Forget Stats give me a Story

I’ve given up on Flickr Explore. I used to take an interest, I used to value the images it threw up as the popular for that day but over time I have began to spot bizarre trends. Perhaps it is the strange dolls that give me the heebeegeebees or the fact that a photo of a police car can reach the top 500.

I am not saying every photo that is featured on flickr explore isn’t good, quite the contrary I have discovered the work of dozens of talented photographers through my daily walk through Explore via the brilliant flipboard app. The same applies for 500px, I publish an image and watch the excitement build as it reaches over 90% in their popularity algorithm.

Don’t get me wrong I am not slating Flickr or 500px, I love both sites I am just personally re-evaluating how I value statistically popular photos. One example is this snap from Focus on Imaging. The photo was published to show a few readers in the X100 flickr group that photos from the camera can be printed large and retain their quality.

Print {This made Explore, shocking}

The image was retained on Explore for a few days and then dropped as (thankfully) better images became more interesting.

I think fundamentally there is a grave error in valuing a photograph based on a statistic and I was hooked. The best images tell a story, there is a narrative that requires no explanation or documentation. This is one area of photography in which I really want to improve. I frequently try and try and capture the story but more often than not it doesn’t work. It is simply the essence of reportage photography that has to be developed and chasing statistics, likes, favourites or votes isn’t the way to improve.

I think what makes the best photos great is the number of people who are able to connect with the story. I have published photos that I ‘felt’ told a very obvious story but in hindsight realise many of the facts are missing from the image.

This random story on a street in Belfast is actually only meaningful if have visited the famous Merchant Hotel on a Saturday afternoon. The photo is out of context. It doesn’t have the introduction of the crowd who were waiting for the bride to be, it doesn’t capture the anticipation of the night ahead. From being there I have that experience and information and thus the connection has meaning.

Belfast Weddings

The leading (top image) reportage photograph is another personal story. In July 2011 we made a visit to a forest walk in County Down. A moth flew past my youngest son who chased it excitedly. He had not idea of the delicacy of such an insect and in innocence made an attempt to catch it by clapping.

The image speaks for the conclusion of the moth but it doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t tell of his upset when he thought he had hurt the moth. It doesn’t mention that he wanted the photograph to remember the moth nor does it mention that a full year later on the same walk he remembered vividly the exact spot and went looking for “his moth” based on the fact I had convinced it was ‘only asleep’.

With all this additional information the photo has a value. So many of the photographs I capture will eventually reside on hard drives never to be recounted but some, a very small number have value and a reason to be captured, these are the photos with a story.

Back to my flickr and 500px accounts, in conclusion I really don’t think I am trying hard enough, the photos I publish on flickr and 500px meet a particularly low self set pass mark and the reason they are there is to feed some ill thought out desire for statistics. Will this photo make explore or pass my personal best score on 500px? I am embarrassed to have even published a post celebrating my 1000th flickr upload and started counting down the number of photos I needed to add to make 2000. Stats like the obsession with technology are a distraction to the craft.

I am not giving up on Flickr, I love it too much, it is a constant source of inspirationy but I am giving up on being a slave to stats. Ironically I don’t particularly even like the photos that the stats tell me are my best. See my Top 100 photos according to flickr. Actually many of favourites lie at the bottom of the rankings but these are the photos that over time their relevance and importance will grow.

Spin

The aim is to tell more stories and if that means publishing less that so-be-it. It echoes what I should have learned from Henri Cartier-Bresson I really should know better by now.

I think, even if the narrative of a photo is only understood by an audience of just three or four people it has more value than some perfectly executed image with spot on exposure and is sharp in all the right places? What do you think?



Comments

  1. Thanks for the honest and valuable reflection. I agree that it is easy to get pulled into stats. It would be hard to create a stat for the narrative power of an image, but when it is there the image connects in a special way. As you said, the sifting of time can affirm what lasts in that regard. A few out of my many images from past years keep resurfacing in that sense as well. As with literature, the power of a great story lasts. Here’s to creating some true classics!

  2. I agree completly. When I look through group pools on flickr (I personally avoid explore) I try and find images that I can really connect to, some story, emotion not one that is the most popular!

  3. I run into frustration on Flickr that really punch my pride, so I have ignored stats for a long time. Apart from my “doesn’t anyone like my photos,” I remember why I joined Flickr. To be inspired, and for my personal creativity. These two have and will evolve in time as my time line of story telling change with my photographic eye shifting vision. I may end up or continue to be talking to myself, but in a way, it is the purpose of journal. 🙂

  4. Excellent post that touches on an aspect of a really important issue that was covered (with an overly provocative title) recently in the Daily Beast (http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/07/08/is-the-internet-making-us-crazy-what-the-new-research-says.html).

    My relationship with Explore was a weird old journey. I started taking pictures as a real hobby in February 2008 and then, for about 16 months from May of that year, almost 400 went into Explore with 90 of them featured on the Front Page. During this period, the joy of photography ran a poor second place to the desire to be in Explore. Then in September 2009 something happened and I’ve had no pictures in Explore since. I’ve also ceased to be bothered about it and so have started to enjoy my photography much, much more. I think my pictures have improved, my style has become more distinctive and my need to post an image has gone. Instead of posting two a day, I now post perhaps two a month. One other thing has happened too. I have developed a real disdain for hunting the numbers – whether it’s numbers of Followers/Likes/Faves/Whatever on 500px, Google+, Facebook or Twitter. I post a picture when I have something I want to post, I comment on others’ pictures when they move me and I react to posts when they intrigue or provoke me. It’s a lovely arrangement!

    And in direct response to your closing question, I don’t think the narrative of a photo has to be understood by an audience of 3 or 4. One person is enough – the photographer. Anything more is a lovely bonus but isn’t essential – unless, of course, you make your living from selling your work. But that’s a completely different situation. And, if I was being really pedantic, then I guess I’d also disagree with your premise that the best photos are defined by “the number of people who are able to connect with the story”. I think that depends on the style of photography. For sure it’s true about reportage but not for styles that are devoid of a story, such as ministracts or abstracts. In their case, the pleasure comes from people feeling a connection to the image, per se.

    Thanks for posting another compelling article.

  5. Yes, I am right in the middle of this story also.Like when I asked you on twitter of what do you think of my work so far, because I can’t tell anymore sometimes.Some images of mine get a lot of promotion on these kind of sites, but many times those are the ones that are meaningless, but people can relate to them fast: colours, I was on that street too, ahh , Venice.Things like that.
    I’ve noticed that I sometimes would like someone to ask me about a photo , how I shot that and why.And as you said, it is that story behind it, that road you took until you took that shot and how lucky you were to have the camera on just then.Once a friend asked me about a photo, why do I like that much (one of mine) while she didn’t like it.After I told her the story of the shot and why I choose to do it she realised that it was really beautiful.
    I had and still have moments when I don’t know why I am photographing (I am not a professional and not making money out of it) .I only do it for me.
    The only thing I like for sure in it is to observe the world through the lens and then to observe myself through my photos.I still have to learn that people will see a photo in their own way, some will have your emotions, will be in the same vibe with your shot and your way of seeing it , while other will say it’s crap, it’s ok, it’s nice or I don’t get it.
    But yes, a photographer should watch the promotions, how many views he got that day.Maybe he shouldn’t share it at all , because if you do it for yourself, why show it? why share it? Because when you do that , you expect an answer, something.The bad thing is you already know what you expect , what you would like to get back: something that goes along with you.The ugly truth is that will never happend, not the way you expect.Or I expect.
    All I can say is that in my photographs, as horrible or ok as they are, I am trying to be honest.The titles , the faces, the stories, I don’t like to say something that isn’t or wasn’t there at all.About this I am really proud!
    I just hope I can get better at the other parts of my photography.

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David

David is a documentary and landscape photographer covering everything from dramatic long exposure landscape photography through to live music. David is a former Official Fujifilm X Photographer.

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