Tell me, how much is a photo worth to you. How often do you feel so connected to a photograph that you come across online, on instagram, flickr, Tumblr, anywhere really, that you come back to it a second time. In the age of being bathed in images day in and day out you can’t help but get a little numb to what you see scroll by in front of you. Mass photo sharing sites are the worst for this epidemic. Instagram? Sure you may scroll along endlessly and double tap photos till your hearts content but what does this process mean to you personally? What images speak to you on an emotional level?

Some say portraits are more engaging, for others it’s street photography or photojournalism. No mater what type of photography really tugs at your interest I am really honestly curious when the last time you went back to look at a photograph a second time after coming across one you enjoyed and more importantly, why did you come back to it? When you tap a like or favorite button do you do it because you want to see the photo again or perhaps is it more a means to let the photographer know you exist and appreciate their work? Most of us have never stopped to ask ourselves these seemingly basic questions.

Personally, as I have mentioned in the past, I am typically quite stingy when it comes to the use of the favorite buttons on various social photo sharing sites. I don’t know about you but I put a real value on the photos that I choose to call favorites online. I didn’t always do this but over the past year or two I have grown increasingly picky. This is because I decided to become much more aware of my own taste and made a conscious decision to be more constructive with my online viewing habits.

To be honest, and I don’t think that I am alone here, during any given day I am likely to come across around a dozen or so photos that I stop for more than a single second to appreciate. I have seen so many photos at this point that I can quickly read into them and it is rare that I find a photograph that holds my attention for long. Many photos that seem delightful on the surface are only that, a surface, with a pretty filter applied to it to gloss it up a bit, images that only exist to further a trend, to collect their due and fade into the noise. Even beautiful, majestic scenes seemingly pulled from a fairy tale are ripe to fade into obscurity if they don’t hold anything that truly sets them apart.

Recently the thing that stops me from scrolling right on by is when I see a photograph that makes me wonder what is just outside of the frame. I find my favorite photographs to be ones that do not simply hold a moment in time, tidy, obvious, poetic, and ready to be easily digested, but ones which leave me wondering why I am so drawn to them. Photos are inherently obvious yet the photographer has the power to capture the things he sees in a way that invokes curiosity. Even family photos can hold this quality. I think the best word to describe this characteristic is a photograph is its level of honesty, something I have talked about before among these pages.

Sure, some photographs try so very hard to tell us a story within a fraction of a second, and so many writings glorify this ideal of the decisive moment but fact of the matter is that the story behind a photograph is but a simple ruse, an illusion. A photograph is not telling you a story, it’s your imagination that is telling it to you. The story is an assumption and we all have slightly different perspectives when it comes to these assumptions based on so many variables. Our emotional connection to the subject matter, our education and background, our expertise in taking photographs ourselves, it all folds up into a neat and tidy thought within a fraction of a second and judgement is made based on these personal assumptions. The most successful photographs are able to find common ground across a wider scope of possible assumptions.

Many of us view photographs with an absent, distracted mind as we play into social networking games and click through like buttons as though it’s advancing us through levels of camaraderie and mutual respect for others out there shooting. Photography to many is digested simply as a means to climb the ladder and that’s a real shame but there is no way to avoid it outside of, as a viewer, knowingly distancing yourself from these habits.

Therefore, as photographers, the only way to stand out is to break away from the zobification of our shooting habits in the same way. The best process for discovering your true voice behind a camera is to ignore the noise and create photos from outside of your network bubble. Following trends is all fine and good until they shift and you’re stuck constantly trying to keep up with whats next. Thats no way to be noticed because your photos will always lack honesty.

In shooting outside of what comforts us, beyond what we feel others expect us to produce online we can free ourselves from the assumption that we must produce photographs that get in line with the others we so mindlessly flip through day in and day out. It is perfectly normal to feel inspired by other’s beautiful work but it’s vital to ask yourself WHY you enjoyed it as much as you did and rather than duplicate your favorite photos and styles, try instead to find ways to share your unique viewpoint on the life you see around you in a way that represents the honesty of the moments you capture. Of course it is impossible to completely ignore other photographers who inspire us, it’s a natural evolution, but we can at least do our best to fight through what we think people would expect of us and create images that radiate with life and mystery like only we can see it.

As viewers, the next time you choose to give a nod of approval, take an extra few seconds to sort out exactly why it is that you like the photo so much. It only takes a moment and getting into the habit will lead you to become more self aware both as a viewer and as a photographer.


  1. Tom McLaughlan - December 19, 2013 at 3:23 am

    A super read, John, with many important observations. When it comes to faves and the like, I long ago gave up on that as a way of expressing appreciation/admiration for the work – on Flickr, at least. Sure, I still fave photographs that I like but I decided to do the selfish thing and create a little group called Takara (a post and loiter group, instead of the more typical post and run ones). Photographs that touch me for whatever reason are added to a constantly evolving gallery (Today’s ones) and invited to the group and if the photographer is kind enough to oblige then they’re added to the pool. From time to time I can then sit and enjoy the shots I really want to return to. I say it’s selfish because it’s a group just for me. Others are more than welcome to enjoy it too but it’s not essential :-) I like this group because it requires me to do more than click the fave button and so, I hope, that at least sends a message of admiration.

    Your other point is, I think, absolutely essential – that we should be honest in the photographs we take. For me this means to produce work that I am happy with and not to chase the faves. For others it will no doubt mean other things but things will be better if we can all be comfortable with what we produce and share things that we at least wish to view again. And on that point, I just wonder how many times people don’t even want to return to view their own pictures?!

    Thanks again for an inspiring read.

  2. Sid O'Neill - December 19, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    Excellent piece. Somewhat sad that one of the great benefits imparted from photographic technologies — being able to return to a scene or moment — is almost entirely negated by the “like once and then forget forever” lifecycle of most photos posted online.

  3. SoundMan - December 20, 2013 at 11:08 pm

    You should follow up this great post with a few examples of images that have moved you to linger on and come back to and give us an idea as to why you felt they were exceptional.

  4. youngdoo - December 21, 2013 at 8:07 pm

    Great idea, SoundMan!

  5. Joey - December 23, 2013 at 12:05 am

    Good article. I’m quite stingy with favoriting things on Flickr, and I keep it to only photos that I want to revisit multiple times, to photos that truly inspire me and more often than not, make me jealous that I didn’t take them myself. I think I favorite only a handful of photos on flickr each year because as you said, it’s rare to find one that warrants more than a quick, passing appreciation.

    And I hope to get to a point in my photography where people favorite my photos with the same discernment as I do.

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