Is Self-Promotion Killing Your Creativity?

Website marketing, social posting ad other self-promotion might be having a detrimental effect on your creativity. This is not a throwaway comment, it’s something realised through personal experience.

Photography has been a part of my life since my late teens. It’s a pastime that helps me see the world differently, forces me to explore new cultures in unfamiliar places with a more informed and curious eye than I otherwise would. And, as my work life moved away from design and into more analytic areas, it became my primary creative output.

A few years ago I decided to take the advice of friends and publish my photos online. The main reason I’d previously resisted was essentially down to time – or lack of it. When I hit a period of low creative output, it triggered a change of attitude and emphasis. I needed motivation, and thought sharing my photos with others might just give me the encouragement I needed.

After briefly considering a Flickr or 500px page, I decided to fully commit to the process, purchasing a domain name, web hosting and hacking together a couple of WordPress templates. The end result was a website that was functional but still elegant.

As the site evolved, I noticed myself move out of the hobbyist photographer’s mentality and into a business frame of mind, one I was more familiar with from my day job as digital marketer. I explored the abundant competition, analysing the commonalities of successful online photographers, from their work ethic to photography style. From this vantage point, I consciously chose a position in the market to maximise potential success.

Foundations in place, the next step was to self-promote through social websites (such as Instagram and Facebook). I started analysing what posts or photos were generating the most buzz. Traffic to my site doubled week on week for the first year.

The thing is that with this increased visibility, ironically, I lost interest in photography. For close to 9 months I didn’t pick up a camera. Didn’t take a single photo. The entire reason for my building a website had been to motivate me to create images. In fact, it had a completely adverse effect on my creative output.

Looking back, I’ve come to the conclusion that my whole approach to publishing online was flawed; focusing on building and improving the site, gaining a following and making myself more commercial somehow inhibited my creative process, which in turn curtailed my photography output.

The problem, counter-intuitively, was what I felt would be my greatest strength – my marketing experience. Why not use 15 years of marketing to bring my photos to a wider audience? Surely the peer feedback would be constructive, help me develop and improve as a photographer? The growing popularity of the site would drive me on to deliver better and more frequent photos, wouldn’t it? I took it for granted that the site could and would act as a barometer for my creative growth. I didn’t foresee what actually happened.

Photography is a place I go to recharge my batteries. To break the cycles of workplace expectancy, delivery and judgment. To produce something for pleasure rather than profit. Creating my website, and treating it in the same way I would a business project was a mistake. A hobby is by definition part time. Successful business endeavours rarely are. I take most of my photos while abroad, meaning I can go a few months with little new material – hardly ideal when you are trying to build and maintain the interest of a regular, returning audience.

More than that though, I started to feel frustrated by the clear dichotomy between the scenes and moments I enjoyed capturing and the social media consensus of what was considered a good photo. Nowhere was this more obvious than on Instagram. A sunset shot would garner hundreds of likes while an image that I considered to be far superior technically might gain the approval of just a few dozen. I had started treating this as a business venture so I felt compelled to produce more sunset photos and watch the traffic increase. My inner photographer was not wholly committed to this way of working though. I slowly grew disinterested. The pleasure I found in my hobby had diminished.

With any artistic field, you evolve – especially early on – but the style I was working with was too prescribed, and I swiftly grew bored. Artistically, I was yearning for other genres and fresh colour palettes. But I had built a website around this style. I was going to be the Travel Photographer guy. I couldn’t suddenly decide I liked abstract photography!

As I said earlier, up until I created the website, photography had been my escape from the business world – I just hadn’t realised it until after I moulded my photography into a business framework. By bringing the two together, my escape was no longer that; it was an extension of my day-to-day.

While creative output can, to an extent, succeed when defined by rules and boundaries, I no longer think a hobby photographer should attempt to turn himself into a product. Photography is a means of expression. It’s a form of freedom. Business rules constrain this. It could be likened to censorship. Of yourself.

Be careful not to fall into the trap I did. I am not saying avoiding self-promotion. But don’t get caught in the faux-artistic paradigm I found myself in. Discover a happy balance.

I now publish less frequently. But when I do, it is driven by a pure creative impulse. A desire to write, to photograph or to teach. And I enjoy every second of it.

Business dressed up as photography is not art. It’s marketing. And who wants do that as a hobby?

Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi City - The Grand Mosque at night.
Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi City – A shot I took yesterday of the Grand Mosque.

Singapore - The main Pagoda in the Chinese Gardens.
Singapore – The main Pagoda in the Chinese Gardens.

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