusually strong aurora borealis event here in northern New York the other night. Not surprisingly, social media has been replete with images from the display. That it was spectacular to behold is without question. The images, however, are not spectacular. They all look the same. Besides, we’ve all seen countless aurora borealis images before, these offered nothing new. While I understand the desire to capture it, it left me wondering, why bother posting them? What does one hope to gain?
During the first dozen or so years I was practicing photography hardly anyone viewed my work. There was simply no easy way to share it with others. I was shooting slide film in those blessedly innocent days before social media. The only way others could view my work was by either setting up a projector and screen or forcing people to view my slides through a loupe on the light table, both a surefire way to lose friends and family fast. It was just the way it was. And then came Facebook and with it a complete shift in behavior. From the moment I posted my first image and the likes and comments came rolling in I was hooked. I began to feel compelled to post. When I was in the field and made an image I was excited about I would find myself looking forward to sharing it on Facebook. What was I looking for?
Throughout my time on social media, I had an uneasy feeling when it came to sharing my work. I had the sneaking suspicion it was little more than the need for ego gratification at work. Look at what I did and witness the greatness that is me. I began to fear that the excitement of sharing my work was having an undue influence on the reasons I was making photos. We are all now aware of the dopamine rush we experience when people positively respond to our posts, every like and comment filling us with a sense of validation and success. To quote Sally Field’s Oscar speech from some years back, “You love me, you really love me.”
When photography became my full-time profession I would tell myself that my posts were necessary to build an audience, some of whom may feel I had something to offer and would take one of my workshops. There was truth to that. And yet, part of me felt as if I was just fooling myself. Was I seeking an audience to support my work? Or, was I seeking recognition, to be seen as special, as standing out from the crowd? The former is understandable, the latter a consequence of my ego.
The seeking of recognition is a dangerous thing. It’s a human need to be respected, recognized, and appreciated. However, too much recognition, especially early on, can go to our head and lead to delusions of grandeur. Not enough recognition can lead us to feel like a failure. Both offer a false reality that can sink our hopes and dreams. I realize of course that just because I had an unhealthy relationship with social media doesn’t mean you do, too. However, I would encourage you to reflect on what you’re looking for on social media and what you hope to get out of sharing your work. Is it in line with your goals? What’s truly important to you? My goal was not to be recognized as the Ansel Adams of my generation. My only goal was to lead a creative life full-time. I’m doing that. I find immense satisfaction in the act of creating, be it photography or writing. If I work hard enough the requisite recognition that allows me to lead that creative life will follow. Hoping for anything beyond that is all ego.
In the days before social media, I was fine with not much of my work being seen and the lack of regular validation. I quit social media because I wanted to be fine with it again.