Connecting With Our Audience

Living the life of an artist is truly one of the most vulnerable of vocations. It takes courage and fortitude to share oneself so personally, to risk rejection, or worse, indifference. Despite the romantic notion of the artist working in a vacuum, insulated from the outside world, the act of creation is not the only goal of the artist. Having an audience with whom to communicate and share our work, our ideas and emotions, is an integral part of the creative process.

It is an interesting and challenging paradox the artist faces, for while we work primarily for ourselves we must also have an awareness of our audience. But, why exactly? It is not that we are looking to them for recognition or approval, for that must come from within. We do this for ourselves and no other. I believe the need to connect with our audience arises from the reason(s) we are an artist. Personally speaking, it is my way of communicating my deepest thoughts and feelings, many of which I am not even aware of. They reside in my subconscious, drowned out by the minutiae of daily life and the mask we wear in front of others. My art allows these thoughts to come to the forefront, to be heard and recognized. I am communicating with my deeper self, but I am also looking to communicate with others. As David Ulrich states in his book, The Widening Stream: the Seven Stages of Creativity , “Sincere artists, when moved to convey their insights to others, continually question and explore whether their work communicates what they intend.”

How well we connect with our audience is a function of authenticity and how we present ourselves. We need to establish our identity, for that identity will lend a consistency of voice and authenticity to our work. This speaks to not just the work itself and the type of photos we produce, but also our behavior. Who will we be as an artist? How will we conduct ourselves? How will we connect with an audience? What approach will we take in marketing our work? It’s one thing if we are not relying on our art to make money; the stakes become much higher when photography is our profession. Our monetary success is tied strongly to the relationship we have with our audience. People will not plunk down their hard-earned money on a workshop with a photographer with whom they don’t identify and feel a strong bond. They will not buy a print from a photographer that has different sensibilities from their own.

Communication with an audience is one of the primary objectives of the artist. In a perfect world, our art alone would build the bridge between artist and audience. But, it is not that simple. Our vision, our voice, can be communicated in ways beyond our photographs. Exhibiting our work, our online presence, blogs, essays, all serve as vehicles for sharing not only our work but ourselves. Communicating our thoughts and feelings, in both our photos and our writings, allows people to more deeply identify with us, to see a reflection of themselves. They will most connect with someone who has similar sensibilities and philosophies, their way of seeing the world.

The topic of connecting with our audience has been at the forefront of my mind since a recent experience selling prints from my website. Over the course of a two-month sale that I ran during the holiday shopping season I sold exactly zero prints. I was somewhat disappointed, but not surprised. The number of prints I sell from my website annually can be counted on one hand. A hand without all its fingers even. Yes, that many. I realize of course that a photographer cannot rely on print sales alone for much of her/his income. These days people are more interested in learning how to make their own photos than purchase them, a consequence of the digital age. Still, I have to believe that my sales are on the low side. It’s a source of concern, not so much from a financial standpoint (though as a full-time artist I would certainly welcome more sales) as it is a question of how well I am connecting with my audience. Could the absence of sales reflect a lack of connection between myself and those who view my work?

Social Media and Marketing

Much has been written about the shortfalls of social media, but it does provide the most obvious opportunity to connect with and build an audience. It allows us the ability to share our work with a greater number of people at no cost. I would love to do more exhibits, but it is simply cost-prohibitive. The challenge with social media is to have our true self shine through in our posts. How we present our work and what we say about it provides our audience with insight into who we are and what makes us tick, all information that is vital in establishing that connection. For some people it is almost second nature when it comes to building relationships, for others it can be much more difficult. The former may be more open and willing to share about their life, the latter is more cautious and protective. Perhaps it’s a question of introvert versus extrovert, though I hesitate to reduce it to something so simple.

Making a living as an artist brings with it a host of concerns and challenges, chief among them the need to make money. We have to decide how we will market ourselves and our work. Marketing is often regarded as the bane of every artist, usually seen as a necessary evil. However, it doesn’t need to be that way. The key is to develop an approach that is true to who you are and reflects your personality, much like your imagery. It’s a fine line between self-promotion and peddling consumer goods. Early on I decided I would take a low-key approach to marketing. It’s in line with my personality and photos. I don’t list my website on each social media post. I no longer ask people to like, share, or comment. I want my audience to feel inspired to do so and not do it because I ask. I prefer my website to resemble an online portfolio rather than a “storefront”. But, what if a low-key approach, authentic as it may be, is preventing me from connecting with a larger audience? Would a more effervescent approach and marketing-driven strategy spur more sales? And if so, do I change who I am, even a little bit? There is being true to one’s self, then there is being stubborn. I had a conversation recently with a friend and fellow photographer who expressed the same concern, worrying that if she was to actively promote herself more she would wind up feeling sleazy, as if she was prostituting herself. It’s not a question of right and wrong, only what is right for you. What feels like prostitution to one person is savvy marketing to another.

Promoting myself and my art is something with which I have never been entirely comfortable. I place a high premium on humility and modesty. That is not meant to sound superior, it is simply who I am. I fear coming across as a narcissist; look at me! I limit my posts to no more than two a week. When a particular honor is bestowed upon me or an achievement is reached I mention it grudgingly and in the most modest way possible. The only reason I mention them at all is out of a need to establish myself as a “professional” so that other photographers or enthusiasts feel they can learn from me and sign up for a workshop. It gives me the credibility I need to make a living as an artist. The pats on the back are nice, but not required.

I am not loud, not in the types of images I produce, nor in the way I promote them. While it is true that “a good photograph should be able to stand on its own”, its power and impact on the viewer can be greatly enhanced through the written word. Imagery and text can be used to communicate different things, and when done well the end result is a whole that is greater than its parts. I like to include thoughtful and reflective captions when posting a photo online that often have little or nothing to do with the image itself, at least not in any obvious way. A fellow photographer calls it “talking around” the photo rather than about it. Why describe what is already obvious? I believe a little mystery is a good thing. In music, I’ve always been drawn to songs with lyrics that are ambiguous if not impenetrable. Obvious is boring. It’s the same with photography. When I look at another photographer’s photo I would rather not know the complete story behind it. Where it is from, what she went through to get it, what she was thinking at the time, what the meaning behind it is. I wish to be left to wonder, to have to deduce and be given to thought, to not have everything spelled out for me. But, is maintaining that air of mystery and not being overtly obvious akin to building a wall around myself? I fear I am making myself less approachable.

I avoid trends in photography, whether it is a particular technique, subject matter, or visual effect. When I see a trend my natural instinct is to veer left when everyone else goes right. It is a streak of the contrarian within me. Once ICM started being employed as a stylistic tool it quickly became ubiquitous, causing me to abstain from doing it myself for that very reason. In response, I want to make images with even greater detail and sharpness, if that’s even possible. The same goes for trends on social media, whether it’s a year-end “Best of” collection, or “Waterfall Wednesday”, or what have you. But, am I not being as relatable because I don’t jump on the bandwagon? Am I robbing myself of an opportunity to share something of myself with my audience in a fun and social way?

Instructing

Establishing a relationship with our audience goes beyond social media. Like most landscape photographers these days, the bulk of my income is from education, in particular leading workshops. One decision I needed to make at the outset regarded my identity as an instructor. What is it I have to offer as an educator/workshop instructor that sets me apart? I have often heard that to make a living as a landscape photographer we must find our niche’. Fair enough. It becomes a question of where our areas of expertise and interests lie. Am I to become proficient in some processing techniques or another technological aspect that I can share with other photographers? Luminosity masking, astrophotography, time-lapse photography, all are examples of very popular and technique-oriented workshop topics. However, my interests lie more on the creative side of photography, an area where there is no recipe, no blueprint on how to achieve a desired outcome or product. That makes it more difficult to sell because it requires more work. There are no guarantees. With time and practice, anyone can learn the craft. Learning to make creative, personally expressive photos is much more challenging. Also, not everyone is interested in becoming the next Edward Weston or Minor White. There is more interest in improving one’s photography through craft than through creative vision. The audience of photographers looking to make more creative and personally expressive photos is not as large as those who are more concerned with craft.

Returning to the topic of my recent web sale, I realize that the lack of audience connection is but one of several possible explanations for the paltry results. Maybe I haven’t made it easy enough to purchase through my website. Perhaps my prices are too high. Or, the very real possibility exists that I’m just a lousy artist. I don’t think any of these are true (certainly not the latter, I hope). It may very well have to do with the degree of subjectivity of my images. Perhaps more conventionally “pretty” photos would make more desirable wall decor. Although, I don’t believe my photos are esoteric or subjective enough to preclude higher sales. The truth is I may never know. It is also something I cannot worry about. No doubt there is someone reading this that has suggestions on how I can increase my sales. I am all ears. However, the connection I seek with my audience goes well beyond marketing. I wish to relate to my audience on a much deeper, emotional level. My hope is that through my work they can learn something about the world around them, even something about themselves they never before realized. If people can relate to me and my work in that way then I can ask for little more.

Likes and followers are not rewards worth attaining. Produce honest, quality work that is a true expression and reflection of you as an individual and the rewards will be far greater. Let your true identity as an artist come through in everything you do. The more personal and more subjective your work is, the smaller your audience may be, but it will be more fervent. Be authentic and you will find your audience. More to the point, they will find you.

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Hi Chris,

This is an introspective essay which I find intellectually inviting because of the questions you ask yourself.

These are not uncommon questions. What is uncommon is that you take them to a higher level of concern than most.

What is also interesting is that you have already received answers to many of these, answers which have proved unsatisfying to you so far, Not all answers come up right away. Some take longer than others.

Some answers are also surprising, taking us in unexpected directions. Most businesses depart from their original ‘business plan’ or their ‘original idea’ I know I did. Furthermore, I continue doing so.

Success hides in unexpected places. Finding them requires astuteness and open mindedness. It also requires critical thinking, which you have. The questions you ask demonstrate it.

Hi Alain,

Thank you for taking the time to read the article and for your thoughtful insights, I appreciate it. For certain I overthink some of this stuff and self-doubt is something of which I have never been in short supply. Your point about remaining astute and open to ideas is well received. I do not yet have all the answers and I suspect I never will. But, there is no rush and I believe as long as I remain honest and authentic the path for me will become clear.

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Chris, As I read your thorough and honest essay on presenting photography as a professional, I recall your recent webinar on the “Subjective Landscape” and thank you for it and this fine article. The question arises: What is a professional photographer? One who gets paid, not by your or my definition, but it is a definition for many. Your terrific intimate landscapes are a lesson in seeing and presenting images. I thank you for your work on this. It could be a book, eh?

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Chris-
I echo your words- I think we need to follow our hearts and eyes to shoot things we are drawn to school. Unfortunately I have learned to make a living at this one needs to compromise- Teaching the art is very difficult- teaching how the camera works and processing is also pretty easy if one is so inclined. Boring.
I have had a couple groups that I put together for a small monthly fee and an assignment each month but neither group survived past 6 months although we had some enthusiastic members but after a while they move on. In one group they wanted to sell their photos not work assignments. I gave in and we all entered in the Twin Cities Art Crawl- showing our art in one location.Prints, fretting cards etc- I have one print that is fairly popular based on having sold several and in the process of a couple more sales currently that the group was very critical of. Haha. It was the only print that sold out of 9 artists. Not bragging. Simply observing. I also collaborate with several professional photos and go on workshops with one in particular. We shoot- discuss bit do not review each others work.
After about a 8 photo trips I think about half are just there to travel and not particularly interested in the photography aspect (my wife is one or those when she joins us).

Obviously the iPhone disrupted the camera business and the general photography industry-

Those who have passion for the process and see light and possibilities will endure and do great work regardless of what they choose to focus (sic) on.

I look at a look of work and read about others and how they perceive and do the work. Constant learning.

I submit to some calls for entry and get selected some but mostly not- I am always a bit perplexed by many of the images that get selected. Many are not very strong in my opinion but ……. My opinion doest count

I get your angst about likes etc. They sort of feel good but rarely lead to engagement - I am currently re launching my website with an offer for a free print and 20% off anything on my site- I thought I would try the marketing side for a while because I know it does work. But not sure I want to give talks to camera clubs (even if I were invited!). the platform I am using is Art Store Fronts. They have a marketing and support system that if you follow it you should be able to generate sales. Check it out.

All-that said- I do like the images below-

I am heading to the BWCA tomorrow and hopefully will get some good images- or eaten completely by the bugs!

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

F8. Be There

Hal Tearse

Hey Chris–

Really nice article, thanks for sharing your thoughts! Appreciate your candor and transparency. Comes through in your writing and your photography. Enjoyed checking out your images and posts on your web site.

If you travel down to the southern end of the Appalachians, let me know, tons of places here that remain off the beaten path…!

Keep up the great work!

Cheers–

Dusty

Chris, this is a wonderful article! It inspires me to consider the reason for each photograph and share it with the “audience”. Sometimes articulating that is difficult - sometimes it is not very deep and yet sometimes it is hard to know beyond explaining. But seeking to understand may lead my photography into an expression that can could be described as art - before I click the shutter. Thank you for sharing this.

Hi Larry,

Thank you for the kind words, I’m happy you found both the article and webinar talk useful. These days I refrain from using the terms professional or amateur and prefer instead full-time to describe someone who makes a living at photography. There are “amateurs” out there who are better photographers than “pros”. Anyway, I very much appreciate your compliments on my work. A book, now that would be something! Wishing you all the best.

Hi Hal,

Thank you for taking the time to leave such thoughtful comments. The path of a full-time photographer (or any artist for that matter) is not an easy one, but the rewards outweigh the challenges. I do respectfully disagree that one needs to compromise in order to make a living at this, I think the key is to have realistic expectations. I don’t photograph majestic locations in magical light so my audience won’t be as big. If I can make enough money simply to sustain this lifestyle then that is all I can ask for. Everyone’s situation is different, though, and I am fortunate that my wife has the stable job. Yes, as you mention teaching the art is a difficult task, certainly more so than technique. But, it can be done and if I find just enough audience who will listen then I have made it.

Enjoy your time in the BCWA, that’s an area I have always wanted to visit. Beware the bugs, bring lots of spray!

All the best,
Chris

Hi Dusty,

Thank you, I’m happy you enjoyed it. Writing for me is a way of working through things and I think that comes through. I don’t have all the answers and I don’t pretend that I do. Where is the southern Appalachians are you? I lived in South Carolina for several years.

Thank you again,
Chris

Hi Greg,

Thank you for the compliment, it’s always very rewarding to hear that you’ve inspired someone. I agree, I have found that it is often difficult to articulate the meaning behind the image. Personally, it is something I don’t concern myself with at the time of capture. The less thinking at that time the better. Let instinct and emotion take over and guide you. Meaning often reveals itself after, either to me or the viewer.

Best wishes,
Chris

Hey Chris–

Yeah, am based here in Nashville and spend a fair bit of time in the Smokies and surrounding mountains. Also a ton of cool places along the Cumberland Plateau–between here and the Smokies. Do love the Carolinas and Georgia, tons to photographer there.

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Great articular. A lot to think about. Thank you.

Thank you, Andy, I appreciate it.

I loved this final words, you wrote a really nice article here, very motivating. I am writing from Chile, I would love to translate this quote and use it to write something about it , giving you the credit and referencing the article of course, is it posiible? Cheers and great work man!!!

Hi Andres,

Thank you for the kind words, I’m happy you enjoyed the article. By all means, feel free to quote whichever part you like. Saw your work on Instagram, very nice!

Kindly,
Chris

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