Photography is a form of expression that can challenge us to question our motives and goals. Sometimes, we may face moments of insecurity and doubt, wondering if we are good enough or making any progress. We may also struggle with the meaning and purpose of our work, especially when we share it with others. How do we balance our vision with the expectations of our audience? How do we avoid falling into the trap of vanity and self-promotion? Why do those traps even exist, to begin with?
I was gifted an Olympus Trip 35 around my 10th birthday, ca 1981. I remember us setting up a makeshift dark room in our guest bathroom and developing our black and white photos. As I grew up and technology advanced, I moved from SLRs to digital cameras, then to DSLRs.
I thoroughly enjoyed the process of taking pictures, and my relationship with my photography was very light-hearted. Sometimes I went a year without taking a single photo. Sometimes, it was the opposite, and I went on photo frenzies. I liked taking pictures, and I enjoyed looking at them later. I rarely showed them to anyone else outside of my family.
In the early 2010s, social media took off. As my photos became more visible to others, I started hearing that “I had an eye for photography.” I liked the feedback but also started feeling more uneasy about my photography. I was not a big Like-counter, but my perception of what people thought of my photos started mattering. What had been a low risk, but in some ways low reward proposition had started to change.
When social media was in its biggest hype phase, Nir Eyal published his book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. In the intersection of psychology, technology, and business, the book gave a spot-on insight into what it is that gets people hooked on social media.
Eyal describes the dopamine-powered feedback loop that several psychologists wrote books about around the same time, building on knowledge built over decades. This is playing a critical role in how users get addicted to platforms such as Instagram, Vero etc.
The Hooked loop goes like this: Trigger (which can be External or Internal) -> Action -> Variable Reward -> Investment -> Trigger
An example of an External Trigger is that notification you get when someone likes one of your posts, or someone posts something new. It doesn’t really matter exactly that trigger is, from the loop’s point of view, as long as it makes you take the Action, which may be to, for example, open Instagram. The next step is critical. It is not enough that you get a Reward for taking your action - it has to be a Variable Reward. The reward in itself can be seeing how many likes you got, who commented on your post, or it can be the other stuff you happen to see in the feed. But it has to be unpredictable. Every time you open your refrigerator (an Action), you still see the same old milk carton on the shelf (the Reward). This is not habit-forming or creating an addiction. I doubt you spend as many hours per week opening and closing your refrigerator, as you do browsing social media. If the contents changed every time you opened the door, however, it would be much more interesting to open the refrigerator in the morning, wouldn’t it?
Another critical step for this loop to become addictive is that whatever the reward is, it should make you want to make an Investment of time and energy. This could be as simple as Liking something, or maybe commenting on someone’s post. When you invest, you want to see where that leads, whether people approve or disapprove of your comment. The more energy you invest, the more likely you are to come back.
The Internal Triggers are the various ways the app tries to keep you from closing it when you are using. New things in the feed, live events, and in-app notifications are all Internal Trigger tools.
Seeing with my own eyes and learning professionally and academically how addictive this loop can be, combined with knowledge about how much data is collected and how powerfully it can be used, I quit Facebook and most social media, limiting my exposure as much as I could.
At about the same time, I realized that DSLRs were a kind of camera that would relatively rapidly become more or less obsolete, and that I should therefore sell my camera and lens collection while it was still worth some money. I switched over to a mirrorless system.
And then I more or less stopped taking photos.
I deeply questioned what the real value was of those likes and comments. Of course, by mostly quitting social media, I had cut off that feedback signal. But I also now realized that I had actually to some extent been taking photos because of that feedback. That had become the part of Investment in the Hooked loop for me.
I had also lost most of the joy of taking photos just for the sake of taking them. I had lost that somewhere along the way. While the new camera system was technically excellent, I suddenly found it soul-less to use. It snuffed the last sparkle of the joy of taking photos in the field. The camera’s way of operating didn’t fit me. I think of myself as reasonably technically adept - it was not a question of not being able to use it, but I just didn’t enjoy the way the camera sat in my hand, and the way it was operated. It ended up mainly left to collect dust in the cabinet.
Around the later 4-5 years of my DSLR era and this transition to mirrorless, I also went through a few other difficulties in my personal life, and I suffered through two stints of clinical depression, both times working with a therapist that I have realized afterwards might have helped me with the depression, but in many ways also led me away from my core values and beliefs, forcing a period of re-grounding to have to happen, at great expense to me and - even worse - those around me. But it also made me reassess and get closer to what I care about and I really want to and try to be.
My love for being in nature has allowed me to find those moments of pure joy that are so rare in our everyday lives. As an only child with few friends during my childhood and adolescence, I had to create my own world. Being in nature was one of the places I felt most at ease and where I could seek out my distinctly own path, not minding being on my own. And sometimes, while exploring the less-traveled paths, I stumble upon something extraordinary in the seemingly mundane - and it is in these moments that I am suddenly filled with this very special feeling, one that has so hard for me to describe. But then, while talking about something completely different, a friend of mine used a term that really stuck with me and fits this feeling so well.
Stabs of joy.
A sense of satisfaction, of joy, of being alive, that is so strong that it hurts. Sometimes, I’m so engulfed in the there-and-then when it happens that I don’t realize until afterwards that it happened.
Looking back at my photos from before the social media era, they were of two kinds. Many of them were photos I took to remember, to capture, the moment for the value of the moment itself. I put family photos in this category. But some of them are of these stabs of joy moment. I realize now, in hindsight, that these are the ones I have truly loved taking photos of; these moments are where I found my passion.
Social media pulled me away from these. I had started taking photos to feed the Hooked Loop, and when I removed that, but had forgotten to take photos of the stabs of joy in my life, I was lost.
A few years ago, when I turned 50, I realized I had to do something about this situation. I didn’t yet have all the words for this, but I sensed I had to find that passion again. And I remember how my old Nikon DSLR, which I had sold, felt so much more natural in the landscape, and it was easier to be one with my passion when using it. Through other experiences in my life, including my now years of meditation, I had learned the value of truly being present in the moment. My dust-encrusted mirrorless system distracted me from being present in the field, and therefore from finding my stabs of joy.
With COVID dictating no other extravagances to mark the moment, I decided to sell my mirrorless system and take the leap to another system I knew would slow down my photography more. My current camera system now amplifies the feeling of love, care, and presence in the moment when those stabs of joy hit me, as opposed to doing the opposite. I have once again fallen in love with photography.
The hardships in my 40s taught my the value of human connection. I am yet again wanting to share my photography with others, but now, I hope, for other reasons. I am still concerned about getting sucked into the Hooked Loop, and still feel uncomfortable with sharing my photos online due to this fear.
But I have realized that sharing a photo with someone, can also be thought of like what the Gottman Institute calls a Bid in their marriage and divorce prediction research. A bid, using their definition, is an invitation to a positive connection. In their domain, one makes a bid toward one’s partner, but the concept can be applied more broadly. Sharing a photo is in a way making a bid. I reach out to a friend, a smaller group, or the vast Internet, looking for a positive connection.
Once someone has made a bid, one of three things can happen. The recipient may turn towards, turn away or turn against. When someone turns towards me, I see that the recipient is interested in me, understands me, and accepts me. When someone turns away (by ignoring) or turns against (by mocking or disapproving), it leads to disengagement.
So when I now share a photo with someone, I am now making a Bid.
But if making the Bid is the Action, is which way you Turn now the Variable Reward? Did I get back to where I started?
I do not think that is the case.
First of all, what is now central to my photography is to be fully open to the types of experiences in which I may find stabs of joy. When I do find it, and I happen to be able to take a photo that later on can bring me back to it, without the process of doing so destroying the moment in itself, then I have found a way of prolonging that moment for myself. To remind myself that these moments occur all the time, but I need to pay attention to notice them, to let them embrace me.
Second, I don’t want to be keeping that to myself. I want to give it to others, to pay it forward in a sense. To maybe inspire others to slow down a bit, take a deep breath, look around them, and enjoy the beauty of life. To find their own stabs of joy. When this leads to someone Turning Towards me, and our relationship building and strengthening, that is so powerful to me. Having grown up so lonely, I am still not good at building and maintaining relationships, but this is one of the ways I have found to do so, and it is deeply meaningful to me. Sometimes the viewer is impacted emotionally by my photo. Sometimes, this is so strong that they seem to emit their emotion back, and I can feel how it affected them. I can feel that they felt what I felt. I feel felt. That, I am ok with being addicted to.My understanding of my own motives and goals is still work in progress. I will continue to wonder if I am good enough, and whether I am learning. But that is OK, because I know I can always come back and grounding myself by just enjoying my Stabs of Joy, and let that be its own goal. If I decide to share those photos, remembering that I do so as a Bid, and maybe, just maybe, I will feel felt as a result of it. I am not not demanding a response when I make that Bid, but I am selective about my audience today, because it keeps my honest to my values. Never feel that you have to Turn Towards me in response to my Bid. It is of course strictly voluntary, and when it comes to photography, a Turn that doesn’t come from inside does not carry value. But if you decide to engage because my photo did somehow resonate with you, know that I deeply treasure the connection, the spark, that you just created.