Is Social Media the Death of Creativity or the Birth of a New Creative Era?

Is Social Media the Death of Creativity or the Birth of a New Creative Era?

I often think back to what it must've been like being a photographer before the birth of the Internet, the social media craze, and the hunt for likes, shares, and follows. Photography was less convoluted before the dawn of the digital age, with specialist magazines and museum and art gallery submissions showcasing only the cream of the crop. Browsing through old magazines and reading the articles, it's clear that the top-tier photographers stood out amongst the rest of the crowd for their raw skill in their art form. Their images meant something to many of those who took the time to stop and look at it for longer than two seconds.

In modern days, things are quite different when looking at the multitude of platforms available to freely publish your own work. With the seemingly slow death of the magazine industry and the huge number of people using online image platforms, it's almost as if the images we post online have become lacking in substance. Is it because we're just exposed to so much more?  

I can't remember any of the images I just liked on Instagram about an hour ago, yet I seem to recall images I saw in books when I was younger that have managed to stand the test of time. Was I exposed to less imagery back then? Is it all becoming so convoluted now because of the digital age shoving images in our faces every chance it gets?

While we desensitize ourselves due to the sensory overload in the form of a million of images per day, the modern-day digital age has also given everyone with access to a computer or mobile phone a voice. And while it's a great form of communication, it's mirrored by what can be seen by some as an almost narcissistic need to be heard. Are the days of studying and constructively criticizing photography as an art form truly gone and replaced by some 14-year-old kid with bad acne, endlessly trolling Instagram and Facebook pages?

What has this done to our favorite art form? While the world is moving toward an ever-growing "PC" way of life, are photographers getting scared of posting images of a possible controversial nature online? If images of Viet Cong prisoners being shot in the head at point blank range or self-immolating monks were posted online today, the image would be spammed with a thousand comments on how this isn't right and how dare this photographer post images of this nature, before ultimately being reported and taken down. After that, no one would bat an eye. But remember what an impact those images had when you first saw them years ago? Nobody back then gathered their pitchforks and torches before heading off to go lynch the photographer.

And while I don't believe we'll ever see legendary photographers such as Annie Leibovitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, or Ansel Adams again, I do believe we will witness an evolution of our on-screen aliases trending across the globe for a few hours or days before another photographer creates something different or slightly more controversial (these days, controversy seems to only be measured by the amount of Photoshop being used on magazine covers). Are all of us perhaps becoming as disposable as the cameras we once shot with?

Yet somehow, something inside me still clings on to the belief that photography as an art form will prevail as it has over so many decades.

As somber and negative as this article may sound, it's not without a glimmer of light; the access to social media has also given everyone access to showcase their images to the world. No longer are we exposed to just a few amazing photographers around the globe, but we now have a choice to follow a few million photographers and their photographs, giving us the opportunity to learn faster from the photographers we view online and share our knowledge to those eager to learn. It helps us connect with like-minded creative individuals in order to share ideas quicker, work together, and source new clients. It's basically become the modern day word-of-mouth. Thus, you won't see many photographers packing their gear away to gather dust in a basement cabinet somewhere and take up accounting. Instead, we all learn to adapt to our ever-evolving world.

So as I'm finishing this article, I'm preparing to head out to the coast for a little holiday. My camera's batteries are charged, lenses cleaned, and sensor dust-free. My camera and I are ready for another adventure ready to be posted on my Instagram profile.

Fred van Leeuwen's picture

Fred van Leeuwen is a South African-based photographer and filmmaker. He operates under The Image Engineer, working on short films, portraits, and landscape photography.

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Absolutely both!! I've deleted mostly all photographers that I follow and have taken myself out of all the photog groups.

I think there will still be photographers like those you mentioned. Will YOU see them? Or me? Maybe not. There is a A LOT of noise and very little signal.

And just like when I was younger making drawings no one else really saw, I'll keep making my photos, "wasting" money making them haha.

I stressed so much looking at others work and viewing the amount of likes a photograph received. Social media got to my head too much. I'm over the insta craze. I keep it updated along with my website for a bit of credibility. I'll just...humbly die with my 1D and continue producing work that I like/paid for.

All the mindless scrolling I've done lol.

Excellent read! While I do believe in the train of thought that there will never be legends such as Annie and the like, I somehow see that in 50 years time (probably less time. even now I suppose!), when that generations' photographers crop up, there will be those that will still be shooting in similar styles, or probably a step up. And pretty soon there won't be any unique styles anymore. The tech is here and will eventually get better. Everything that can be shot will eventually be shot and we are all disposable. Creativity and ingenouity will be all that matters. As usual. The adventure continues!

Thanks Fred. A good topic. I grew up in photography without the internet and digital cameras. I was in a used bookstore yesterday where I frequently buy books with photographic content by the past masters. Australian mainly. It struck me when leaving that of all the thousands of books in the shop, and all the great photography, there were very few that would have had digital photography in them. I started to contemplate what would I do if I turned ff the internet.I would still take photos. I would still process them digitally and print them at home. I would print my own books. I would continue developing my photography training courses but take them out into the community. (I am doing that no.) I would still maintain the internet for home management but not so much as someone said for publishing my work, and continually sitting all day reading posts like this. I agree with Kyle.I really tire of looking at photos that have that processed look. They start to blend into one another.It's a bit like vynil records compared to digital sound. I used to be annoyed with the static sounds on my LP's but now I don't mind it. Digital sound lacks something. It's also like cooking. Some of the best dishes are made in the home with a recipe that is remembered from memory, not precise like the TV chefs, but delicious just the same. I have come to the conclusion,correct me if I am wrong,and I may be cynical, but I think sometimes those with the most followers only "fave" my work so I will return the favour and perhaps follow them.

Thanks for your response Bob. For me it's not about the technology. it's something less tangible.I love the technology of today and I love digital photography and what I can do. For many of us nostalgia is a big thing. cheers.

If you don't think there are legendary photographers anymore, then you haven't been paying attention to the industry. The competition is more fierce than ever and is always producing emerging talent. Just the artists from WE FOLK, Art Partner, Art+Commerce, Palookaville, will be more than one can count and I haven't even got to asia yet. If you keep up with shanghai's fashion industry or read Japan's commercial photo magazine, you will discover amazing photographers every month.
And yes iconic images are being taken and shared all the time. Viet Cong prisoners being shot in the head? Last year the most talked about photo was the Russian ambassador being shot by a terrorist.
Photography has been,and is prevailing. The industry is putting a lot more emphasis on social media following but there are just some situations, some productions that an instagrammer or blogger can't handle.

WE FOLK, Art Partner, Art+Commerce, Palookaville never heard of any of these. These 3 are just being at the right place at the right time. The photos do no make the photographer a legend but yes they are iconic, definitely not creative. We are talking one hit wonders here, majority of the people don't know who even captured them. Benjamin Von Wong is creative and when you see those photos you want to know who captured it.

Laughs out loud when he said "yes they are iconic, definitely not creative" No disrespect on your perspective but Come on man! Usain Bolt shot is not creative?! Despite the fact the photographer was intentionally being creative! Then why did I read all of those Bryan Peterson books on creative shooting. Oh And Obama's photographer was not a one hit wonder.

I'm not even trying to be pessimistic. Obama was our president which gives a more emotional feeling and he is just staring into his wife's eye, photojournalism at its best. If it was somebody else we wouldn't think twice about it. Right place, right time. Same with Usain Bolt, we all seen panning done before and he happened to get that great expression. Creativity is doing something more these are not more. These three photos don't push the boundaries of photography. Its shows the photographer knows how the camera works and basic techniques. Benjamin Von Wong he pushes the boundaries and there are people on the public forum of Fstoppers that are creative. These three photos don't fill that space. Great photos, iconic, not creative.

yeah Benjamin Von Wong is creative. I will give you that. How did social media kill his creativity. Oh it didn't and I will also argue that Instagram will actual cause more to push their boundaries. Those who cannot will fall off the platform or give up or just settle. Photography isn't dying or being killed off. Photography is being pushed to the limits because so many people are good at it nowadays and because social media is saturated with it. Because of people like yourself and me who are numb to good photographs, people will continue to push the limits. Hey All three of these shots are great period. I look at photos all day and those landscape calendars I grew up with are just not satisfying anymore. It is saturation of all the photos we photographers look at, that makes us think creativity is dying. All the creatives today that are rocking it, still rose to the top. The point is, that there are more creatives out their today then ever.

I already commented that social media will cause both, from a day ago. Look at the very top of the comment section, its the first one.

I didn't say social media did anything to Benjamin. I was specifically commenting on the three photos that was supposed to represent "legendary photographers" that OP was stating. He said, "If you don't think there are legendary photographers anymore" and than decided to show what he thought fit that statement. Which these photographs do not support that claim. As in anything the best ones will always rise up out of the smog that is the saturation that we both agree on. Thats why I removed and stop following photog groups and individuals because I see the same stuff and it is deterring me from enjoy nature/landscapes that I personally haven't visited yet. Think we are on the same page, just I don't see these photographs as making the photographer "legendary." Nor do you need these ridiculous group, that I never heard of, to be one or to say you are one. The public will decided ultimately.

Was eating sandwich during reading article and this concert photo... bueeeeehhh ;P

The digital age gives us access to a lot of photographers. It gives us access to a lot of photos, and it gives us access to a lot of input to our won photography. There is much inspiration out there. The requirements for what a sharp and good photo is has changed.

Almost anyone today has some kind of camera. Most of them have no idea how to take a good photo. We are in the time of the snapshot. Most shots are taken and forgotten, some of them end in social media and people seem to like them. When I was a kid (not that long ago) there was photographers employed by news-media and the photos where telling, excellent done - draftsmanship - today much is replaced by someone with a phone or a camera they shoot on full auto.

The fact that everyone has a camera and everyone can afford taking thousands of shots makes the amount of photos extreme out there. As an artist you can still create art. The internet has made it possible for photographers and artists from all over the world to be known. Earlier you could get known in your area and maybe with some luck outside your nations borders. Today that is easier, and more difficult.

Due to internet I know photographers from Russia, eastern Europe, Norway, USA... I get inspiration and I can try out new ideas.

The challenge of course with social media is that is based on popularity and that doesn't necessary go hand in hand with quality. Most social networks seems to favor certain type of content.

This article seems to resonate the idea that, the art of photography is dying.....because everyone is getting good at it and I should just get off of Instagram. The only thing Instagram did was overwhelm people and give them a deep insecurity about their own work. I see people posting photos that absolutely surpass Ansel Adams and the so called greats. Will we see another Ansel Adams? Yeah, I see more Ansel Adams posting everyday on Instagram. I mean have you looked at the photos featured on fstoppers. Does it look like there is any slowing down of creativity! Yeah I used to think Ansel was the best ever! But, I can no longer honestly say that. That is just something people feel like they should say. Like paying their respects. Even Ansel's Curators recognize he has roughly 10 good photos. Look Ansel was an OK photographer and had expert knowledge of his craft, but Ansel is popular because of his conservation efforts. My favorite photographer is Art Wolfe and who the hell knows that guy is. Photography isn't dying. It has mutated into a skill that so many have, that in the future telling someone you are a photographer would be like bragging to someone that you know how to ride a bike. The really good photographers will always shine and the crème will always rise to the top. It's just going to be some really, really thick crème and if you do rise, you still may not get noticed. Which means us average, kind of OK, decent, good, and sometimes great photographers will fall to the bottom. This isn't photography dying or social media destroying creativity. This is bringing photography to the masses. This is the ultimate in an anti-monopoly of the few. This is the art of photography thriving. There will always be those that are offended by this. People that will have to make the strange assertion that "I'm a good photographer but I'm not THAT good". I have had to settle with this. I'm just an OK photographer and this is only my hobby and side hustle. I have embraced the idea that I shoot for myself. Heck I wonder sometimes if my own family even like my photos, but i do it for my own self gratification. Social media has created a platform to share. Any ideas of it destroying a art form is just the insecurities playing in our heads. Sometimes I think that all these articles do is start conversation points so we can look at the writers own work that he/she is trying to market, because guest writing is cool. Hey look at my pictures I threw in this article. No disrespect Image Engineer. You have some good work...and I'll probably follow you on Instagram so I can be like "dang...I'm really not that good" :)

Hi Fred, interesting article. Part of the difficult here is there is a perception famous photographers are house hold names world wide. In the late 60's, I was the only young adult with a camera in my part of the world. 35 years on, my daughter was learning photography at school as a subject with her class mates in the UK. Where one lives does play a critical role in introducing photography to a younger audience, not to mention access to a reliable, well maintained computer.
I welcome the growth of social media and the accessibility of mobile phone and WiFi connection to countless fellow Asians. Very happy for them.
As for DSLRs, I recently attended a half day presentation by Canon launching their new EOS 6D mk 11 and it was very well supported by Canon camera owners. The world is a changed place from the 60's.