More frequently than usual these days, I wish I could completely divorce my photography from social media. . .with extreme prejudice. . .but I don’t think it’s possible.
When I started to write this blog article, I noticed that it was becoming very difficult to complete the article. As I’ve discovered, trying to describe how I implemented a definitive moratorium on regular activities that were part of my daily routine for several years is not a simple matter. It has taken me almost a month to compose, write, edit, revise, and ultimately publish this article. This contrasts to my typical composition and publication of a story in four days or less. One important disclaimer that’s worth noting immediately is that the views I express here are rooted in the fact that I have never been a keen fan of social media, regardless of all the recommendations and accolades that I’ve read or heard when these platforms were young and new to the masses. Despite my own disdain, I am aware of the benefits of social media and its utility, especially when it comes to the timeliness of current affairs, emergencies, and appreciating perspectives vastly contrarian to my own. At the same time, I believe that the benefit of social media is determined by how the individual chooses to use it. This clearly varies from person to person and can have long-term ramifications on the friends and contacts of each individual belonging to the same platform. The same theory applies to social media when you’re running a business on your own. There has to be utility in the tool for generating business — a means to an end. Alas, in this article, I try my best to describe how I severed my relationship with Facebook and Instagram purely as they relate to my experience as a professional photographer — without any regrets.
A Malevolent Migraine Named “Marketing”
Headquartered in Seattle, TIA International Photography has proudly been in business for nearly 11 years. This amount of time has permitted me to perform several observations regarding my business, its operations, and its challenges.
Without an ounce of equivocation, I can say that TIA’s biggest challenge has been marketing services to a specific, bona fide niche. This has been a constant issue, and a large amount of my time has been spent trying to identify a precise niche containing a reliable, consistent base of clientele in addition to one-time customers. TIA has very few repeat customers, but the fact that a few exist underscores the premise that there is actually a need for TIA’s products and services. Doubtlessly, without repeat customers or one-time customers, TIA probably would have faded into obscurity and shuttered many years ago. This means, reassuringly, that there is definitely a need, but I have been unable to hone in on exactly who is in need, and when they are in need, on a regular basis. After so many years, this has been both a source of agonizing frustration as well as a tenacious catalyst to ascertain the answer assertively.
In 2020, both TIA (the business) and TIA (the photographer a.k.a. yours truly) have reached a level of maturity in its operations and decision-making, including how to market my business. Some of these decisions involve a certain level of risk that I’m ready to undertake. To a degree, these risks feel like mandatory prerequisites in order to make progress. The most important one was severing my ties with two out of three social media platforms that many might consider a consequential lifeline to staying in business at all. Fortunately, I don’t subscribe to this belief, and I’m ready to move onwards, both professionally and personally.
Since TIA was established as a sole proprietorship, I have found that social media has been more of a hindrance than a handy tool to achieve my marketing objectives. Let’s look at what’s happening. Up until recently, TIA was active on multiple social media accounts simultaneously, including: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Flickr, and LinkedIn, in addition to a few smaller, less popular platforms that failed to enter the realm of public consciousness. For a number of years, I had opened an account with Sprout Social, a useful application that could monitor all my other active social media accounts. (It feels weird to actually write that sentence in realization of how taxing it is to regularly maintain social media accounts, and then assign that responsibility to yet another entity). Sprout Social would inform me of the performance of each social media account and provide me with analytics of the online engagement and reception of all my postings within each platform. If that wasn’t enough, at least three times a month, TIA was also publishing content on its official blog (the one you’re reading now!) while simultaneously distributing a quarterly online newsletter successfully for two years. The newsletter is currently in indefinite limbo simply because the amount of time needed to routinely compile content and distribute it became impossible alongside all the other platforms. More importantly — and this is key — the newsletter didn’t yield any business. This is largely part of the reason why I am writing this article (via my blog).
(I felt like gasping for air after re-reading the previous paragraph).
To date, TIA has only ever had ONE employee, who has always been synonymous with the employer. Frequently, it has been a challenge, to say the least, to sustain interactions on all the social media platforms as a method to market TIA’s creative works and projects. At some point, when certain aspects are very clearly undermining the original business objective, they must be truncated and dismissed. Part of my challenge, from my experience, was recognizing when to let go. Metaphorically, a ship typically relies on an anchor to remain grounded and not sail adrift. However, when that anchor has been at rest in the middle of the ocean floor for so long that the idea of sailing onwards seems foreign — alternatively, that remaining permanently anchored now seems ideal, or worse, normal (this is called complacency) — then maybe it’s time to cut off the chain connecting the anchor to the ship in order to sail again, regardless of the uncertainty that it may encounter on the journey.
The Opacity of Performance on a Plethora of Platforms
Truthfully, I had always questioned the utility of social media when it came to promoting my photography. Nevertheless, I do believe in trying new things when it comes to my business, if only to observe, make informed decisions, and reach sensible conclusions based on my observations. Given that assertion, I had known that Facebook was useless as far back as 2014. With Instagram, as much as I tried to believe it was somehow better than Facebook for marketing my work, there was frequently the spectre that it was owned by Facebook. Instagram, to be brutally honest — in my experience — seemed less about sharing photography (either professional or amateur) and more about being a platform dedicated to glorifying hedonism and narcissism using photography as a perverse guise of creativity and artistry. Instagram was useless as well for marketing, even though I tried for a few years. As the final week of August 2020 approached, I had finally made up my mind. I had had enough. On August 26th, I requested a permanent deletion of my Facebook account. Apparently, it takes a month for the deletion to take full effect, probably with the anticipation that the account owner will have a change of heart. That’s not going to happen. Like P!nk said in her very first song that introduced her to the world, “When I said I’m through, I’M THROUGH. Basically, I’m through with you. . .”
Five days later, on August 31st, I deleted my Instagram account. With both Facebook and Instagram, I was able to download all my data that included a comprehensive and exhaustive file containing virtually all the postings, images, and videos that I had ever shared on those platforms. At present, Twitter remains the only significant social media platform in which I have an active account, and I still contemplate whether or not to file for divorce, which I will discuss later in the article.
You might wonder: “What brought all this about? Why are you doing this now? Isn’t your photography business going to suffer without the royal majesties of social media?” Those are all very good questions and I’m happy to extrapolate. Within recent years, I’ve likened social media’s Royal Three: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to be, perhaps, the King, Queen, and Prince, respectively, of a royal court in which I have served as a jester — a fool — but of my own creation and volition. (Just for the sake of some humor to support this examination, let’s give some monikers to the Royal Three, shall we? In this act, Facebook shall be King Face. Instagram shall be Queen Insta. Twitter shall be Prince Twit.)
Because TIA is essentially an online business, I believed that it was crucial to have a perpetual, if not interminable, ubiquity in cyberspace in order for TIA to be commercially successful. Alas, that was what the majority of magazines, articles, and news clippings advised for entrepreneurs going into business for themselves. “You must have a social media presence. You must engage and interact with everyone to drive attention to your business.” OK – so I did, starting with Twitter in 2009, Facebook (for Business) in 2010, followed by Instagram in 2015.
For more than a decade, I had subscribed to the belief that it would be detrimental to TIA to abandon the court of the Royal Three. Today, I know that’s not true. In fact, as more time passed, I came to see how useless these platforms have been in terms of generating business leads and actual sales. In retrospect, I realized that I should not have invested (or wasted) so much time sharing my creative work via platforms in which the only advantage, from a psychological perspective, was that the higher the number of followers (or subscribers, as I prefer to call them), the better the façade communicated that my business was popular and successful. It was all superficial rubbish, and I can say this bluntly after a careful assessment of my own experience. Having 100,000 subscribers to your Instagram account doesn’t mean ANYTHING if you — as a business owner relying on income from your professional services to survive — can’t pay your rent, mortgage, health bills, or buy groceries.
Last month, I had arrived at a “point of no return” with social media, in general, because of my interminable struggle to truly understand this present day aspect of our shared culture within an international, multicultural community of people. For me, I had believed social media was similar to a language – a utility – as a means to drive business and sales. Like French or Norwegian or Farsi, social media was a language that had to be learned in order to communicate and achieve a desired outcome with others who spoke and understood the same language. To date, I think most of my efforts to speak “Social Media” have proven futile. For an individual who has loved foreign languages and linguistics since my formative years, I will confess that social media is a language I simply cannot comprehend. To put it colloquially – TIA sucks at social media.
So what transpired within the royal court of social media that made TIA finally divorce both King Face and Queen Insta, while currently self-imposing intermittent trial separations with Prince Twit?
Here’s a summary.
Facebook (King Face)
Date of Registry: March 2008
Date of Inactivity: May 2015
Date of Deletion Request: August 2020
Wow. . .Facebook. There are so many reasons behind my decision to ultimately delete my Facebook account. However, it took five years to do it. If I were to summarize why I left in one tweet, it would be my tweet pasted above.
Ultimately, I have been exasperated with Facebook’s lack of accountability for its actions — for years. Facebook has played an outlandishly debilitating role in pervasively (but successfully) transforming human civilization into a cesspool of malice and ill-will, fostering many negative words associated with the fallacy of the human condition, usually containing suffixes such as “-ism” or “-phobia.” I also had a very serious conflict, as a business owner, with Facebook’s ethics. Although I created my personal account on Facebook in March 2008, I started a business page for TIA via Facebook two years later in March 2010. Between 2010 and 2014, TIA’s business page had amassed more than 18,000 subscribers. While that sum may seem superficially impressive, I must note that my family and closest friends were very cognizant that the term “International” in my business name has never been meaningless or cosmetic. I was truly heartened by the exchanges from people all over the world who stopped by my business page to post comments or share their thoughts in reactions to my photography. My intentions for TIA’s business page were in lockstep with my small business’ core objectives — to develop and curate a diverse, multicultural environment that could be entertaining, artistic and, most importantly, informative. Our world is a small place and it’s helpful to know about places outside our own communities, be them in the next state, province, or continent.
With the onset of 2014, I had noticed some troubling patterns on my business page when it came to my paid advertising strategies on Facebook. The number of subscribers kept increasing, but the number of interactions remained the same. Even more peculiar, these interactions were typically from the same people, most of whom were my own friends and very few from new subscribers. I won’t relitigate the entire episode here because I documented the experience in a separate blog article back in October 2014. Ashamed of my discoveries that many of my subscribers were not even real people — and perturbed by the detrimental expense to my budget — I abandoned my Facebook business page on the last day of 2014. Facebook’s misrepresentation and abuse of its own ethics policies were too hypocritical and dishonest for me to continue using them as a marketing means to promote TIA.
Immediately thereafter, I thought the time was ideal to also delete my personal Facebook account because of my growing resentment of the content I was reading on the platform. People who I called my friends were becoming increasingly cantankerous and adversarial, especially after the re-election of U.S. President Barack Obama in late 2012. As a bizarre example, there was one individual who I had known for more than 10 years. I had always known this guy to be a good-natured person. On two separate occasions, when he and his wife (who has always been a sweetheart) came to Seattle, we made sure to share a delicious meal together. Afterwards, I would take pleasure to show them around the city I had adopted as my home base. This individual was apparently a huge fan of the Denver Broncos football team, perhaps a die-hard fan. The Superbowl championship in 2014 was a rivalry between the Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks. When Seattle won the game, I remember poking some fun at the Broncos on his page (that I honestly thought was innocent and innocuous). I think I might have posted the popular Seattle Seahawks’ “12th Man” flag (featured in the graphic below).
What resulted was completely unexpected and, in my mind, completely out of character for this fellow. He said:
I was caught off guard because I honestly didn’t think the topic at hand was that serious, but I have also learned in my lifetime that one rarely knows what exactly might trigger someone’s temper leading to an incomprehensible or irrational response. Believe it or not, this person and I never spoke again after this incident. Neither him nor his wife. He’s the first individual I had ever known to respond so vehemently about the loss of a football game. Nearly seven years later, it still doesn’t make much sense to me. A friendship of 12 years (technically, two friendships) ended over. . .that? Regardless, that’s the direction a few of my interactions among so-called friends was heading on Facebook. I was not interested in encouraging these exchanges as my impressions of my friends were beginning to diminish gradually. I’m sure their sentiments were mutual. However, these petty shenanigans weren’t what kept me from permanently deleting my Facebook account in 2015 after the TIA business page debacle. No.
My decision to keep the account open was unexpected, crossing over from the professional to the deeply personal. In 2011, after losing contact nearly two decades previously, I had reconnected with one of my dearest friends who lived in Stavanger, Norway, where I had attended secondary school. Upon getting reacquainted, I had learned two fundamental facts from his first message: 1) He and his wife were expecting their second child — a son — in seven days; and 2) He was suffering from cancer and had been undergoing treatment for some time. Even though my friend often predicted he wouldn’t make it to end of the year, he managed to persevere for four incredible years with his capacity to downplay his pain with a unique style of wit and good humor. Over the next four years, his health had oscillated a few times. There were occasions when we seriously thought he was in regression and would beat the damned disease. That all changed shortly after the new year in 2015, simultaneously at the time when I was determined to delete my personal account. He knew and understood why I wanted to leave Facebook. Up until then, we had been emailing each other outside of Facebook. When his cancer had returned, quite aggressively, he had informed me that he no longer had the strength to email all his friends individually during his rest periods between chemotherapy sessions. His pain was overwhelming his body, and he could only afford to occasionally write to everyone, all at once, through status updates on his Facebook account, which I believe his wife had to type on his behalf at times. Given the dire circumstances he had described, he had essentially expressed that he really wasn’t going to make it this time (without saying so). A pang of sadness swept through my psyche when he asked if I minded because his request meant that I needed to stay on Facebook to remain informed about his health. I was forlorn because he should never have had to pose that kind of question. Of course, I told him I would stay. This was a situation, despite my own disdain for Facebook, in which the social media platform truly had utility and value. Fortunately, we were able to say the things two friends typically wouldn’t have to say to each other if the circumstances weren’t what they were. I will never forget that his last personal message to me, using that same humor in deflection, made me laugh and cry interchangeably. Roughly two months later, in May, he died. His death was, in essence, also the end of my activity on Facebook because his request was the only reason why I stayed. The following year, when our mutual friend (Thanks, Lee) who introduced us all those years ago in Stavanger asked how I was doing, I posted a short response, and that was the end of my presence on Facebook. I literally nullified my activity thereafter.
Fast forward from 2015 to 2020 and, without shuddering, try to recall as much as you can about all the events taking place around the world in which Facebook has played a hand. Civil Unrest. Racial Injustice. Public Health. Politics. Fake News. Cybersecurity breaches. Genocide. Please look at the headlines below. Keep in mind that these are just a few stories from August and September of this year alone.
Then, for innumerable reasons, this particular article struck a bitter nerve with me intensely:
When I read the above article in full, allowing it to simmer within my conscience, one could essentially say I had been triggered at last. This was the end, and I couldn’t wait to exit as there was nothing to reconsider after five years of inactivity. In my mind, it didn’t even make sense to have an account with an organization that frequently flouts accountability and blatantly takes no ownership of its own contribution to the plight of civil society — not just in America, but in countries across the globe.
When I finally chose to delete my account, I had no remorse or anxiety. In fact, it’s been nearly four weeks since I left at the time of writing this article, and it honestly feels like nothing happened. The whole “FOMO” (“Fear of Missing Out”) theory is utterly ridiculous, but that’s just my point of view. The majority of the people with whom I was connected on Facebook are individuals with whom I shared a connection either decades ago in high school and university, or former co-workers who I no longer see every day because we no longer work together. In reality, most of us don’t have too much in common today. Interestingly, I recently learned that several of my friends and contacts left Facebook years before I did (if what my downloaded data reveals is accurate). Many of us are in entirely different chapters in our respective lives (figuratively and literally). A number of us have, very sadly, passed away. The realist in me says this is the reality of life, good or bad. Those friends who were very close to me previously are still very much close to me today because we never needed Facebook to communicate. I’ve found my peace in this, both professionally and personally. Onwards.
Instagram (Queen Insta)
Date of Registry: April 2015
Date of Inactivity: January 2020
Date of Deletion: August 2020
Instagram is another beast, perhaps an ounce less venomous than Facebook, but just as addictive and annoying. Similar to Facebook, Instagram was another marketing tool that did not help TIA generate any business. There was one exception during my five-year excursion: one person hired me to capture some portraits, and complained afterwards that one image (out of more than 30 images) was “somewhat blurry” in his opinion. Oye. Yes, so one customer in five years on Instagram.
I think the only reason why I gave Queen Insta a try is because the lady I was somewhat dating at the time suggested it would be a good idea. Again, I wanted to keep an open mind. I had given up my marketing strategy via Facebook and, at the time, still didn’t have any concept of how to cultivate my Twitter account for new business. As mentioned in the introduction (albeit a lot more bluntly), my view of Instagram is that it has very little to do with photography and everything to do with popularity and praise. Silly stuff. Likes and comments. It’s not really about professional (or even amateur) photography. When I became increasingly active on Instagram, I remember I would go out of my way to make sure I responded to everyone who either posted a comment or liked one of my photographs. At one point, I was consuming six to eight hours every Sunday responding to other Instagrammers because I thought, naively, that this was the way to build rapport and a decent following for TIA, which would inevitably yield to business prospects.
None of that ever happened, and my own behavior led to much shorter weekends spent staring at the screen of a smartphone for hours. It was a counterproductive use of valuable time.
When I had developed an audience of 850 people between April 2015 and March 2018, an online marketing team based in Toronto approached me with a proposal of how to actually yield sales for TIA. Since that was my goal all along, I decided to listen to the proposal. The marketing team stated that it was familiar with Instagram’s algorithms and this would improve the circulation of my images whenever I posted so that they would land before more pairs of eyes. One thing they made clear was that my audience had to increase in order to generate more business, and that 850 people were unsatisfactory for what I wanted to achieve with my business goals. After two or three more conversations over the phone with members of this marketing team, I decided I would give it a try for a monthly fee that seemed reasonable and affordable. After following the team’s instructions, my audience skyrocketed from 850 people in March 2018 to over 11,000 at the end of 2019. That was a massive increase, which did little for my ego because, as I’ve stated, the goal was to create new business, which still did not occur, even with the services of this online marketing team. Remember, I don’t speak “Social Media”, which is why I was hoping the team I had hired would do it for me. Like Facebook, I began to feel more disgust because Queen Insta was more in the business of distraction and controversy. She was a “time evaporator” like her lousy husband.
One benefit of Instagram was that I did develop some new contacts located in different countries. They would visit my Instagram feed and leave comments or send a personal message occasionally or regularly. Although this wasn’t the primary goal of my activity with the Queen, I will concede that it was a pleasant byproduct.
Of course, after a while, my ego sometimes slapped me around as I questioned the popularity of other photographers in Queen Insta’s domain, and I found it irritating — both the fact that some photographers had such a massive following for their images and the fact that I let this pettiness increasingly get under my skin. My own personal infantilism was proving to be counterproductive for my marketing objectives. Finally, I posted one photograph on New Year’s Day 2020 and I never posted again thereafter. There was also the eye-twinging fact that Instagram was owned by Facebook, which constantly irked my nerves.
Ultimately, it was not difficult to terminate my Instagram account a few days after deleting my Facebook account. The King & Queen of Social Media came hand in hand, and I no longer wanted association with either. To be rid of Facebook altogether meant Instagram had to go too. I wrote a private message to the contacts with whom I had communicated the most to inform them of my decision while leaving my email address if they were interested in staying in contact. Comparable to Facebook, after deleting my Instagram account, which was immediate, I felt no sadness or regret. I was more disappointed in myself for not doing it sooner.
Farewell, your majesties. Onwards.
Twitter (Prince Twit)
Date of Registry: July 2009
Date of Inactivity: Intermittently between 2009 and 2020
Date of Deletion: To be determined
At present, I remain undecided about divorcing Twitter. It’s addictive and has so many similar traits to the King & Queen. A month ago, I was on hiatus from Prince Twit. This past week, I’ve had several beneficial exchanges with my subscribers and other people on the platform. I think the difference with Twitter is that I’ve decided to purposely look at it differently than a marketing tool, because it also wasn’t incredibly effective in that arena either.
I only recently reached this perspective in the last month as I was ready to delete this account as well, but I had to think things through with Prince Twit. This divorce would completely shut the door to the court of the Royal Three with the key thrown into the moat — and I’m not certain such a move is altogether wise to execute just yet. Why? For starters, many of the people who subscribed to my Facebook business page and Instagram account also subscribe to my Twitter account. Deleting my Twitter account would terminate my connection with all of them conclusively, and since this demographic consists of friends and contacts who live in the States and around the world, I think it would be an ill-advised separation. It’s one thing to be inactive and not participate in social media madness — you can always return anytime. However, deleting the account is a permanent termination, and I like a lot of the people in my special, international demographic. Additionally, I do receive some good information via articles from industry stalwarts of what’s happening in the world of photography. This has been invaluable as a resource of staying up to date on what’s going on in my field. Also, the artist in me loves to see the creative work of other artists, which is often presented in the forms of photography, videography, animation, music, poetry, enthralling drawings, and mesmerizing visuals. (As I write this, it feels like I’m convincing myself why I should remain with Prince Twit, so I’ll follow my instincts for now.)
I did fall under the ugly spell of jealousy and infantilism for a while when I saw the excessive attention other photographers received for their work, especially those who showcased similar subject matter as my own (such as cityscapes of Seattle), but readjusting my mindset has actually proven to be helpful and healthy. Now that I no longer look at Twitter as a marketing tool, I have freed TIA from the multiple rules about when to post content and when to engage. With rules and suggestions of how to market my services currently jettisoned, I can relax and post content whenever I wish as along as I accept one caveat — no expectations of engagement. Whether my content is liked, retweeted, or not, I should neither let this bother me, nor let it preclude me from posting more content later. Human behavior is so often fickle, inconsistent, and rarely linear. I have realized that trying to figure out Prince Twit for so long has made my behavior on the platform inadvertently rigid. Fortunately, this realization has allowed me to dispel this behavior without any emotion attached. Surprisingly, my new mindset has now made Twitter. . .dare I say it. . .more enjoyable as of late. Since I no longer have a how-can-I-turn-this-engagement-into-a-sale mindset, I’m much more relaxed and speak my mind a lot more about many topics in addition to photography.
In the end, this does not solve my issue with marketing via Twitter, but that’s what makes the challenge of expanding from social media that much more adventurous, appealing, and exciting. Onwards.
I believe professional photography doesn’t often integrate well with social media if the objective is solely to promote one’s own photography with the expectation of generating new business and garnering new clients. In order to achieve this goal, which many photographers have done successfully, I believe one has to be a master of social media marketing in addition to professional photography. In fact, from observation alone, one doesn’t necessarily need to be extremely proficient in photography if he or she knows how to create and establish a definitive niche and market to that niche ad nauseum. I’m not a pro at social media marketing, even though I have tried to study it, research about it, and inquire from friends who are experts in the language. As a result, in many ways, it doesn’t make sense to remain on these platforms if they don’t yield the anticipated result, which differs between photographers. Some photographers love social media and have reaped tremendous benefits from it. Many have not, but may think they don’t have any other avenues to market their creative works. I had anticipated a result of moderate to increasing revenue over time, regardless of the number of subscribers or popularity as a byproduct. This never happened. Alternatively, changing my mindset and modus operandi, such as I did with Twitter, was enlightening because I discovered I could enjoy engaging on a social media platform by eliminating expectations and not taking my own behavior so seriously on it.
One recommendation — If you plan to promote your business via social media, consider having two separate accounts: one exclusively for your business content, and one exclusively for your personal content. Try to avoid having one account which features content that interchanges between your business services and your personal affairs.
I hope this article might enlighten or inform someone else who is also struggling with promoting a photography business via social media. It’s not as simple as we’re led to believe, and ironically, you may not even need it.
Suggested Resources for Marketing Your Photography
- The Art and Business of Photography / by Susan Carr
- Find Your Niche As A Professional Photographer: A Guide To Dominating Your Market / by James Michael
- Legal Guide for Small Business, Second Edition: Everything You Need to Know About Small Business, from Start-Up to Employment Laws to Financing and Selling / by the American Bar Association
- Photographer’s Market Guide to Building Your Photography Business / by Vik Orenstein
- Sell & Re-Sell Your Photos: Learn How to Sell Your Photographs Worldwide / by Rohn Engh and Mikael Karlsson
Thanks for reading this article. If you enjoyed the photographs here, please visit my official website @ www.tia-international-photography.com for an indelible, visual experience.