Thursday, May 21, 2009

Lurker no more: coming out, narcissism and the hunger for validation

For a long time I stood on the side porch, camera in hand, waiting for the quail to show. The morning was unseasonably crisp and damp, heavy dew refracting the early sunlight into a clear cerulean sky like a thousand glittering shards of glass. A slight tremor shivered through me as my toes passed from mild discomfort to outright numbness, and still there was only the back-and-forth whistling between our disparate species. From near the silent railroad tracks rose a wild jabbering of turkeys, followed by the phlegmy cough of a pheasant. I whistled again, one low note followed by a high note, with an immediate reply that sounded very close. How close, though, and from what direction, were pieces of the puzzle my fading hearing could not decipher. After a few more minutes of this I wiggled my toes to a painful resurrection and disappeared into the house.

Mornings are my favorite time to write, but lately I’ve been squandering my time in the vain attempt to photograph the bobwhites in our thicket and the young rabbits by the brush pile. Both are remarkably skittish and secretive, and for good reason. When a substantial number of your neighbors want nothing more than to eat you, it’s best to keep your head down and your senses alert. The young rabbits allow me the porch but one foot on the stairs sends them running for cover. The bobwhites are vocal but rarely seen, though one foggy dawn I counted thirteen of them solemnly wending their way in single file through the oats. Yesterday one lone quail perched atop Mr. Bun’s cairn and whistled its heart out, but when I retrieved the camera it scurried off as if it didn’t want its picture taken. For a moment I felt unclean, like a scuzzy paparazzi.

I’ve also been spending too much time checking my e-mail and refreshing a certain web page. This last act has not only caught me by surprise, but also opened a veritable Pandora’s box of unintended emotions.

For months friends have tried convincing me that I need to display my photos on one of the social hotspots like Flickr or even to start my own Facebook page. I’ve resisted their admonitions for the most part though not without some misgivings. A recent article in a popular photography magazine proclaimed the importance of Flickr for networking and the increased chance of being “discovered,” with allusions of financial gain. All well and good, but first one must find time to learn the procedures and technologies as well as determining the proper placement and categorization of your offerings. I know it’s probably easier than I suspect but a quick overview of Flickr convinced me that posting one’s photographs on such web sites is an act as vulnerable as it is narcissistic. 

At heart surely is the psychological imperative for acceptance. For better or worse we are communal animals—often, and with great insight, being compared to lemmings in a headlong rush to self-destruction. In “Hellhole,” published in The New Yorker on March 30, Atul Gawande expounds on the nature of America’s penchant of dispensing solitary confinement for intractable prisoners, with multiple case studies showing the debilitating effects some professionals have labeled torture. “Simply to exist as a normal human being,” he wrote, “requires interaction with other people.”

How we approach that interaction speaks volumes about who we are. Flickr’s astronomical success has been in part due to people’s innate belief that their abilities and talents are better than those of their fellow man, and by posting their images they are, in effect, flaunting themselves. “Look at what I did,” seems to be the prevailing attitude, even when what they did is abysmally wretched, or at best mundane and bland.

There’s a narrower segment who actively seek advice. There’s critique and there’s criticism, but what might be more destructive is meaningless commentary. When the giver of advice is a professional or knowledgeable photographer, the end result is educational. Unfortunately, I see many more idiots posing as pros. Reading some of the comments leads a reasonable adult to question the viability of the species, or even the desirability.

And then there are those who just want to share regardless of their talent. To them I say, bravo.

So I held off, biding my time until a weak moment. On a lark, I uploaded a dozen or so photos to a private web site for Nikon users, mainly to see what kind of reaction I’d get, good or bad, before joining the rest of civilization on Flickr.

I was also highly cognizant of the pitfalls. On a recent What the Duck cartoon, our intrepid photographer presented his latest photo to a group of admirers. “Awesome,” “brilliant,” “fantastic,” “wonderful” and other accolades greeted him as he beamed with delight. Until, that is, a dissenting voice said, “Hate it.” The last frame showed him standing on the edge of a chair, the picture torn to shreds, a rope around his neck—a rope constructed of complimentary words. Conditioned to hear the negative, we are so easily crushed.

How I would react was anyone’s guess.

And so I tried for the quail and the rabbits, and checked the web site for updates. And repeatedly checked, and received at last a comment. "Good tonal phrasing. Rich feel. Well done!" it said. 

I also charted the positive ratings. Some photos hit a perfect ten within an hour, and hours took longer. More comments followed, all of them positive. I found myself grasping them like drowning men cling to bits of flotsam. And realized how utterly pathetic it was, how craven. How dependent. Inadvertently, I’d become a praise junkie.

I’m probably looking at this all wrong, but I don’t care for my reaction. My reasons for posting the images remain suspect, even treacherous. Flickr will have to wait. For now I’m no more than a young rabbit watching the world perched on its tiny wooden platform. If it makes a move to join me, I’m going to ground.


Laurel Johnson said...

Your photos are like your writing style -- sometimes beautiful, sometimes haunting, always worth studying.
Yes, humans hunger for validation and even praise. It's been my experience that all the praise in the world cannot convince me of anything, but one word to the opposite is proof of my shortcomings. Perhaps you feel the same?
Since the first paragraph of Dispatches from Kansas, your first editorial, first prairie photo, I've been convinced that you are gifted in word and image. But I do understand that such words would mean more coming from the New York Times or New Yorker.
Your work is a blessing.

Jenni said...

I'm no pro, but I think your photos are as wonderful as your writing. I can't say why or how, but I know that both the words and images here stir something in me. They have depth and soul. Thank you for sharing them.

Tom Parker said...

Actually, Laurel, such words are priceless coming from fellow writers like you. And my readers.
Though I have to admit I wouldn't feel too bad if Oprah said the same thing...

Tom Parker said...

And thank you, Jenni. Geez, I may have to go to ground...