“Oh, how they suit you! A perfect fit!” everyone exclaimed…
“What a magnificent robe! And the train! How well the emperor’s clothes suit him!”
None of them were willing to admit that they hadn’t seen a thing; for if anyone did, then he was either stupid or unfit for the job he held.
Never before had the emperor’s clothes been such a success.
“But he doesn’t have anything on!” cried a little child…
“He doesn’t have anything on. There’s a little child who says that he has nothing on.”
“He has nothing on!” shouted all the people at last.
- From “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Andersen
It may have been awhile since we’ve all read the story, so let’s make sure we’re up to speed:
In The Emperor’s New Clothes, some troublemakers make some “new clothes” for a vain emperor. Anyone who can’t see the clothes, they say, is either stupid or unfit for their jobs. Of course, there aren’t any clothes at all, but everyone is afraid to say so lest they be labeled stupid by their peers. So everyone plays along until a small child yells out the obvious – and then everyone feels safe laughing at the emperor.
More than an amusing children’s tale, this story illustrates a very adult principle.
Psychologists call it “pluralistic ignorance,” where someone assumes that everyone else believes something is true, so they behave as if they agree, even though they actually don’t.
Or, as psychologists Krech and Krutchfield summarized, “no one believes, but everyone thinks that everyone believes.”
An oft-cited example of this is binge drinking in college. If you ask college students individually about it, many researchers have found that individual students are far less comfortable with it personally than they assume their peers to be. But they still do it because they think everyone else thinks it’s cool. This perpetuates a social norm where lots of people binge drink, even though most people don’t actually like it all that much.
Pluralistic ignorance happens in the photography world, too.
Like any industry, we experience waves of trends. Editing styles, camera gear, photo ideas, photo products, website wording – all get spread and recycled among us. Sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes not so good, and sometimes it truly doesn’t matter.
But sometimes, we might not agree with something, but we do it anyway because we think “that’s the way it is done.” We’re afraid to say we don’t like it or have another view because we assume everyone else agrees. We don’t want to be accused of being a photographic lightweight or amateur, so we do it anyway.
For example, one favorite whipping boy among photographers is the technique of selective colorization. It gets ragged on amusingly often, perhaps because it’s been used frequently in an amateur or tacky way. We’ve all seen the “bad” examples of this, and I’ve giggled at this technique before, too.
Yet just today, I saw a beautiful short film by Disney called Paperman. The film is in monochrome, with one strategic little pop of color. That little pop of color takes on a life of its own – indeed, it helps drive the narrative of the story and is a delightful little detail. The kind of thing that makes you go “I wish I’d thought of something like that!”
What if the creators of the film had said “no, we can’t use this, it looks like selective colorization. People associate that with being dumb, lightweight, outdated, uncreative”? The film might have lost a beautiful facet, all because people thought they had to perpetuate a norm that may or may not exist.
Sure, we all know that in theory, techniques aren’t categorically “bad.” But we might still be afraid of using it if we think that people will associate us with “bad” things.
And that’s the danger or pluralistic ignorance. We might not personally hold an opinion, but if we believe everyone else does, it can still hamper our creativity.
It also turns out that the photography industry may be particularly vulnerable to waves of pluralistic ignorance.
Some research indicates that when people are highly connected to each other, then people tend not to perpetuate unpopular ideas. Maybe they see that others don’t like it either, have lots of chances to discuss it or encounter other ideas, etc, so they feel released from the pressure.
But we’re not all together around a big campfire. Most of us sit at our computers and associate with relatively small groups of other photographers, or hang out in small meetups or workshops.
When you’re limited to following a handful of photographers and associating with a few groups (as so many of us, by necessity, are), then it’s easier for ideas to get perpetuated, even if people disagree with them. Perhaps there’s fewer chances to encounter alternatives, or to share your own ideas in a safe space. At any rate, there’s some irony in the idea that the more disconnected a group is, the more vulnerable they may be to wanting to fit in and being afraid to speak up.
It’s good to be aware of this, because there are probably a lot of people out there who will agree with you if you’re willing to present an alternative view.
Pluralistic ignorance isn’t always super harmful, nor does it mean “ignorance” in the sense that people are willfully stupid.
Sometimes it just means that you don’t think of alternatives because you unwittingly assume that this is how it needs to be.
When you start offering products, you might feel pressure to offer albums and canvas wraps because that’s what you see everyone else doing. But maybe there’s a much more creative way to present your own work. Or you might see “images on disc” on photographers’ websites, so you give clients CDs of images without considering an alternative like, say, thumb drives. (Interestingly, Jamie’s post about thumb drives over at The Modern Tog generated a bunch of controversy, when frankly the decision seems relatively benign.)
My own personal “emperor” moment was when I decided not to use the word “fauxtographer.”
I have a half-written blog post saved in my drafts folder about why I don’t think that word is useful. It’s not because I deny the existence of individuals who produce unprofessional work, who dramatically alter the public’s price anchors for what photographers “should” charge, and who hurt general perceptions of professional photography. It’s also not because I’m not equally frustrated by the public’s lack of understanding of what quality work looks like, or because it doesn’t affect how I have to run my own business, or because I think you’re a bad person for being upset by some people’s reckless behavior.
It’s because I think that this label is used too often as a dismissive weapon rather than a productive tool. To the point that I’m not sure we can fully get away from the particular strain of negativity implied. It’s too often used to demean in a manner unbecoming a professional, or escalates a situation when a more neutral word like “beginner” would suffice. If I feel the need to call something out as being reckless or damaging, I’d rather use a word like “irresponsible” or “unprofessional,” which I feel allows me to describe the behavior and not the person.
Please don’t miss the point and assume I’m saying no one should ever utter the word “fauxtographer.”
I just think it’s become tangled in our industry’s vernacular in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable. So instead of going along with the perceived norm (thus perpetuating it), I’m opting out.
The funny thing is, I’ve avoided ever talking about this choice for fear of judgment from others (a clear symptom of pluralistic ignorance on my part). Because people feel quite strongly about “fauxtographers” and quite justified in bashing them, and they’re not afraid to say so. I personally think that the language you choose in describing a problem can help determine whether or not you’re going to solve it, and so I try to use language that I think will describe, pinpoint, and encourage in a more productive way.
But I don’t expect everyone to agree with my assessment. Indeed, that’s the whole point.
Life doesn’t have to be an eternal case of either/or. Sometimes it can be “yes, AND _____.” (Click here to tweet that, if you like.)
I think it’s best if we all consider the issue ourselves, rather than adopting what we think is the general view. Perhaps “fauxtographer” can be used in a variety of ways – or not at all. Selective colorization can be used badly, but it can also be used to make powerful, harrowing, thought-provoking points (e.g. the red coat in Schindler’s List). CDs and thumb drives can both be used to deliver images to a client. There are a whole lot of ways to accomplish something, more than one interpretation can exist at once, and we should feel free to discuss all paths.
Overall, it’s up to us to not be afraid to stand up and say “I’m going to do it this way. It’s okay if you don’t, but here’s what I think, and here’s why.”
A final thought:
Many of us (myself included) have less than a decade of experience in this industry. We don’t know everything, we don’t have every skill perfected yet. But while we’re striving to achieve technical excellence, to educate ourselves, and to grow, there’s a particular reason to be mindful of not blindly adopting something just because it’s what we think others agree with.
In Jack Hitt’s delicious book “Bunch of Amateurs,” he writes that amateurs do have one precious thing to contribute: “Outsiders are not burdened by the “curse of knowledge“….Not knowing anything about something is often precisely what’s needed to see something new.”
Martin Scorsese said the same thing in his advice to new filmmakers: “Make your own industry. Re-create movies…break open the form, don’t just have your tripod and a camera that’s standing on it. You make a new art. Take what’s available, push it.” In other words, don’t do stuff just because others are doing it – try it another way and see what happens.
That doesn’t mean do things badly or snub the wisdom of experience (sheesh), it just means asking smart questions and making sure that it really is a great way to do things, not just the accepted way.
We all benefit when we create an industry where alternatives are discussed clearly and respectfully.
Where we can look beyond either/or and see lots of “Yes, AND____.”
Where we’re open to differences and quick to consider rather than to condemn.
And importantly, where no one is afraid to do something or speak up against a perceived norm – because it may not be the norm everyone wants after all.