Numbers Do Not Define Us

Tara O

This is my first portrait of 2014.  I was pleased to collaborate with fellow photographer Tara O who got out from behind the camera for a change to do some modeling for me.  I’m glad she did because we were able to make some very nice images together.  This image, along with a few others I’ve done in the last six months, represents a stylistic direction for me as a photographer.  I’ve always been drawn to the editorial fashion style because it suits my minimalist tendencies and I feel it’s very dramatic.  I have been hesitant to pursue it because my first few images done in this style were not very well received (if their number of “likes” on my Facebook page were any indication).  I’ve now decided that that’s a silly reason not to follow something that inspires me.

I am not much of a New Year’s resolution-maker; if I feel like something in my life needs to change, I just do it.  Why put it off waiting for January 1 to roll around?  Still, this time of year does seem to bring with it an air of reflection and contemplation.  As I found myself reflecting on this past year, I began to take stock on what things I’ve spent my energy on, what accomplishments I feel good about, and what mistakes I’ve learned from.  One mistake I came to realize is that I spent a lot of time last year looking at numbers.

The year 2013 brought with it a sort of newness for me.  I began to take photography more seriously and explored some subjects and styles that were of interest to me. I Got my website up and running along with the obligatory Facebook page to showcase my work.  Where I went wrong was in putting too much stock into the numbers games that come along with modern day social media.  Don’t get me wrong; there are some great tools available there for making data-driven decisions, but I’ve come to realize that I was making a big mistake by paying too much attention to it and allowing it to affect my perceived sense of self-worth.

Art used to be my career, and in that career I found myself becoming creatively exhausted and perhaps a little jaded when creating for other people and compromising my vision on a daily basis.  The majority of the clients who came to see me seemed to want me to recreate something they had seen elsewhere rather than allow me to do my thing as an artist and create something original.  For an artist this just crushes your spirit and passion for what you do.  So I left it behind.  I decided that one of the best things I could do for my family was to find a career that was more fulfilling and less taxing on my spirit so that I could be the best version of myself.  I decided my family was more important than working unpredictable hours in a super competitive field with little-to-no job security.  When I left my art career that brought with it a freedom to explore art in new ways.  Since I’m no longer making my living by it, I don’t have to answer to anyone but me for what I create.

Yet, for some reason, I have allowed myself to once again become burdened by popular opinion.  How many “likes” did this photograph get versus that one?  Why does the more generic, predictable work that I’m not very excited about posting get so much favor but the more creative and inspired stuff I post seems to go almost ignored?  What I now realize is that the only correct answer to those questions is “who cares?!”  Why am I doubting myself based on a system where pictures of people’s cats accompanied by clever captions are the standard?  Why am I putting so much stock into a system that really only measures the lowest common denominator?  It was not at all uncommon for me to share a new work that I was very excited about only to keep my eyes glued to the screen waiting for the numbers to start tallying.  More often than not these scenarios only ended in disappointment and self-doubt.  Allowing this to steal my joy is absurd.

So, then, I have to ask myself why I am doing what I’m doing.  Is it more important to express myself or to receive validation for that expression?  Am I willing to change my vision as an artist to get more thumbs-up from the social network?  The answer is a resounding “No.”  So it really doesn’t matter then.  As an artist I do, of course, hope that my art inspires others but ultimately I do what I do because it brings me joy.  I feel fulfilled when I create and there’s no reason to allow that joy to be robbed from me because of how many (or how few) people clicked a button.  At the end of the day these things simply cannot be any part of what defines you.

I am reminded of a post I saw the other day by one of the photographers I follow on Instagram.  He posted a photograph with the caption: “127,000 followers – but I feel like the world’s most lonely person.”  This proves the fact that the numbers mean nothing.  If I knew this person personally I’d give him a hug but the fact is I’m just another number in his feed.  I get spam on a daily basis from people on Instagram claiming that you can use their services to “get 100 new followers.”  To what end?  How is this going to make your life better?  How is this going to add to you as a person?  It simply doesn’t.  Pursuing such things is ultimately going to be empty and meaningless.

So, going forward, I am hoping to shed the burden that is the social media numbers game.  The number of Instagram followers or Facebook “likes” you receive doesn’t define a human being any more than the numbers on your paycheck, a man’s shoe size, or a woman’s dress size.  Just be who you are and the world will be a much more interesting place.  Imagine what wonderful art the world would be robbed of if artists and musicians only catered to the lowest common denominator rather than shattering expectations and breaking new ground.  When we take risks and stop worrying so much about acceptance or meeting subjective criteria such as “normal,” “good,” “beautiful,” or “important” that’s when amazing things happen.  Happy 2014 everyone, go do something you love.

5D Mk III with Macro 100mm f/2.8L IS USM lens. ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/200 sec. 
Lighting: 2 Canon 600EX-RT speedlights bounced off of 43″ umbrellas
Processed  in Adobe Lightroom 4.4 and Adobe Photoshop CS3