It may seem that the concept of social photography is a new one, but in fact photographers throughout history, like most human beings, often banded together to practice their work, to promote a shared philosophy or to follow a charismatic leader. Indeed for many there is a sense of safety in the collective, in conformity and in repetition of known rituals.
In industrial times, it is easy to point to accomplishments only possible when a group of people works in collaboration. Art, however, is often the antithesis of industry. When it comes to the creation of significant works, some of the greatest creative breakthroughs, in art and science, resulted from individuals isolating themselves, by choice or circumstance, from the din of the social hive. The reason is simple: creativity, from the same root as ‘creation,’ is the urge to bring something new into existence. Social groups rarely strive to do anything truly novel that may upset their own foundations. Groups are reluctant to break their own norms, to step outside the common denominators uniting their members, or to stray from the safety of the pack.
The Internet brings people together more easily and more pervasively than ever before. It is not surprising, therefore, to see recent studies observing a noted decline in creativity in recent years. The problem is compounded by the fact that virtual socializing also promotes sedentary lifestyles, disconnected from the physical world and from sensory stimuli. On the other hand, a recent study by the University of Utah concluded that as little as four days spent in a natural wilderness setting, disconnected from electronic media, resulted in an astounding 50% increase in creative problem solving.
The human brain is the most complex thing we know of. Each is unique in its own way, and each is capable of creative thinking and revelations often not available to others. But, in order for such creative ideas to materialize, they should be allowed due attention and cognitive space, which are scarce resources easily usurped by other activities; social interaction being primary amongst them.
Isolation in a social world is not easy. Author Ralph Waldo Emerson summed it up beautifully when he said: “It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion, it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who, in the midst of the world, keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
There is no need to follow the masses to the latest hotspots in order to produce significant and meaningful photographic work. In fact, it may require the exact opposite. Though we may all build on foundations set by those who came before us, we must be original if we have any hope of leaving something of our own for future generations to build upon. Significant work comes not from the predictable sunset light on a mountain, from sleuthing someone else’s ‘secret’ location or from Googling photographic hotspots. Meaningful work comes from the unique sensibilities that make each of us different. They come from isolating your own voice and having the courage to allow it to be expressed.
In the documentary, ‘Strand, Under the Dark Cloth,’ narrator John Walker recalls his first meeting with the great photographer Paul Strand. Rather than any trivia of subject or technique, Strand told him simply: “The important thing is, you have to have something to say about the world.” It is perhaps the best advice I know of for anyone seeking to undertake a creative endeavor. When you realize that your work has become stagnant or too closely mimics that of others, sometimes the best thing to do is to turn inwards, to silence all other voices and to ask yourself what it is that you have to say about your world that has not been said before.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 31 of Landscape Photography Magazine.