Force Op, or The Herd Mentality

Photographers and tourists cluster together to make pictures in Arizona's Antelope Canyon in May, 2012.
Photographers and tourists cluster together to make pictures in Arizona’s Antelope Canyon in May, 2012.

In 2011, I decided to start using the term “Force Op,” which is short for something like “forced opportunity.” This is a situation in which photographers have gathered at an event or location and behave with a herd mentality. I run into this in my profession as a photojournalist: when I am on my own, I shoot the way I know I should shoot. When I am in a crowd of photographers, I can’t help but be influenced by what they are doing, even if it isn’t the best choice for expressing my photographic vision. As the years have passed, I have endeavored to preserve my style in the face of the Force Op. (I talked about this once before here.)

Photographers gather at sunset to photograph Horseshoe Bend south of Page, Arizona, May 2012.
Photographers gather at sunset to photograph Horseshoe Bend south of Page, Arizona, May 2012.

Nowhere is the herd mentality more prevalent than the internet. Years ago I signed up for an account on the web site photo.net, which in 2001 was already voluminously popular. It was so popular, in fact, that fellow photographers in my circle and I felt overwhelmed by its sheer size. I surfed and studied it for a while that year, and found that in addition to its huge user base, almost all of the posts were about equipment, not photography, and that the posts of actual images were showy, yet derivative, fine art pieces that, while often beautiful, got boring pretty fast.

Two and a half years ago I dug through my notes and found my login name and password, and logged in, hoping, at least somewhat naively, that the site had matured into something like a storytellers home, full of images that delivered the promise of a community of true image makers.

It was not to be. Photo.net is, to this day, like most of its internet brethren, a site full of a few artists, and a huge number of gear lovers and number crunchers. There are still, after 12 years, hundreds or even thousands of photographs of brick walls and chain link fences shot in an effort to prove something right or wrong about a certain piece of gear.

As I wrote this, I came across a great example, a thread in the forum called “180 prime: do you agree with this…” Its contents were as predictable as any post in 2001; commenters chiming in on test methods and sharpness figures and camera features and setting suggestions. It was one of photo.net’s “Today’s Most Active Threads,” a feature which is almost always littered with forum posts about the next big camera or the problem with some high-ISO noise settings or complaints about computers being too slow. I have yet to see a “most active” post with the word “light” in it.

My wife Abby and I always have the best time making pictures when we go off on our own and stay out of the picture-taking crowds.
My wife Abby and I always have the best time making pictures when we go off on our own and stay out of the picture-taking crowds.

And photo.net users live in a paradigm of ego that implies, and sometimes even insists, that old equipment is bad, and that you are not a good photographer unless you buy new stuff all the time. These are people who honestly believe that they are artists, but who are no more than technicians. They are quick to tell you that your camera is “obsolete” and that you need to “upgrade,” or that they want to “upgrade” a camera that is less than two years old, but despite the fact that they have $20,000 of photo equipment charged to their credit card, their images are as hackneyed and derivative as anyone else’s.

You can add your comment to the forum posts saying that the gear doesn’t matter, vision does, and the next comment or two will pay lip service to it, only to be buried by an avalanche of subsequent comments about autofocus systems or noise levels.

I even have a close friend who has done this to me in the past, presumably in an effort to feel better about his body of photographic knowledge; he looked at a copy of Ada Magazine (I am the editor), glanced at a photo briefly, and informed me that he could “see the stair-stepping in the edges of the image.” My readers never see the stair-stepping. They see the story, and are moved by it.

There is a web site I just discovered that I am hopeful will offer more than photo.net: 1x.com. It seems to be focused on the art, not the hardware, and the proprietors seem to want to keep it that way. I will keep an eye on it, but I won’t participate, at least not until I know its direction.

I try to remember that the internet is not, as a rule, a place for greatness, and that truly meaningful imaging, like truly meaningful art or music or love, comes from within a creative person.

Photographers at Arches National Park in Utah in April 2011: their postures and facial expressions are ruggedly serious and their cameras are all obediently trained on the iconic Delicate Arch. The light at the time, however, was the dullest and least inspirational I have ever seen at this location.
Photographers at Arches National Park in Utah in April 2011: their postures and facial expressions are ruggedly serious and their cameras are all obediently trained on the iconic Delicate Arch. The light at the time, however, was the dullest and least inspirational I have ever seen at this location.
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1 Comment

  1. Perhaps due to some long-forgotten influences in my early childhood, I’ve rarely fallen for the herd mentality thing. I’ve never wanted something just because others had it, and rarely done something just because others were doing it.

    In fact, I’ve often shied away from things that seem too popular.

    Fortunately, I think this eccentricity of mine has held true in my photography — I generally do what I want to do; sometimes it’s the same thing others are doing, but often it’s not.

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