Regardless of audience, quality counts

Director and photographer Rankin believes that digital collaboration aids inclusivity, leading to great artworks where communities can self-sustain and create within digital spaces.

I’ve been communicating with people using images – still, moving, you name it – for 30-odd years now.  Nothing has changed the way I work and the way I approach my work quite like digital and the web.

What barriers?

So much of the change has been positive and has helped utterly transform art and communications for so many. I love the fact that there’s an immediacy with creating work. I love the fact that the barriers to entry have fallen for anyone to create for anyone else, that there is a cost factor that makes it cheaper – the entry level cost of photography now is £150 an hour; it used to probably be like £5,000 to £10,000 when I was starting out as a photographer.

Back then, it was more expensive to actually take pictures – to make anything, really – so it was more of a closed shop. Now, anyone has access to the means of (artistic) production, and anyone can use tools and platforms to find an audience for their work. Warhol famously said that in the future, we would all be famous for 15 minutes; in 1992, Nick Currie wrote that Warhol was wrong, and instead we would all be famous for 15 people. That’s what digital and the web have wrought – a world in which anyone can create, anyone can find an audience, in which anyone can join a global conversation about their passions and the art, the subjects, the work that they care about.

I have always loved the inclusivity of digital.  I am very much a believer that you collaborate with people to make great portraits or great advertising or even great artwork.  There is an element of collaboration and I really, personally, love that way of being able to show people work and ideas and themes and be inclusive about it. This is at the heart of everything that is best about digital, for artists, institutions, brands and everyone else – that utopian idea of the web uniting the world around our shared interests and passions, and the way in which we can build communities that collaborate and self-sustain and create within these digital spaces. I enjoy the process of putting work out there.  I love the way that you can put something out and have an immediate response.  It doesn’t need a magazine or a media owner, it can be direct to people that like your work, whether through established communities or targeted paid promotion.

The opportunities, as we’re always told, are endless. There are no barriers any more.

This means freedom!

It also means there is a lot of crap.  A lot of crap.

I still feel to a large extent that we’re toddlers in this world, that we are still trying to work out how to have respect for the medium or how to have respect for the platforms and how to use them, how to get better at them…and we are making mistakes.

I think there are some important things that we should all remember when using digital technologies to communicate – whether as artists or institutions, or even in our personal lives.

Who are you doing this for? Who are you speaking to? Unless you know what the point of being on Twitter or Instagram is, it’s pointless – and all you’re doing is spending your time and money producing content for a machine. If your reason for ‘doing’ social media is ‘engagement’, you should probably stop. What does engagement even mean? If I kiss you, that’s an ‘engagement’; if I spit on you, that’s an engagement too.

Think smarter

We all need to think smarter about why we’re on these platforms and who we’re talking to and what we want these people to do – without that, we might be having fun but we certainly won’t be achieving anything worthwhile.

John Rankin, photographer

What are you making? What are you putting out on these platforms? How’s it speaking to your audiences and your aims. One of the great side effects of this democratised access to creative is that there’s so much more stuff out there; the other great side effect is that there’s so much more rubbish. I’m not suggesting you need a studio shoot for every photo, or to hire an army of copywriters for each Tweet – but just because it’s quick and ‘free’ to use these platforms doesn’t mean you shouldn’t produce stuff that’s good. I don’t think there’s anyone who’d disagree with the statement “there’s too much crap on the internet”; let’s not add to the digital landfill.

Good doesn’t have to mean ‘shiny’ or ‘expensive’ – it just has to mean ‘interesting or useful or helpful or inspiring or thought-provoking or fun for the people I want to talk to’. That’s it. But if you look at what you’re producing and it doesn’t tick any of those boxes then, well, perhaps you should stop. And if you don’t know what ‘good’ looks like, you should definitely stop.

Just because you can doesn’t mean that you should.

Ultimately, whether for individuals, artists, institutions or whoever, it’s crucial to realise that there are an awful lot of negative aspects to social media, and these are negatively impacting the way we all use it. It’s not about millions of followers – it’s about being able to speak to the people that matter to you about the things that matter to them, in a way that is meaningful and which helps everyone involved get something out of it, not about ticking a box on an Arts Council funding form. Yes, fine, it might also be about selling tickets – but it’s not about ticking some arbitrary box of ‘6 Stories, 14 tweets and 3 FB posts a week’. Or at least it shouldn’t be if you’re doing it properly.

John Rankin Waddell, known under his working name Rankin, is a British portrait and fashion photographer and director. He has taken photographs of many famous people and has shot campaigns for well-known brands like Coca Cola, Levi’s, BMW, Hugo Boss, Nike and many others. Rankin founded Dazed and Confused magazine along with Jefferson Hack and was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by The Royal Photographic Society in 2002.

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