The Bombastic Proposal: the marriage of digital photography with social media has fundamentally altered the nature of the photograph for most Americans — to such an extent that this combination of technologies has resulted in the metaphorical death of the amateur photograph.

During the 20th century, photographs taken by amateurs had two primary purposes: documenting life and artistic expression. While most photographs were only seen by family members, lucky amateurs might get their work published in a zine or shown at a local gallery.

Regardless of distribution, the purpose was still primarily documentation and artistic expression. But with the advent of the cellphone camera and social media, the fundamental nature of the amateur photograph changed. In the ten years between 2010 and 2020, the amateur photograph was transformed from a tool of documentation and expression into a means for advancing one’s value in “the personality market”.

The Personality Marketplace

Philosopher Erich Fromm observed that romantic relationships in the 20th Century did not often begin from a place of mutual self-giving love, but rather got their start in the competitive “personality market”. Fromm observed that young men and women would use clothing, education, manners, grooming, cosmetics, and their sexuality to make themselves more valuable on this personality market. And what was being sold? Happiness.

Consumeristic cultures tended to see the romantic relationship as the primary “product” to fulfill human needs for belonging, meaning, and fulfillment. It was assumed that the more valuable a person you were able to “buy”, the more fulfilled you would be. Some economists today refer to this as sexual economics. Many consider these behaviors as an innate part of human nature, part of evolutionary mating selection. There are even video courses and books on how to “hack” the sexual economy and land yourself a more desirable mate.

Erich Fromm, however, seemed to disagree with or at least question these assumptions. He wondered if perhaps these kinds of behaviors had less to do with innate human nature and more to do with our modern capitalistic economies. That perhaps we mirror onto our human relationships the same values of the marketplace. That capitalism has taught us to objectify the other into a product that will fulfill all our sexual, emotional, and existential needs.

What if we took Erich Fromm’s concept of “the personality market” and extended it beyond romantic relationships?

Personality market forces are at work in other spheres. The same way a shopkeeper might rearrange their endcap to increase sales of canned soup, we often feel compelled to rearrange our personalities, our clothes, and our words to succeed at work. Or we might name-drop obscure indie albums around our cools friends so they don’t think we’re squares. Constantly rearranging our image is perhaps the only way to succeed and survive in modern capitalist society.

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About 15 years ago, the amateur photograph was for the most part separate from this personality market. Grandma might be impressed by a new photo of the grandkids, but that was about it. Times are different now. The amateur photograph has gone through a metamorphosis. It has become a tool, maybe the primary tool, for increasing our value in the personality market.

The ‘Gram

Instagram, of course, is the easiest target for this critique. Instagram started as a way to share cellphone photos with friends, but with its like-based incentivization structure and algorithm controlled experience, it now encourages users to share photos as a way to increase their social value.

The “influencer” is the prime example of this change. An influencer is an entity who’s existence blurs the lines between person and company — a celebrity who’s fame is birthed primarily out of their use of self-taken photographs for the promotion of their own personal brand and the brands that pay them. The photos influencers take often appear to be amateur authentic expressions of life, but despite their amateur appearance, these photos are fulfilling professional market purposes. And it’s not just influencers, it’s all of us. Do any of us take truly amateur photos any more? Has Instagram unwittingly destroyed the amateur photographer?

Now almost everyone is a professional — not when it comes to craft, but when it comes to intent. Our photographs have become advertisements for our own personal brand. Even soccer moms and football dads are posting photos of their children to Facebook and Instagram, not as memory devices, but to boost their value on the personality marketplace. You don’t need to drive a BMW to make the whole neighborhood jealous — you only have to post a photo of your son on the 50 yard line. Our kids have become cogs in the attention economy. We have become the product we are selling to the world. And the digital photo is our most powerful tool. Are there any major differences between the user-interface design surrounding a photo of your new niece and an advertisement for AirBnB? They all look the same on Instagram. Ads and content have become one. Facebook even lets you pay money to boost a personal post.

Each photo we post, like a passing billboard, lives for only a moment, for a handful of likes, and then is gone forever, buried by the algorithm in an endless river of images. The photograph was once an object we used to keep old memories alive, but now it is like us, just a flicker in the universe of the internet, destined for death the moment it is born. This is a nihilistic viewpoint I don’t hold about people, but I’m afraid the algorithm and the marketplace do.

If the amateur photograph is dead and the artistic photograph is on life support, is there a way to revive them? I don’t know if I can yet. I still feel too addicted to the rush of seeing myself validated in the marketplace. For the amateur photo to come back it would have to be connected to a source of belonging greater than the marketplace with real people taking photographs together, not caring as much what happens online.

~ Fred

Note: The author is completely aware of the irony and hypocrisy of this tirade. The author is also aware that he is by no means an academic. The author would also like to assure readers that by critiquing capitalism he is not advocating for a Leninist state, so there is no need to send the Ayn Rand trolls out. It is possible to want something better than the current form of capitalism without hating the positive things it had done.

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Fred Sprinkle

I’m a child of nomads. I spent most of my early years exploring the San Juan Islands or cruising the West coast of America. Our family had one camera: a waterproof Nikonos III, so all our Christmas pictures...

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22 Comments

 

  1. I was having a discussion on this topic a few days ago, with someone who was positing that there is no such thing as a hobby any more, but only additional jobs. In the end, our disagreement came down to the fact there’s a large section of society I often forget about – I log into Facebook a few times a year, don’t use Instagram, and try to avoid YouTube. When you take these few simple steps, the world is a drastically different place, and you lose surprisingly little – it turns out that you can still talk to people through other channels, and get news through actual news outlets.

  2. I say we make Flickr popular again & get off of places like IG & Facebook.
    No?
    Oh well, I guess it’ll just be me then…hehe (Left FB 4 years ago – IG last year)
    I gotta say that once I got off of the Facebook owned companies, I lost a huge chunk of my anxiety and depression (which was always there, but much more magnified by these platforms). I got over the narcissism, the influencers, the constant product placements, the politics, the agendas and the chaos of it all. Whatever it once was originally, is no longer. I didn’t join to see multi-paragraph rants by raging Karens, close-mindedness to any opposing thoughts/beliefs or language policing. I just wanna be free of all that nonsense. I want to see great images by photographers of all levels and connect with other artists. I don’t care for the style points or being cool (which makes me cool, right?! lol).

    Oh btw…great, great photos Fred!

  3. Very thought provoking read! The internet was supposed to educate and unite us in some form of digital equality. It seems now to have divided us into warring tribes, and the Flat Earth Society has experienced exponential growth. The weakness of social media and digital photography as you alluded to is the sheer volume. How on earth do you go back ten years for some precious memories when they are so deeply buried? I started shooting film again three years ago, and for me my photography has been reborn with new meaning…..

  4. Really interesting piece Fred and I really like how the lovely pictures blend in with the family picture / instagram friendly balance many of us photographer try to find nowadays.

  5. I am afraid I mostly disagree with you. While social media is polluted with “brand” there is no “death of the amateur photographer”. Maybe you’re not looking hard enough or in the correct places, but it is there.

    And as one commenter has already pointed out, what digital has done is end the exclusivity, or as I deride it the “clique”, the small group of “in the know” people who spoke a strange language of f-stop, ISO (or ASA/DIN/EI if you’re old enough), and also the astronomical cost.

    At the end you state, ” I still feel too addicted to the rush of seeing myself validated in the marketplace. ” — Maybe you should learn the words of the great Dr Richard Feynman, “Why should you care what other people think?”

    1. I’m glad you disagree. I was hoping for some good dialog. I will admit that some of my complaints might be personal problems and not societal.

      But I would wager that most of us care what other people think even if we don’t like to admit it. I’m not sure being free from that concern is the best goal, but perhaps being aware of it and being able to channel it into more healthy communities and belonging.

      Thanks for engaging! Peace!

  6. The other issue, of course, is that photography is so much more democratic than it once was. The history of photography could also be described as the progressive erosion of exclusivity in amateur photography. Mobile phone photography is the latest iteration of that process, and who knows what disruptive technology will emerge next to make photography even more ubiquitous. This broadening of participation must also widen the purposes and uses of photography. Yet with each photographic epoch the remnant purposes persist. I wonder whether we are seeing the loss of the traditional amateur in the rise of influencer, or merely its eclipse, but it’s still there strong in the shadow. I have no doubt that my amateurism is influenced in some way by the Ig photographic culture even though I don’t follow an influencer pathway, but it is really hard to see from the inside, and compared to what? I didn’t have my work out there before Ig. Great article!

  7. The mobile phone has become a multi-function device, camera, etc
    Good job Fred — I feel the photographic market has been swamped by images of questionable and mainly vanity value. Facebook is full of these digital posts, no-one pays for photos anymore, photography is struggling even fine art photos have trouble surfacing in this sea of indiscriminate images. More is the pity, the death of the film camera is happening, as manufacturers like Canon discontinue the F6. Amateurs who like film are forced down a perilous and expensive path of restoring older cameras from 40 years ago..

    1. Nikon made the F6. Leica still makes 35mm cameras if you can afford one. As far as I know, there are no medium-format cameras being manufactured. However, there are some large format (4×5 & 8×10) cameras still being made.

  8. Every thing is a question of choice, which is made with wisdom, values, humanity …
    This article is great.
    I make choices : – I have a digital camera (because it is useful) but I use a little, I use film camera (especially M3), I have a good photophone, next one will be better becauce I can not carry a camera every time it will be a Sony Experia 1 III because I can match it with my Alpha, this phone has a real pro mode … But for pleasure, poetry, I use film, I love grain.
    No more tab, no more computer, a phone + keyboard + monitor screen (why to have 3 devices it is not good for the earth … and or finances…)
    – NO SOCIAL MEDIA :it is finished, finished, they play on politics and slave us … just a few great web site : emulsive.org, casuaphotophile.com, japancamerahunter.com … they are social media to discover other views, not show off, .. and reviews are great, no self blablabla and crazy selfies, …
    – NO products/goods made in some dictatures, I do not want to finance my chains, the weapons which can kill us or others, genocides, …..

    Life is choices. It is still time for us to make the right one’s for the earth, the people, and for freedom, … for me social medias are not freedom, they are a technological system which produce a lot of money and make users SLAVES, … I have no account on social medias. When I want to see great pictures I come to have a look on these 3 great web sites and from real pro images, … yes a lot of people make great images, but like a great chef with a great restaurant, PRO can make so many great images all the time … it is very difficult to do that. When I have one good images on 100, I am happy, when I have 2, I think I am making progress ……. Why I should need to share that ? To make these companies more powerful ?

  9. I agree with your conclusions, but let’s not blame this one on capitalism. As I recall from history classes, most medieval states, before capitalism really existed, had sumptuary laws as people were starting to dress to impress. Human nature hasn’t changed in the last 1000 years, people are still people, trying to one up their friends and neighbors. What capitalism has done, is given more people the time and the means to indulge in this kind of thing, and certainly the cellphone has given more people the ability to extend the “competition” to their photos.

    1. Agreed. ‘Keeping up with the Jones’s’ has been around a lot longer than social media. More and more people have free time and a bit of spare change, what they do with that is entirely up to them. Instagram et al are just ways of getting people’s photos/videos out there.
      People want to fit into a society and then groups of like minded people for their own survival. You don’t fit, you get ostracised and surviving is a lot harder when you are not part of a group.

  10. In a certain way I agree with you, I see my instagram feed full of this self-promoting content all the time. But sincerely I don’t think I am part of this; of course we all have a far greater opinion of ourselves compared to our actual qualities, but when I post my pictures on instagram I feel I do it simply because I’d like to share them with people. I don’t get tons of like (usually 30 likes per picture) and the always came from the same people, but I’m happy like this, knowing someone somewere enjoy looking at my pictures. Of course, sometimes it happens that some new person sees my pic and either sends me a message or posts a comment saying the love it and it is a great work, and that is nice to hear from time to time, but I don’t pursue that results. I think that if I wanted to self-promote my pictures on the ‘gram I would post a completely different type of pictures, one that gets more likes but is less mine.

    I don’t know I wrote a lot and I think I’ll think about it even more, but I feel like I’m an amateur, I love taking pictures, I do it when I’m down to get me up, I do it when I need some fresh air and thanks to the internet I get the chance to share some results with other people that maybe enjoy them as much as I do.

  11. Just a thought, and maybe a simplified one at that. Is it really capitalism? Or is it narcissism? I think it’s the latter. Are there not as many ig influencers in socialist countries? I’m not trying to defend capitalism as much as focus the criticism. I think the internet (and moreso social media) have nurtured the narcissist in everyone, and it’s a personal job for all of us to reverse that thinking.

  12. I love this, Fred, and thoroughly agree with you, down to the postscript. Great writing.