The concept of the “barbell theory” is that you embrace two extremes in life– rather than going for the boring “middle” strategy. For example Nassim Taleb says it is better to save 90% of your money in boring cash– and invest 10% in hyper-risky investments (rather than just putting it all into “medium risk” ventures). Nassim Taleb also mentions that regarding drinking, it is better to drink liberally 3 days a week (and completely abstaining the other days) rather than drinking “moderately” everyday.
I recently read a book titled: “A Perfect Mess”
in which the author promotes the benefits of randomness and messiness.
A chapter on the “Aesthetics of Messiness” which appealed to me was of a restaurant owner– who has a restaurant called “Confusion.” You can’t classify his restaurant into any category– it seems like a random hodgepodge of dishes– but it seems to work.
A quote the restaurant owner said stuck with me (regarding his food):
“I wanted to provoke. I didn’t want someone to say, ‘Oh yeah, I had this in Paris once.’ I wanted to serve food that customers would either love because it’s different or hate because it’s different. What I didn’t want to hear was someone saying, ‘That was very good.’”
I instantly made the connection between this and photography. Some of the most famous and inventive photographers in history have been either beloved or hated by the public. Some notable examples include:
- Martin Parr (Even Henri Cartier-Bresson hated his photos)
- William Eggleston (At his first MOMA show, people ridiculed him widely for showing crappy “snapshots” at a museum)
- Daido Moriyama (Criticized for having out-of-focus, blurry, grainy shots)
- William Klein (Similar to Daido, not having clean images– but messy and chaotic)
Which made me think again about the barbell theory: It is better to have people either really love your work or really hate your work. You don’t want people to be “meh” about your work.
Therefore I think when it comes to your photography– you want to polarize people. You don’t want to please everybody. Bill Cosby once said something like, “I don’t know what the secret to success is– but I know it isn’t trying to please everybody.” Even a few thousand years ago the Roman philosopher (and former slave) Publilius Syrus once said something like, “Seek to please everybody and you will be a failure.”
I think the worst thing a photographer can do is create boring photos. Of course, Martin Parr is famous for creating lots of boring photos (which actually end up turning up looking very interesting). But once again– what I mean is that you should strive to create images that provoke an visceral, emotional, or uneasy response in your viewers. You want to provoke your viewers to make memorable photos. I think this is why Bruce Gilden’s work is so compelling (shooting in the streets with a flash)– either you love his work or you hate it. There is generally no middle-ground.
Personally I have found this barbell strategy of having people really love or hate me has worked out well for me. It is funny that a lot of people tell me that I am very “controversial.” I never try to be controversial– I just try to say openly and honestly what is on my mind, and share my opinion with others. It either resonates with others, or doesn’t.
For people who really love my blog, my photography, and the information I share about street photography– they end up sharing my blog or photography with others, giving me positive feedback and support, and even end up attending my workshops (helping me pay my bills). They are absolutely critical
marketer Seth Godin mentions the importance of having “1000 ‘true’ fans” over a semi-interested following.
However for people who really hate me and my blog– they rant about me on social media. They criticize me, post negative anonymous comments on my blog, and spread hate. They hate my photography, my blog, my approach, my face, or the fact that I use the term “streettogs”.
Funny enough– even my haters have been a great source of help for me. First of all, they end up bringing more people to my blog (if I write a ‘controversial’ post– they link to it on social media trashing it, but ultimately draw more people to read what I have to say).
Another funny story– a photographer who really hates my guts shared an article of mine on Facebook and called it garbage. Somebody who was following him ended up clicking the link (and ended up liking the article and started following me). Eventually he ended up showing to one of my workshops (so I should actually thank the guy and perhaps pay a commission to the guy who trashed me online).
The point I am sharing this isn’t to stroke my own ego– but to share the fact that it is good to polarize your audience.
Now I am not saying bust a Kanye West or a Miley Cyrus by purposefully trying to be controversial to piss people off. Rather, I think the optimal strategy is just be brutally honest and transparent about you as a human being and photographer. Don’t create photography that seeks to please everyone (like an IKEA piece of art). Rather, stay true to your core, and try to create interesting and compelling photographs that provoke an emotional response in your viewer.
What are your thoughts about polarizing viewers in your work? Share your thoughts in the comments below.