John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche
Photography is changing rapidly. New equipment, software, and online resources pop up before our eyes every day. What is new and exciting now may very well be humdrum or outdated in a year. We are forced to keep up. Sooner or later we must make what I will call “media transitions.”
Here I use the term “media” in a broad sense. I’m referring to any resource we use for photography, whether it’s a camera, image editing software, website, online group, or anything else that creates a sophisticated environment into which we immerse ourselves and ideally master. In a media transition we move from a familiar environment to another one that’s new to us. Sometimes the change might be small, as in updating from a past version of a program to the most recent one. Sometimes the shift is large, as in purchasing an entirely different camera or image editing program, or venturing into a complex online photography community where you’ve never been before.
In this article I would like to explore the psychology of these media transitions. What motivates us to try something different? What thoughts, emotions, and behaviors come to play as we move from the old, familiar environment to a new one? What determines success or failure in making the change?
Living in the land of errors
A piano teacher I know once summarized what it was like for him taking lessons as a child: "It was like I was living in the land of errors." Photography can be like that too. After all, do you ever go one day without something - big or small - going wrong with your equipment, software, or how you used them? Maybe the error is a failure to communicate between you and the machine. Maybe something goes wrong because you haven’t figured out how the machine works. Perhaps the machine is not making itself clear about what to do. Or you’re just not paying attention. Sometimes the responsibility for the problem rests definitively on the shoulders of the machine. It’s design or instructions are inadequate. Things just don’t work as well as they could.
So how do we react to living in the land of errors? Here are some possibilities:
- We get annoyed with and blame the tool, like it's some kind of stupid person or unruly child.
- We get annoyed with and blame ourselves, perhaps thinking that we are inadequate to the challenge, or just plain dumb.
- We devote some time to trying to solve the problem, then give up if we can't.
- We work around the problem, perhaps in a way that's less efficient, maybe even forgetting that there was a problem (a kind of denial).
- We call tech support.
- We refuse to accept errors and compulsively try to make our tools "perfect.”
- To avoid more errors, we don't try something new.
In this list, we see some of the psychological factors that motivate us to avoid or make a media transition. On the one hand, you may choose the path of work-around solutions, which sometimes gives “character” to the machine as your quirky but familiar companion. You’re the only one who knows its unique pattern of flaws and how to navigate around them. On the other hand, living in the land of errors can become too frustrating. It may even threaten your ability to do photography well, or as well as you’d like. A change is necessary, sometimes a big change.
MTM: Media Transition Motivation
"Motivation" comes from the Latin "motus," meaning "to move." Something moves us from our old photography environments into new ones. Something internal pushes us into trying out new equipment and software despite any trepidations that might stand in the way. What creates that motivation? As we just discovered, malfunctions incite that desire to move on, but there are other possibilities as well. Let’s take a closer look at some of these reasons why we undertake media transitions:
Necessity: It's the mother of invention as well as media transitions. Our familiar programs, workspaces, tools, and onlinbe environments feel a bit tired and outdated. They don't work as well as they used to, or we become painfully aware of how we could be doing a lot more than what the status quo allows us. In this age of information and enhanced communication, if others are gathering resources and sharing in ways that we can't, we may find ourselves woefully behind the curve and out of the loop. If you’re camera can’t focus any where as fast as the new ones, or your antiquated version of Photoshop doesn’t include layers, you feel very motivated to upgrade. Sometimes you just have to move up.
Pride: Being behind the curve is not exactly a prestigious position, especially for those who consider themselves sophisticated digital photographers. Maintaining one's self-esteem requires that push into the next new thing that everyone is talking about, or perhaps even beyond them and into the leading edge of the curve. You might not a professional photographer, but the newest and highest level camera will help you feel like one.
Competition: Not far from pride is the need to be at least one step ahead of the others. Bigger, faster, more powerful, unique. The shine of those winning medals can be irresistible, especially in a culture that idealizes both technology and competition.
Mastery: Even setting aside the pride that might accompany one's accomplishments, people sometimes push forward into a new photography challenges simply because it's a challenge. The competitive perks may be irrelevant. It's the sense of mastering a new area of photography that motivates you.
Perfectionism: Some of us might expect or hope that our machines will be flawless, that because we have control over them we can create a place where everything is just right. But as we all know, nothing is perfect. Perhaps our photography tools are doing us a favor by reminding us that we always will be living in a land of errors, no matter how many media transitions we make. The alternative is a kind of compulsive perfectionism in which a person never feels satisfied. In a restless pursuit of the utopian workstation, the person continually upgrades to new equipment and programs because in their minds “new” means “better.” The grass always seems greener on that newer and supposedly bigger and better side.
Adventure: Some people shy away from the unknown, while others seek it out. There are sensation-seekers who repel down cliffs and jump from airplanes. They are the people who want to go where no one has gone before. It's a photography rush and a pioneering spirit.
The Carrot: At the end of the struggle, there's a specific reward. Your own blog. A new type of image that you could never create before. Psychologists call it a "reinforcement." People will work long and hard for a big reinforcement, though usually there are small ones along the way, especially those step-by-step moments when you feel you’ve mastered a new skill.
Magic and delight: You can spot photography geeks by their wide-eyed wonder when they see something they haven’t seen before. Humans have a primeval fascination for anything that looks like magic. When we see cameras, software, and online environments doing something marvelously new, or that we hadn’t believed possible, we can’t help but feel delight. We want to participate in and understand that magic. We want to go there.
This list of motivations can be organized according to Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs. At the bottom, we have those basic needs to resolve the practical problems of everyday photography work, which means we have to communicate in order to acquire resources. At intermediate levels, we establish social bonds, share experiences, and feel like we belong to the world of photography. At the highest levels, as we pass through stages of mastery and self-esteem, we enter new photography environments as a way to self-actualize, to creatively express ourselves... and figure out who we are.
MTA: Media Transition Anxiety
Given all these factors that contribute to Media Transition Motivation, we would expect that photographers continually and without hesitation move from one piece of equipment, computer program, or online environment to another. This, however, is not the case. Another force counterbalances that motivation to change, a force that slows down or even stops a transition dead in its tracks.
I’ll call that force “media transition anxiety.” It is any fear, big or small, about making any change, big or small, to a new photography environment. The magnitude of that anxiety will vary depending on one’s personality, as well as the magnitude and type of change required. Some people might even cover up this anxiety with rationalizations in order to convince themselves that their photography lifestyle is fine as is. Here are some factors that might contribute to MTA:
Burn out: When making a media transition, we must devote time and energy to adapting to the new environment. If the learning curve is optimum, we experience the change as exciting. Beyond that optimum level the experience becomes stressful. We’re trying to take on too much. Although many people in western culture pride themselves on their busy lifestyle and multitasking abilities, technology changes so fast that it is impossible to keep up with every new invention. It’s impossible even to keep up with the things you want to keep up with. There are a limited number of changes one can make. Trying to tackle too many media transitions, or ones that are just too demanding, creates cognitive overload and burnout. It’s like trying to catch several rabbits at the same time, or trying to climb Mount Everest. Sensing this impending overload, people avoid making a change. Just the thought of adding yet another computer task can stimulate Media Transition Anxiety.
Fear of incompetence and failure: Media transitions pose challenges at which we might not succeed. No one likes to feel like a failure. No one likes to feel foolish or stupid. When moving to new media, we become a rather incompetent novice again, a newbie, which is hard for some people, especially in social environments where the person is concerned about his/her reputation. People may wish to remain in an old environment that they have mastered rather than transition to a new one where they lose those feelings of prestige and mastery. Some computer-savvy people, who take pride in their skills, might find the newbie role especially difficult to handle emotionally.
Fear of the unknown: A big transition requires entering an environment that is totally new and unfamiliar to the person. Humans often respond with anxiety to the unknown. You don’t know where you are. You don’t know what to do. You can’t figure things out. The resulting anxiety might be especially intense in new online social environments where you will interact with other photographers. In addition to the anxiety of figuring out how the software works, one must also figure out how the social system works and how to behave appropriately within it. Culture shock is not uncommon. In your old and familiar social milieu, you are used to a certain style of presenting yourself. Moving to a new environment requires reestablishing your social identity and renegotiating how you wish to be seen by others. What do you want to reveal or not reveal? Those decisions and that process can be anxiety-inducing, especially when others don’t react to you the way you wish or the way to which you are accustomed.
Fear of rejection: It’s possible that some people in an in-person or online photography group will rebuff you when you first appear. Or they ignore you, which is a particularly insidious type of rejection. Sensing this possibility – especially for people who are sensitive to rejection – a person might avoid joining a new photography group.
Ignorance: That’s a strong term, but in some cases simple ignorance does prevent us from trying something new. We just don't understand what we're missing out on. We don't get it. That may be a lack of imagination and curiosity on our part, or we just don't want to understand, in which case we're probably suffering from unconscious MTA and one or more of the issues listed above. No matter how simple or useful the new equipment or program might be, we avoid it simply because we don’t understand it, don’t think we’ll understand it, or don’t want to understand it. Content with what we already have, we avoid trying anything new just because it’s new and different. Some old school photographers even harbor irrational anxiety about the computer simply because it’s a “computer” – that complex machine which only smart or misguided people use. Clinging to their old beliefs, they insist that only film photography is real photography, or that post-processing is only for people who don’t know how to take a good shot. Of course, this is ignorance.
Fear of problems: Unfortunately, media transitions do not always proceed smoothly. If you upgrade in order to solve a problem in your previous environment, sometimes that problem is solved, sometimes not, and sometimes new, even bigger problems surface. Trying to make things a little better can make things a lot worse. The philosophy “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” has some validity. If you’re working on a deadline, you may not want to take the risk of sabotaging your progress by trying out something entirely new. There also is the fear – sometimes irrational, but not always – that if you try new software, or a new computer, a catastrophe might ensue. Your computer will crash and burn. You could lose files. You could lose everything. Our trepidations about the machine going awry boils down to two fundamental anxieties. First, there is separation anxiety: the anxiety about being disconnected from your photography work and your fellow photographers. Then there’s anxiety about loss: the loss of precious work as well as the self-esteem, self-confidence, and personal identity that we associate with it.
MMS: Media Mental Set
In psychology "mental set" refers to a fixed pattern of thinking that fails to take into consideration new information or perspectives. For example, the early astronomers tried to calculate the precise movement of planets based on their assumption that all heavenly bodies revolved around the earth. They were caught in a mental set that led to strange conclusions about the shape of planetary orbits because they failed to see the truth: all the planets revolve around the sun.
Extending that concept, I'm proposing the idea of Media Mental Set - i.e., how people's thinking can get stuck within a particular shooting, post-processing, or communication environment.. They approach photography strictly in terms of that particular environment, while failing to see alternative experiences and solutions. Their thinking gets mentally stuck within that media. For example, a person gets so used to thinking of a computer as a tool for storing, editing, and printing images that he fails to see its power as a way to share photography with other people. Or a person is so invested in expensive digital SLRs that she completely overlooks the advantages offered by portable, communication-empowered camera phones.
Sometimes the “ignorance” factor I mentioned earlier contributes to MMS. People can’t or just don’t want to understand the new technology. It’s seems too different, irrelevant, or difficult. They think it’s not as good as what they’re used to. They don’t know what to make of it. The new media challenges the underlying assumptions that they have totally taken for granted. This was the challenged faced by some film photographers who could not or would not adapt to digital photography when it arrived on the scene.
MMS is determined by attitudes and personality style, and not simply by limitations in intellectual or critical thinking abilities. It's interesting how even some intelligent people who are quite knowledgeable can still get locked into a mental set about the type of media they prefer. They tend to idealize it. Their self-esteem and identity is invested in it. They harbor nostalgic feelings and memories about it. They feel the need to protect those feelings, memories, and identity, which can lead to an intellectual defense of their media that can sometimes look like fierce territorial behavior. They might also be experiencing some media transition anxiety.
Media mental set can become a norm for a whole group of people. The group shapes its identity around that media and their collective mental set about it. Have you ever seen an online photography group devoted to a particular type of photography who absolutely insist that what they are doing is “real” photography, while everything else falls short of their standards?
Sometimes we convince ourselves that we are happy where we are. We believe we don’t really need to try anything new. It’s not worth the time and effort. We think our photography lifestyle is going fine right now, so why change.
Psychologists would point to such defensive thinking as examples of “rationalizations.” Or they might be attempts to manage cognitive dissonance. Many people might find it contradictory and illogical to say, “This new thing is wonderful and I’m not doing it.” Instead, in order to maintain what appears to be a reasonable concordance in their beliefs, they find fault with the new thing they are unable our unwilling to try, for whatever reason.
It’s important to avoid pathologizing Media Mental Set. As Piaget clearly demonstrated, there is a natural human tendency to see things in terms of what we already know according to the familiar cognitive templates that make our lives predictable and manageable. We tend to overlook or minimize unfamiliar things. Ideally, we learn how to balance our familiar and useful mental maps with the ability to challenge and modify them according to alternative ways of thinking.
Suggestions for Making Media Transitions
Every photography goes through an adaptation period when entering new media. That adaptation period will be longer and more challenging when making a transition to a very different environment. New social environments may pose special challenges. Here are some suggestions to keep in mind.
Investigate: Keep an open mind about new cameras, software, hardware, and and online photography resources. Read and talk about it with experienced users before trying it out yourself.
Minimize cost, maximize benefit: Big changes are more risky than small changes, especially in times of crisis. If there’s no particular stresses that are already sucking up your time and energy, a big transition might be worth a try.
Expect a learning curve: Even when making small changes, there will be things to learn. Read the FAQs and manual. Talk to people. You may need to develop new perceptual, motor, and problem-solving skills when working in the new medium. If it’s a social environment where you’ve never been before, you might even need to develop different interpersonal skills. In a new online photography group, you must master the software first before you can tune in to the people and norms of the group.
Accept confusion: In the period of adapting to new media, it’s quite normal to feel confused and frustrated. Don’t assume you will be able to figure everything out quickly. Investigate menus. Click on some buttons. Take baby-steps. Something might confuse you today, but you very well might figure it out tomorrow. If you understand quickly everything about the new environment, then it’s probably not a very comprehensive environment. Also accept the fact that no program or piece of equipment is perfect. Even excellent media have some design flaws. Sometimes your confusion and frustration is justified.
Be aware of mental sets: Your mental set from using familiar media might prevent you from clearly seeing the resources in new ones. Don’t automatically assume that the software, equipment, or group can’t do what you want it to. Avoid thinking “This is different and that makes it no good!”
Observe, then participate: In a new photography group, observe how people behave before you jump in to participate. First to understand their norms and culture. What is considered acceptable and unacceptable behavior?
Embrace the newbie role: It’s OK to be a newbie. Ask for help. Don’t pretend to possess knowledge that you don’t have. Listen to people who are familiar with the media. If it’s a social setting where old-timers aren’t interested in helping a newbie – or especially if they are unwelcoming to newbies - then it might not be a place where you want to stay.
Decide if it’s for you, or not: Different types of media in photography abound. Some are perfect for you, some aren’t. Everyone has his or her own unique set of cognitive, perceptual, and social skills. Everyone has unique interests. Decide when it’s a good idea to stretch your skills and interests into new territory, and when a certain environment simply does not match your skills or interests.
Understanding the Behaviors of Tech Support
Dealing with tech support is an unavoidable part of a photographer’s lifestyle, especially when making media transitions. In the list of suggestions above, we should include: “Accept the fact that you won’t be able to solve some problems on your own. You might have to call tech support.” To minimize the unpleasant aspects of doing so, it helps to understand some of the ways tech support people behave. As helpers, they face challenges similar in many respects to the psychotherapist. Here are some of the challenges I have noticed:
Dealing with emotional people: People who call tech support often are frustrated, confused, overwhelmed, and sometimes desperate and angry. They might even show transference reactions to the tech support person - emotional reactions that stemming from other relationships in their lives. Some tech supporters are patient in the face of these emotions. Others lose their composure. They respond with impatience or poorly suppressed anger. They might be struggling with their own life stress and personality problems.
Assessing the client's knowledge: If you're going to help a person with a problem, it's a good idea to get a sense of how much the person knows about it. Some tech support people catch on quickly to the fact that the client is savvy. They are willing to work together in solving the problem. Others seem oblivious to the client's knowledge. They continue talking in a rather pedantic way, even when the client tries to prove that he/she is not a total newbie.
The tech talk ratio: Once the client's knowledge level is assessed, the tech supporter should, ideally, talk at a level of technical sophistication that matches the level of the client, or maybe slightly surpasses it, which gives the client an opportunity to learn something new. So a 1:1 or slightly higher ratio of expert-to-client technical discourse is good. A low ratio means talking to clients in overly simplistic terms, as if they are stupid or children. No adult likes to be treated like that. A high ratio means talking over the person's head, which may impress some people, but few people like that either. They may feel overwhelmed and inadequate, or that they should just give up in tackling a media transition that seems too complex.
Rote responding: I'm sure tech support people deal with many of the same issues over and over again, so there's a tendency to fall into rote patterns of responding to clients. Their instructions and speech patterns become robotic. Unfortunately, there's a danger that they might be thinking in a mental set and not actually hearing what the client is saying, They hear and respond to what they expect the person to be saying.
Showing optimism and enthusiasm: People with problems like to know that there's a light at the end of the tunnel. A good tech supporter shows some optimism. It doesn't happen often, but once in a while the support person gets excited talking about computers, usually in response to a question they find interesting, or in reaction to a client who seems to understand something about photography software and equipment. Photographers who are frustrated and disappointed with their media usually want to regain the enthusiasm that they might have lost.
Speculation: One tech support person told me that "I'm not supposed to speculate." I guess they don't want to mislead people. And yet, they often seem to speculate about the cause of a problem. That could be a good thing, as long as the client doesn't get confused or makes bad decisions based on the speculation.
Acknowledging one's limitations: We might want to idealize tech support staff, hoping and praying that they have the solution to our problem. But let's face it: no one knows everything about photography. Perhaps in some cases the tech supporter needs to appear like the omniscience healer of all ailments, but most of the time it's probably better to admit when they don't know something - that when they have to put you on hold it's because they're consulting their supervisor or documentation. When I asked one worker at Apple exactly what "file permissions" were, he replied honestly, "You're asking something that goes over my head"... and then he proceeded to describe to me what he did know about the topic, which went over my head. I appreciated and respected him for that.