“We don't know enough about ourselves. I think it's better to know that you don't know, that way you can grow with the mystery as the mystery grows in you. But, these days, of course, everybody knows everything, that's why so many people are so lost.”
- James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk
I’ve had plenty of time to think about my journey as a photographer these past six months since I left social media. I’ve considered how much I’ve grown in the 21 years since I took my first photography course in high school. I’ve taken inventory of my what my journey as a freelancer these past twelve years has entailed. I’ve spent an especially long time thinking about when and why my anxiety began to spike, ultimately leading me to delete all of my accounts.
In the weeks following my departure I received a number of texts and emails from friends and former followers who were checking in on me to see if I was okay. Some assumed that I had blocked them since they couldn’t find my account, while others figured out the reasoning behind my absence rather quickly, and expressed jealousy that I had been brave enough to make the jump. Among the notes of understanding and curiosity came a question that was asked a number of times: “If social media induced anxiety in you, why didn’t you just disable comments?” So I thought some further explanation was called for.
The anxiety that ultimately played a large role in me leaving social media was not stemming from any sort of internet trolling, so disabling comments was not a remedy. Rather, I believe what I was feeling was stemming from a user experience not restricted to the photo industry, but one large enough to have a term: FOMO, or the fear of missing out. In my case I wasn’t feeling FOMO over missing gallery openings, or not buying a pair of shoes before they sold out; my anxiety was stemming from the photo opportunities I wasn’t getting.
Let me be clear about one thing. This was not an issue of jealousy. I have a great deal of respect for the photographers I was following and I loved to see what they were creating, and was certainly happy for all of their successes. The problem was that I no longer had the time I needed to hold onto perspective since I had formed a habit of filling every empty moment with scrolling through my feed. If I would’ve had a moment of mental peace, I might’ve been able to remember that I am still relatively young in my journey as a photographer and that, while my list of accomplishments wasn’t at the level of the A-list photographers I was following, I was proud of how far I had come. Alas, I lost the battle to comparison. As Theodore Roosevelt so aptly stated, comparison is the thief of joy and I had been joyless for longer than I wanted to admit.
In years past I would laughingly say to my photo students: “If you don’t feel like shit when you open Instagram, you’re not following the right accounts.” While I meant this to get a laugh, it was not without some truth. If I wanted to see what was new in the photo world in the age before social media I would’ve had to go to a newsstand and flip through a bunch of magazines, which I did periodically and quite enjoyed. Now at the swipe of a finger I have access to the latest campaigns, editorials, and personal projects that are being created by the world’s top photographers. While this can make for a fantastic tool for mining inspiration, it quickly turned into a real-time reminder of how miniscule my accomplishments seemed when placed alongside my photographic idols.
With the loss of perspective also went gratitude. For example, when someone would reach out to potentially hire me for a gig, it felt like all my efforts on social media had finally paid off. I deserved it, I thought to a certain degree. I had worked like hell on curating my feed so it was about time someone had taken notice. The reality was that I had been robbed of the ability to recognize my real-life network– the faithful, supportive people who for years took chances on me by hiring me for their gigs. Now when a work inquiry comes across my inbox, I am simultaneously filled with both gratitude and an awareness that it wasn’t the sole result of my efforts. They could hire any number of talented photographers but they are choosing to take a chance on me. It’s a big deal.
The absence of down time in my life had brought about another loss, which was the space necessary to formulate ideas. Since nearly every unassigned minute of my life was occupied with mindless scrolling, there was little room for my thoughts to drift and ideas to formulate. Certainly social media was great for finding amazing images– I was neck-deep in bookmarked beauty– but without the mental capacity required to allow thoughts to trickle in from life and congeal into new shoot ideas, my pool of inspiration turned into a swamp.
Looking back on the lack of downtime in my life at that time, I am reminded of the premise of the Adam Sandler film, Click. If you’re not familiar with the movie, it’s about a man who is given a universal remote that actually works on the world around him. He can pause moments he wants to relish, turn the volume down on annoying people, and even fast-forward unpleasant moments, a feature which he heavily favored. He sped through work meetings, avoided arguments with his wife, and ultimately decided to skip ahead to his big job promotion, resulting in him missing most of his life.
Thanks to my smartphone and social media I had been opting out of more moments than I liked to admit or even realized. I could drop my eyes and thumb through any boring or uncomfortable situation whenever I wanted. What I hadn’t been considering was what I was actually “fast-forwarding” through. Was it not the world around me that inspired me to pick up a camera in the first place– the beauty as well as the pain; the interesting as well as the mundane? It was hard to see much of anything with my head down and screen on.
These days my life is much quieter. I am largely out of the loop, uninformed of the latest news and trends. Most of the time I enjoy being blissfully unaware of current events. Rather than receiving a barrage of negative updates about the latest mass shooting or racist thing Trump said/did, I have largely filled my time with reading books and exercising. I’ve read more books in the past six months than I had in the previous six years, as well as taken up climbing and cycling. My mental and physical health has never been better. What I hadn’t expected was that my improved health would bleed over into my creativity. These days when I pick up my camera or pen, I am ready to create.
I do need to be honest and say that there are days when I find myself missing the dopamine hits and easy affirmation that social media offered. I was as addicted to positive feedback as I was to my phone. And without the constant stream of visual inspiration coming my way it means that I now have to intentionally seek out art and culture like I did in the old days. I’ve also had to change up how I run my photography business. Instead of waiting on clients to hit me up for a gig like I used to, I now regularly reach out to my network of clients to inquire about work. I have also begun to regularly send them new work or even invite them out to grab lunch or a beer. This has directly led to new work– work that wouldn’t have likely come in had I not been proactive. Though I am now reaching a vastly smaller pool of people, the relationships I have retained have deepened markedly.
This isn’t to say that my path will work for everyone. I fully acknowledge that it can take years to build up a network of clients to sustain a career as a freelance creative and that social media may be really helpful to emerging creatives. What I do hope is communicated through my story is that there is no one way to do things. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. There is no “right way” to do things and certainly no formula for success. However something that will never disappoint and will always prove to be worthwhile is taking an hour, a day, or even a week to opt out of distraction to recenter on what really matters in life.