This weekend I saw a few culture-clashes go by around the topic of photography that helped my thoughts gel. One involved a small dog-pile over charges of elitism, and one involved a putative professional talking down to someone who was just happy about their new camera. You could characterize those clashes as people talking down or talking up, but also just talking past each other.
Sometimes I want to write a screed about photography culture and inclusiveness because I’m an outsider in parts of that culture and find parts of it as frustrating and tedious as any other human endeavor that can be gate-kept. Other times I remember, as a younger person who reported to me once said, that I’ve had eight lives, including one as a writer, where I was an insider:
I was (well, am) a published author. For 15 years I successfully provided for myself & family. I was a managing editor, had credits in the industry outside authoring, I’d won awards, and I had success and leadership in multiple formats. I got very good at the parts of the trade that the web added to our job descriptions. I’m not saying that to brag, it’s just true and I’m noting it to get through this thought.
At the peak of my career in that field we were coming off the initial shock of blogging (amazingly disruptive to tech publishers) and were beginning to see the self-publishing wave roll in. A lot of my colleagues felt threatened, and that was a fair feeling to have because the people we thought of as “our readers” were experiencing the benefits of disintermediation. Also it just sucks to wake up to Dave Winer and Doc Searls reading a malediction over your still-living body.
We did reader interviews for one of my tech sites, talking to a kind of influencer down below the level of purchasing authority, but positioned to say “this is what I want” and have a credible chance of getting a purchase order approved.
Their universal responses to what we could be doing better:
“Be more like Stack Overflow,” and “you need more bloggers who just do this stuff and don’t care about all the nice formatting and filler.”
Suddenly our field was awash in amateurs. Bad ones, gifted ones, talented ones, terrible ones. And we were dealing with the disorientation of all our tools for determining “usefulness” or “quality” going out the window: Suddenly a terrible amateur could make up for 100-500 words of disjointed prose with five lines of useful configuration code slapped in a
As a reader, I was dealing with my own feelings about the self-publishing tide rolling in. As I’d scroll the store with my Kindle I’d see tons of $0.99 books. I was less threatened by that than annoyed: Fiction wasn’t something I was interested in doing professionally, but I had a definite hierarchy of quality in my head, and you had to have some sort of professional editing to get into the higher tiers. I know I said and wrote some uncharitable things about it all.
Then someone flipped the framing around for me, asking why amateur self-publishers are so averse to just paying for a goddamn editor, even just a copy editor.
The question engaged another part of my brain that had been dealing with writers for a while at that point, and still vaguely remembered when I was first starting out, badly damaged by public education and standardized testing, carrying around a deeply held belief I couldn’t write that no amount of positive feedback from my professors was helping:
“I can’t speak for other would-be writers, but as a past would-be writer who spent a lot of time hearing he could write well from assorted authorities, I’d say it’s some degree of ego. Not the nasty, snarly ‘grar, I’m better than you!’ ego, necessarily, but sometimes a more fragile manifestation that editors are in a position to harm without a lot of thought.
Having been put back in touch with my younger self, I remembered that I knew a lot about amateur creators and had a whole set of behaviors and strategies for helping them gain confidence:
“As an editor for online tech sites, I tend to recruit writers on the basis of what they know first, how well they can write next. If I can look at their sample and imagine merely editing it—not engaging it with lash and fire—I’m happy to work with them. I’ve had a few come through who are better than mediocre: They’re adept writers, but they happened to pick another career. Some are recently out of some IT program where they had a good experience with a supportive professor who suggested that they were better at writing than they suspected.
“I’ve learned to treat them the way I wish someone had treated me when I was first being told I was a good writer and had no way of knowing for myself: I understand that their poorly understood talent might seem like some sort of magical manifestation to them. Because they have no way of understanding why they’re good writers for themselves (they didn’t spend school reading good writers or learning about what makes writing good), they depend on outside authority. At the same time, they’re afraid that as easily as one random outside authority conferred the mantle of “good writer,” another could take it away.”
Reminded of empathy I’d stopped experiencing as something other than a management strategy, I came back around to the topic, which was how to deal with this influx of self-publishers of varying degrees of professional conscientiousness and talent:
“I’ve seen a lot of $1.99 and $2.99 genre books come through the Kindle store, and the one thing they remind me of above all other things is that the barrier to saying ‘fuck it … might as well go for it’ is lower than ever. Hopefully it’ll be a remedy for a lot of people who are completely paralyzed by the presence of the Web in their lives, because it’s a non-stop reminder that someone, somewhere is being so fantastically awesome that even trying to be heard or hoping to be appreciated is pointless. A lot of people will still fail, I doubt many of them will ever make a living at it, but a number have a better chance than they ever had before to make a living doing something they love.”
… and that, eleven years later, is where I try to be today.
Unlike my time as a writer and editor, my professional and personal interests have diverged. I like “ops stuff” and “chief of staff” stuff for work, and I am passionate about taking pictures for just walking around being me. I’ve done a couple of commissions and I’ve donated some prints to help out a struggling website, but mostly I just like to make sure there’s a camera with me, I like to share the pictures I take, and I like to revisit them later to see what I can see that’s new.
I share the internet with kinds of photographers who are different from me. They’re trying to make a living, they’re in an active state of honing their craft in a way that is different from how I try to improve.
There are pockets of that culture that both annoy me and remind me of when I was making a living with my writing, because there are similar technology-driven dynamics afoot. I’ve known a few photographers who have lost niche but sustaining businesses, first to prosumer digital cameras, and then to smartphones.
I get annoyed sometimes, because people under pressure or in fear for their livelihoods, while sympathetic characters, sometimes express their angst in really poor ways, either by denigrating hobbyist amateurs and their work, tossing around sexist slurs about the social aspects of popular photography, or simply insisting on speaking to amateurs and hobbyists in professional terms, as if to say there is a single way to talk about photography that must conform to their formalist or commercial concerns.
I also get annoyed because I see myself in them, from when I felt under threat and before someone asked a question that unlocked an answer in me that I’d forgotten I had.
And I feel a dull unease because they (often unintentionally) poke at the part of me who hears things like “you’ve got a good eye,” or “you should try to sell some of this” or “your pictures are just, like, photographic” and feels that jolt of vulnerability, that sense that “as easily as one random outside authority conferred the mantle of ‘good writer,’ another could take it away.”
The annoyance and unease dissipate a little, because I found my way to kindness and can only trust other people will, too. We need more art in the world. We need more people striving to make beautiful things, silly things, pretty things, ugly things, whatever. We need more people striving to create. So we need to be kind.