To thank or not to thank

Like many photographers, I thought that world had moved on from preaching “thou shalt” stuff, but it seems that some never read the memo. Being somewhat busy with the competition launch, I’ve missed most of it but I’ve caught up a bit and read one blog that seems to have raised a few hackles. In short, we, as photographers should be “thanking” our influences.

Which ever way I look at it, when I see stuff being written that “we all imitate”, “everyone is influenced by other photographers” and we need to be thanking them,  I can’t help but think it says more about the photographer than the actual statements themselves. Disabling discussion, and selectively responding, disappointingly enforces that view.

But anyway, let’s examine this “we all imitate” and “we’re all influenced” malarkey.

It goes without saying that there is a great deal of imitation in the images we see online, and many photographers are influenced by other photographers, but to say everyone imitates and everyone is influenced is just wrong.  And even if those photographers do imitate, it can be part of a self learning process at the start of their journey, and there’s plenty evidence that it’s subconscious. It’s not a bad thing and no one should feel obliged to thank anyone else, but let me explain…

Imitation is something we do when we’re growing up as children for example,  or as adults when amongst friends. Scientifically speaking, it’s a form of communication called “mirroring” that we do subconsciously in order to be socially accepted, and it’s important to note that it’s subconsciously accepted, so we’re under no obligation to thank someone. For example, you wouldn’t go to a rugby match and be expected to thank the person next to you because you are wearing the same shirt. That would be daft.

Influence is something different. We’re all influenced by something, but not necessarily someone, and we are just as often influenced by need. For example, if you’ve ever bought anything, you’ve been influenced in some way to buy that thing, and often by an automatic need to do so. For example, buying water when you’re thirsty means you are infleunced by need to drink and you wouldn’t be expected to thank the water company. That would be daft.

When we take a photograph, we aren’t necessarily imitating another image, or are being influenced by someone famous, especially if we’ve never heard of that famous photographer. We may be just as equally and subconsciously be imitating the rule of thirds when we compose it for example, and we may be influenced by the light or our senses. Yet, it’s common to post an image on social media only for someone else to come along and compare it to someone famous and say it’s not very original. This might lead to the photographer feeling obliged to give credit, and looking around, this thanking stuff seems to be widely practised (and possibly expected) in landscape photography.  Indeed, just recently I was credited for something and it turns out that the photographer felt obliged to do do because of the same blog post.  It was very kind to say so, but I don’t expect or ask to be thanked if I’ve inspired anyone. I also don’t believe that we are all consciously imitating others images and by no means are we all influenced by someone famous.  We are just as equally imitating images subconsciously and being influenced by things rather than people.  Let me give you a couple of examples to illustrate this.

1. I am my own best example. I have absolutely no photographer influences* in my own photography but I’m by no means unusual or unique and there are many people just like me. In my case it’s very simple to explain. I started photography when I was young (14 to be precise) and I lived in a small village where the local newsagent didn’t stock photography magazines or books, so there simply were no photographers to influence me and no one to imitate. I just went out, took photos and taught myself, and if I liked something, I developed the idea and learnt further.  As I got older and went to University in 1987, I began to meet a few more photographers, but they didn’t influence me because there was no internet or social media to share images. But, in the grand scheme of things, landscape photography was for calendars and postcards, and certainly wasn’t “cool” like street photography was, so no landscape photographers came to my attention and I carried on as normal. It’s also worth noting that because there was no internet or social media names like Joe Cornish and Michael Kenna were virtually unheard of in my world.

(*My influences came from what I learned at University; specifically the work of D’ Arcy Thompson, a Scottish mathemetician/biologist and Benoit Mandelbrot who was famous for fractals. Neither of them were photographers but their work on fractals, ratios and growth patterns influenced me to capture photographs using their science – hence my passion for photographing trees.)

2. I have taught professionally, and as a result I meet a lot of photographers, either through teaching, running workshops, running groups or most recently through the competition. Of those I meet, a large number genuinely haven’t got a clue who the famous photographers are and can’t even name someone who infleunces them when asked. This is very common and as many educators will tell you, its quite normal for students to come to any class with no human influences on the subject they come to learn. Instead they are introduced to people through teaching and it’s up to that student whether or not to allow those people to influence their own work as they move forward. It’s a simple matter of education and there’s no obligation to thank people if they do.

So what about thanking others? Well, it’s name dropping in other words and I don’t see where the practice does much good – especially on social media. Perhaps I’m being overly negative, but it sticks in my mind that there’s pressure on photographers to name drop other photographers, even if they’ve subconsciously captured a similar view, otherwise they risk a backlash. One example of the name dropping thing is that credit can be given where it is not due, such as is the case of the “Joe Cornish Boulder“.  Like countless other photographers, it is an obvious foreground interest and I have composed boulders into my images long before I’d ever heard of Joe Cornish, so he had zero influence on me. Yet I have often been told that I was “copying” Joe Cornish’s style and should be crediting him as a result.  There’s other examples I can relate to from my own personal experience. Like podcasts and newspaper articles where I’ve been asked to name drop someone famous because it makes for a good article. I refused (obviously) but it makes me wonder why it’s so important to drop names none the less.

Whatever the reasons, it’s a personal choice whether to “thank” another photographer or not, but no one should feel obliged to do so, and we shouldn’t all be labeled as imitators. Be yourself and enjoy your photography as best you can. 🙂



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