Who is Your Curator?

Information these days can come to you in one of two forms: firehose or curated (we also have curated firehoses ;~). Firehose means that huge amounts of data gets dumped your way, while curated means that someone or something is filtering (and sometimes modifying) that information so that you only see a (hopefully useful) subset.

You’re probably thinking, “what the heck is Thom on about now?” 

Yeah, I edge all around topics of use to photographers, and today is no different (and I’m you’re photography topic curator, right? ;~). So bear with me.

Photos are information. Visual information. 

Lots of ways exist to see photos. But have you ever considered whether or not you’re seeing the firehose (everything) or a curation? Who’s your curator, and what selection process are they using?

Sports Illustrated (the magazine, not the Web site) has an Up Front section of two or three double-page photos each issue. They select what they feel are “photos with impact,” images that will make you go “wow!” or “what?” when you see them. That’s curation. Consider how many photos the editors are seeing each week before they select only that select few. Where do they get those images from? Partly from other curators: the agencies (e.g. Getty), some direct contacts they’ve made and trust who send them selects. Deep curation. 

Given that hundreds of billions of photos are taken every year, I’m pretty sure that you’re seeing them curated. Whether that be on Instagram, Twitter, Flickr, or other services where you’re “following someone”—which means you acted a bit as a curator by selecting who to follow—or just getting a news feed (the service is acting as the curator), it’s impossible to see all the photos that are being made. There is no true firehose option for photos. Only curation.

The thing about curation is that you need to trust the curator. The curator needs to do something to build that trust, and if they lose your trust, well, you’ll be looking for another curator soon. I can’t fathom why the online services don’t seem to get this, as the curation/trust thing goes back in media as far as we’ve had media. 

Consider Facebook’s issues recently (and remember they own Instagram). They’ve mostly been a terrible curator. They seem to be much more interested in capturing information about you and your tastes, and then weaponizing that with advertisers to get you to part with money. Unfortunately, that information got weaponized by other folk for other things, as well (like to influence opinions or sway elections). 

You may have noticed that if you do a search for something—say typing “Nikon Z7” into the Google search box—that advertisements for Nikon gear (and competitors who want to convince you not to buy Nikon) suddenly start appearing everywhere you go on the Internet. Even though I have an exclusive, single advertiser in B&H here on my sites, B&H’s code performs this same sort of examination and ad rationalization. For the most part, I try to avoid putting those type of cookie targeting ads on this site, preferring fixed ads with a purpose that applies to what site visitors probably want to see, but adaptive ads do sometimes appear on my sites. Hard to do a free Web site these days without stumbling a bit into this cookie weaponizing, unfortunately. 

Everyone wants to curate for you. By curate, I mean “select what you see and hear.” 

I periodically survey my site visitors—I need to catch up on this, I’m behind on surveys—and I do that to understand you, what you own, what you shoot, and what you might be interested in. The more I know about you, the better I can curate information about DSLRs and mirrorless cameras for you. I try hard to cover questions I know you want answered, and to report and analyze relevant news. 

When I was at Backpacker, one of my primary jobs as the editorial director was doing this same thing: figure out who the readers were, what they wanted to know and see, and make sure that they got it. So I’m not new to this. 

The question(s) I have for you today is, I hope, an interesting one(s).

You create information (photos). Do you share all those photos with someone, a few, many, everyone? Probably not so much the latter, right? How do you choose what you share? How do you choose who you’re sharing it with? You’re curating, so what is dictating how you curate? Are you even curating for the right audience?

As an example, you probably show a lot of your images to your significant other or family. They may or may not really enjoy that ;~). Some do and love to be a part of the process, and they often want to sub-curate and send some of what you captured to others. Some don’t and mostly just go through the motions of looking at your images and saying “that’s nice, dear.” 

I’d argue that you need someone helping you. Both in looking as broadly at your firehose (all the images you take, or as many as they can tolerate looking at ;~) and helping you understand which images are “working" and why. But I’d also suggest that you need to consider finding an audience that you know, and then curate your images for them. Get to know that audience, and give them a feedback channel to you. 

They’ll quickly send you “wow” or “what” responses when a particular image of yours pops out of the normal feed they’re used to seeing from you. You need to pay attention to that. Your audience is trying to tell you something. 

Yes, I do this myself from time to time. There’s a very select few folk I’ve worked with over the years I’ll show images to and get their opinion about. For sports, for instance, Peter Read Miller and a couple of other Sports Illustrated photographers can quickly tell me when I’m straying off course. 

So today’s homework is this: figure out all the ways your images are being curated. Obviously, that usually starts with your own curating before anyone else sees anything, so how are you doing your own curating? And what happens after that? Are you posting somewhere? Who’s seeing that? Why do they want to see what you post? Are they happy with what they see? 

One thing I've noticed while seated in a plane at the gate waiting for the door to close is that a lot of people, especially younger ones, are sitting there with their phones rapidly flicking through feeds from places like Instagram and only very occasionally hitting a Like icon, let alone bringing an image or story up full screen and absorbing it fully. That's because they're getting a firehose of info and photos, and they're trying to just rush through it so they'll be ready for the next firehose push when they get to their destination. Can't get behind if you're facing a firehose, or you'll drown.

We pros get curated in lots of ways, and sometimes by many people, with some unknown to us. We do (sometimes very big) shoots and the client makes selections from what we give them. I’ve seen my images cropped in really interesting (and sometimes strange) ways, ways that I wasn’t considering when I shot. For example, when I was at the WSU/CU football game recently, I got to watch one of the media folk for the University selecting, cropping, and posting images to social media right after the game. They did something with quite a few images that was entirely different than the way I was shooting. This told me I need to spend more time making sure that my input to my client’s curation is optimal.

So, today I’ve presented you a topic you probably hadn’t ever really considered. It’s time to consider it: how are your images curated and by whom?  

text and images © 2019 Thom Hogan
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