Social Media & Photography: Observations Part 2 – Flickr

Photograph©Delaney Allen

I was fortunate enough to find a group of people on Flickr who were passionate about the history of the medium and were willing to share their knowledge.  I suspect my experience is probably not the norm.  Through the street photography group, HCSP, I received book suggestions, tips from more experience photographers, and mostly importantly I was able to connect with several other photographers at the same stage as me.

So my first impressions of Flickr were that it was more than a place to share photographs, it was a place to learn from my peers. However, it didn’t take long for me to learn about general impression about the site, which is that it’s filled with amateur garbage which makes it impossible to find any meaningful work.  This is certainly true to some extent.

Why would any photographer use Flickr?  As with all social media, before you can answer that, you should probably have a well thought out answer about your objectives for your photography.

If you went to art school and have an MFA in photography, there’s probably no point in using Flickr. I would suspect your ambitions are for a career in fine art photography, which means building an audience online isn’t that important. What’s important is the networking, the portfolio reviews and ultimately getting your work in front of influential curators and collectors.  I doubt building an audience on Flickr will help you achieve those goals. You’re far better off with a polished blog, and strategically connecting with influential bloggers.

Now, if you didn’t go to art school and have no formal photography training, then Flickr is worth considering.  If you know what genre(s) of photography, you’re interested in, you can find groups dedicated them and begin to network.  What’s important and crucial with Flickr is that you only really receive the benefits if you give as much as you receive.  You need to actively interested in your peers.  Sure, there are some photographers who are a cut about the rest and will draw attention irregardless of their networking skill, but in general, you’ll have a much more rewarding experience if you dive in and connect with other photographers.

This was my objective. Flickr was the easiest place for me to find like minded photographers who might appreciate my work.  And since I was learning, I became an image junkie and would spend hours and hours looking at the work of others.  Not to mention all the time I spent in the HCSP forum participating and sharing what I was learning.

This strikes me as a common sense approach but I could be wrong.  And I think by now, it’s also pretty much common sense that you shouldn’t use Flickr as a portfolio site, so I won’t even get into that.

But what about those that don’t have time to look at everyone’s work, but are still interested in finding interesting new work?

Managing the Flood of Photographs

Presentation and organization are not two of Flickr’s strengths.  And really, to enjoy Flickr you have to be somewhat inclined to browse around and go through a certain amount of photographs.  If you just want the good stuff without doing a bit of work, then you’ll probably get frustrated and not find much value.

The first place to look for edited photographs is in Groups which are dedicated to every conceivable genre and topic. It really varies by group how much editing they do, but I prefer groups that create a balance between selectivity and a consistently new photographs.  Unfortunately, too many groups just let everything into the pool which makes them pretty much impossible to sort through. I won’t name names, but this is the case for many online blogs and publications that use Flickr for submissions.

Here are the groups that I frequent. You might not share the same sensibility, which is understandable.

HCSP (Street Photography)
Contract Killers (Portraits)
Two For the Road
la familia abrazada (Family and Friends)

I left LPV off the list because we use it for a different purpose, which I’ll get to later.

And then there’s Photographs on the Brain, which is sort of an experiment.  I started it as a place to invite only the best of the best that I found on Flickr, but I soon invited some of my friends who shared a similar sensibility as me to invite photographs as well. Right now we have 100 editors inviting to the pool. Not all are very active, but this collective inviting is one way that you can use the power of the network to build an interesting pool of photographs.  Because you see, it’s impossible to really keep tabs on what’s going on so you might as well rely on your friends.

Which brings me to ‘Favorites,’ another shortcut to finding interesting work. A favorite is basically a users collection of photographs they’ve bookmarked.

If you find someone active on Flickr like me, you can dip into their Favorites and immediately find the work they find interesting. This will lead you to photographers you can add as contacts to follow.  Often times if I’m looking for new work, I’ll browse through people’s favorites. In fact that’s probably my preferred method of looking at Flickr these days.  You can pull the RSS feed for anyone’s favorites, so I have a folder in Google Reader set up specifically to follow certain people’s favorites.

The Publishing Perspective

This site and blog wouldn’t exist without Flickr.  It’s where we find most of the photographs and photographers we feature.  From the beginning, we used our group pool a bit differently. Since we decided to do monthly shows, we basically gave up on having a continuos pool of photographs.  After each monthly show, the pool would be cleared for the next month.

Flickr makes it insanely easy to submit photographs. The drawback of course, is that you have to moderate and edit those submissions.  One example of an established online magazine using Flickr to add to their content is Fraction Magazine.  They’ve been using Flickr for their One Picture Look feature, which I think is an interesting value add to their regular issues.

Something I’ve learned about social media is that you shouldn’t underestimate people’s habits.  When I started this blog, I created a thread on our Flickr group for links to all the blog posts and soon noticed that a high number of people came to the blog through those links.  Some people just don’t want to leave Flickr.  Point being, go where your audience is and make it easy for them to find your content.

Final Thoughts

I’m at the point now where I ignore absolute statements about Flickr.  Like any platform, it has its advantages and disadvantages. What’s important are your objectives and how you use the tool. With Flickr, there’s no question you have a large concentration of people who are passionately interested in photography, all kinds of photography.  I find it hard to believe that if you’re trying to build an audience either as a photographer or publisher that this wouldn’t be of interest to you to some degree.

For me, as a photographer and editor, I find Flickr to be a diverse and interesting community, a place where I’ve met most of my photography friends and discovered photography that inspires me and makes me think everyday.  I think the biggest mistake one can make is to disregard a large, diverse, passionate community.  Amongst the photography masses on Flickr, there are pockets of highly intelligent, informed, studious photographers who aren’t concerned about contests, prizes, book deals or being promoted on blogs or zines.  They’re simply passionate about photography, and for me, that’s what it’s all about.

(Note: If you have any questions about Flickr, I’m happy to give you my thoughts. Either through Facebook, Twitter, or email)

  • Ellie

    Why shouldn’t flickr be used as a portfolio site? Just curious to know if there are other reasons besides it’s being unorganized for portfolio purposes.

  • Bryan Formhals

    Nope, you can jump in at any time. If the work resonates, you’ll pick up followers quickly. I’ve seen people jump right in and with a month, it’s like they’ve been there forever…

  • Guest

    For years, I have used Flickr as a place to view photos, but I have never actually been a member. I’m just curious if you still think it’s still a worthwhile endeavor to join now, in 2010, or have I “missed the boat,” so to speak? Most people on there seem to have been members for several years with deep contact lists…

  • Bryan Formhals

    Sure, why not. Most people I know and hang out with through Flickr have no other ulterior motive other than communication and looking at photographs.

    I guess I’m just one of those people that likes to ‘sort’ through things, whether it be baseball cards, information or photographs.

    I think some people expect that Flickr will do something for their career or reputation, and then when that doesn’t happen, they blame it on the platform.

    It’s just a platform at the end of the day. But through the diverse community there, it becomes easy to find like minded people, not to mention lots of new work that hasn’t already been mediated by blogs, zines, etc.

  • Blake

    I don’t have much time to wade through Flickr. That’s why I rely on sites like LPV to do it for me, and you’ve been a reliably good editor. Thanks!

    This post and most other things I’ve read about social networking all seem to take the same approach, that it should serve some utilitarian purpose, e.g. to foster networking or a photo career or keeping your work in circulation or whatever. Granted your approach is less utilitarian than others, but that aspect still lurks.

    Instead, why not consider it from a completely useless angle? Just as the best photographs need serve no functional purpose, social networking can be beautifully non goal-oriented. No ulterior motive, no career, no networking, no sales, just pure communication. Can that world still exist or did it go extinct back in the 70s?

  • K. Praslowicz

    Subscribing to someone else’s favorites RSS has been a tactic I’ve been using for the past year to wade through the glut of imagery on Flickr. Just the social proof of a single person with a history of liking similar stuff that I do really does help to make what I’m experiencing on Flickr closer to my tastes.

    Sure does save me a lot of work trying to find new stuff. :D

  • Lee

    Right you are. The one place I hadn’t looked. Thanks for the tip, Bryan.

  • Bryan Formhals

    Lee, it should be on the lower left corner.

    Hmmm. Could be a Pro Account thing? Not sure.

  • Lee

    i’ve always thought that it would be a good idea to set up an RSS stream of certain photographers favorites on flickr but i can’t say that i’ve been able to figure out how to do it. is it easy? i just looked at the flickr UI again and didn’t see that option anywhere.

  • ben roberts

    i’d give in now. this social networking thing will never catch on.