On Polarization and Street Photography

Hong Kong, 2012

Hong Kong, 2012

I am a big fan of Nassim Taleb and his concept of the “barbell theory” which he derives from his book: “Antifragile” (one of my top 3 favorite books).

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:

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.

Downtown LA, 2011

Downtown LA, 2011

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.

Hollywood, 2011

Hollywood, 2011

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”.

Downtown LA, 2011

Downtown LA, 2011

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.

Tokyo, 2012

Tokyo, 2012

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.

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  • Tod

    Interesting article Eric. I am new to this genre of “Street
    Photography” and yours is one of the blog that I read from time to time. In
    general, what I have seen so far is that street photographers are very
    conceited and hate each other! Sorry to be so blunt, but looks like that is the
    way it’s always been. Now, I am not sure if it’s the same in the rest of the
    art world, but it looks like one has to be in a controversy in order to become
    famous – which is not possible by minding your own business and shooting for
    self (Miss Maier is a case in point). I must say, some of the best “Street” shots I have seen is from people who just do it for themselves.

  • Dipu Sampang Rai

    Absolutely right!!! I have been following your blog a lot lately and thanks to you I finally found my genre of photography after shooting restlessly for like 2 years. After reading your blog, I feel like I have come to my sense finally about photography and it is helping me to grow everyday. I like this post about polarization as well. I was not a very big fan of “likes” on facebook…..and after reading your blogs and some others, it is clear to me that, “likes” are not as important as criticism and I try to get more critical about my work and others’ work as well. Thank you and hope to see a lot more post……

  • Rod Taylor

    Great article. I’m reaching the point where I want a niche’ or “signature” look to my photography. This article really helped me think where I want to go with it.

  • ufuk

    great post!

  • Paetroz

    Good on ya Eric. I may not agree with some of your thoughts or approaches but that’s no reason to hate. Some people take this way too far. I’m not on either end of the polarizing camps but definetly appreciate what you do and continue to find interest in your articles and photography. Thanks.

  • alansf

    I agree with your recommendation of Nassim Taleb. He is very insightful on many issues

  • GrandMinnow

    Your article is based on a false, or at least highly dubious, premise. I don’t see grounds to infer that the vast number of people familiar with you either love you or hate it. Rather, it’s more reasonable to surmise that there are some people who love you, maybe a few actually “hate” you, and many feel somewhere in between, in a range through indifference, mild irritation, strong disapproval, or strong dislike that is not actual “hate”. For at least one example, I don’t “hate” you, not even close.

    To lump all of your critics together as people who “hate” you is less than honest.

    And the same for your photography. I don’t see evidence that your photography has polarized people into two staunch camps – lovers and haters – without also a great number of people somewhere in the middle.

    Moreover, you barely give an actual ARGUMENT as to why it should be desirable to have such a polarization. Instead, you advance your claim by dime-store proverb and flimsy analogy with some notions of another author. “Polarize your audience”: It’s the kind of simplification that sounds like modern wisdom but that does not necessarily hold up under less simplified and more careful consideration.

    Even your example of the five photographers is unsupported, since it should not be taken as a given that for each of those photographers there are not many people whose feelings fall between love and hate of the work.

    • GrandMinnow

      You’ve stated different objectives for your photography: To be a “sociologist”, to communicate, to have fun, and now … to polarize. Of course, it’s natural that one would not be limited to just a single objective, but you seem to have spread yourself thin among an array of confusing objectives that are likely to compete with one another.

      If your main objective were to make photographs that are aesthetically, emotionally, and intellectually rewarding to yourself and hopefully to other people who have a deep and informed regard for photography, then I suspect that you’re much much too distracted. Your incessant blogging, social-self-promoting, videography of yourself, and, for example, your Vietnam shooting diary kind of thing, and even your flippant method of shooting seem to be a massive distraction from truly coming to grips with what is inside yourself as a photographer. I mean, if you removed these distractions and were to more directly, systematically, forcefully and honestly confront the more BASIC and more BURNING concerns of a photographer then you might see that your hyperactive Internet doings are vastly less relevant to your actual progress as a photographer.

      • SS

        Although really like your words, I have to point out that he actually gives a reason on why is important to polarize the audience. Well is not explicit, but it is quite clear to me. He is not interested in photography, but he is interested in making some money to pay the bill. All his post are based on promotion, selfpromotion, even when he promot the others, he does it for washing his web image. A nice guy, helping the others to emerge. But with this post, it is clear, he is happy if somebody, somehow click on his article and finally show up to his workshop.
        keep it up with the good stuff man!

  • fred

    ‘The fact that it is good to polarize your audience’. That’s not a fact. I dig what you do Eric but sometimes your writing is so cringe inducing I wonder what planet you’re on. Am I polarized?

  • Igor

    Man…..so much controversy! Eric come on man, your pics have pickled enough, post some shots before they decay and show these people. Come on guys, let’s stop digging trenches and get along now.

  • http://transienteye.com Mark

    Or you could just shoot (and write) to please yourself and find your own voice. Polarisation is good for immediate social media publicity, but it is only a strategy for better photography for a very particular definition of “better”.

    Taleb is always fun, of course…

  • Vedran Perse

    I don’t think that “polarization theory ” is applicable to art practice as you suggest in your post. In its essence “provocation” or “shock” lay as ultimate goal ( because response to them are strong emotions eg hate ). Now provocation & shock are important part of art practice but if they are goal to itself once when novelty wears off we look at particular art work that have stirred up emotions years ago only as a footnote in art history. Marcus Harvey portrait of ( English ) child murderer provoked strong reaction ( eggs were thrown ) when exhibited in ’90 in London’s RA exhibition adequately named Sensation, but now some 18 years later I needed to google to find out artists name. Because there was nothing else in that art work except provocation. In your examples of Eggleston and Parr you have mixed up their art practice ( I like Stephen Shore’s expression “I am trying to resolve photographic problems”) with (very brief ) reaction to it. Both of them were accused because they have used colour and applied ( broadly speaking ) snapshot aesthetics. Those things were novelty then but they are mainstream now, but we still like their work. But what is important is that Szarkowsky ( head of MOMA’s photographic department at the time ) and whoever proposed Parr to Magnum did not promote their work because to provoke but because they have discovered something new/interesting / good in it. And more important ( and this is reason for my comment ) they didn’t do ( colour / snapshot) to provoke. They did it as they were “resolving photographic problems “. If we photograp may work for some other human activity more commercialy aimed because it is in its essence marketing or PR tool. If one promotes business, blog whatever through social networking it is great tool as cost of entry is low, so by provoking one can

  • Gerry

    All street photography middlemen/photo gurus must constantly come up with new material or just fade away. It’s best to just take it all as entertainment and form your own opinions and skills through practical application which is the best teacher of all and will probably save you the money you would have paid a middleman to be told how to shoot and think.

  • Mikael Siirilä

    I’m not quite convinced that imagined or expected audience reactions should guide artistic work. Most often I find myself disliking attempts to either wow or provoke as both intentions are transparent and seem to ruin the experience. Jacob aue Sobol, who is not a stranger to provoking imagery, said something like: …there are no people crying or laughing in my photos, i have more important things to talk about…

  • Guillaume Arnaud

    Hey Eric, I have nothing really to tell you. I come reading your blog from time to time, and it’s sometimes interesting to me, sometimes I don’t care. Most of the time, I feel your’re creating a big amalgame of many things and however it’s o.k. to me.
    From the restaurant you visited to Moriyama there was a big gap and you covered it quite easily.
    Keep up the work – I may come back, maybe often.
    Love to you all.

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