5 observations on fame & photography

As my years in photography accumulate and seeing the back-end of things, I've made a couple of observations that relate to fame and photography that you might find interesting, here's the main 5 that I found most intriguing.

1) Fame can be overnight



I presuppose some work of course, but I've seen photographers become famous literally overnight. They go from unknown photographer to personality in a matter of days to months.


The big break usually comes from an exposure to an outlet with a large audience from TV to websites. One good example of this might be the rise of Zack Arias, the tables changed when he uploaded a touching video on a famous photographer's website. But I've seen another just take off from just one exposure on a large newspaper website. I call this the Oprah effect, I name it such when I learned about a company that was put on the map just from one mention in Oprah's “favorite things”.


But exposure like that means absolutely nothing, take 2 photographers A & B, both come from the same background, same style of images, both were published in the same outlet. Photographer A is currently super popular, photographer B is pretty much the same he's always been.


I saw that happen myself, and I am very grateful to have witnessed that because it taught me a very important lesson: exposure by itself means nothing without a hook.


2) You most likely need a hook



This is what I believe by far one of the biggest factors to become famous along with some exposure: the photographers who end up famous have an angle, a hook. It is usually the case at least, and I presuppose at least some work. That hook that they have is either a personality based hook or an images hook.


Personality hook
The personality hook is when the images are secondary to the story of the photographer. The best examples of this is probably Vivian Maiers who was a Nanny, scan any headlines and it all goes back to her story and not the images she shot.


Of course such hooks can be manipulated or downright made up, while I don't know of any photographer whom did so, a good example from the broader art world is Joseph Beuys. He had a grandiose story about being rescued from the snow and wrapped in felt and he felt (pun intended) the urge to do everything in felt. Interesting but ultimately a concocted story out of thin air.


Everyone of us has a hook already that is a given: our nationality. But since it's a given, unless you are from a very remote country, it's a weak hook.
The best hooks I have found is If you have two things that conflict in the mind of people…..it can be a successful hook because it's unexpected. I say “in the mind of people” because in my opinion the popularity of Vivian Maiers comes from prejudice more than anything, why can't a Nanny be a photographer in the first place?


Work based hook
The second type of hook is the work based hook, and here I will make two distinctions, cute hooks and meaningful hooks. Cute hooks get you shares but no one ends up caring about your work. It usually involves the things people find cute or funny:  Cats, dogs, babies, toddlers, etc. Here's some made up projects that fit this category.


  • Pictures of dogs dressed as their owners
  • Pictures of babies and parents switching places
  • Pictures of children sleeping with their pets
  • Pictures of bubble gum exploding on children's faces

These gets you “AWWWWW”s, a bunch of shares but not much else in my opinion.
The more meaningful hook is simply work that is based on hot topic issues, and the hottest topic issues revolve around Politics, sex, race, gender, religion.

Here's some made up projects that make up this category:


  • Images of couples of different political persuasion
  • The daily life of priest with secular jobs
  • The life of (insert race here) in prison


The one thing I would like to note here is that most of the time I have found that the content is worth more than the photography. A badly shot story with a good hook will outperform a non popular story that is well shot.

In these cases the work is more important than the photographer and the story is going to be about the images more than the person that made them. The headlines usually speak about the work more than the photographer.

Some photographers without a doubt know their hook and play it, while others seem to just have stumbled upon theirs. Whatever the case, photographers who become famous usually have a hook, either personality or work based. Of course, both can be combined to great effect if the photographer can have a personal connection to that work.

3) You (kinda) immediately become better



With great fame also comes better photography! Of course when fame comes nothing really changes on paper but the perception of people at large changes and that makes the whole difference. I saw an ad once and one page was a painting in the attic and on another page was that same painting in a gallery. While the painting in the gallery looked better and was more attractive, both paintings were the same, only the context changed.


Moreover, if you think about it, the paintings of folks like Van Gogh never changed from the time of creation, but the perception of the people changed in time, making them valuable works of art. Something similar happens too when I've seen photographers become famous, their images go up a level or two because of perception.


There's the classic psychology test where two groups of people were given cheap and others expensive wine and asked which one was better. The expensive wine was voted better…..but the trick was, both were the same cheap wine.


The peculiar thing is, the brain of those who drank what they believed was expensive wine altered their experience of it….so they actually tasted better wine than it actually was. And I believe that the same happens when you become famous, your images are perceived as better, and in a sense end up being better since the viewer's brain will match the experience.


4) It gets to your head


This is the sad part of fame in my opinion, it gets to your head. I've got two people in mind when I write this, they were cool people, but for some reason fame just got into their heads and simply act differently then they used to.


They ignore you or simply become obnoxious to you. In point number 3 the perception of the people at large changed about a photographer's work but here the perception of the photographer changed about themselves.


It's a sad but true fact, fame tends to warp your perception and probably leads to overestimation of oneself and somehow fame makes one think one is better than everyone else. I don't subscribe to this stuff, everyone is the same, we all fart for goodness sakes! The good thing is, not everyone seem to have a bloated head, Zak Arias seems like a really humble dude in my humble opinion.


5) It changes everything and yet nothing


Of course there are perks to becoming famous, more exposure, more money, more open doors among others I guess, so in a sense it changes everything. But in another sense it changes nothing, you will still be the same person but in different situations because while the external conditions have changed the internal situation has not.


There is this idea that fame would probably validate your photography, like Rocky said in the movie that he wants to fight so that “I'm going to know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren't just another bum from the neighborhood”, maybe the photographer with fame aspiration can say “I want to become famous to know for the first time in my life that I was a real photographer”.


But I don't think fame can ever fix issues like validation and insecurity among others, fame will change nothing in that sense. How do I know? Because if you can be famous and still have insecurities that means fame is not the solution. Take one of the most famous people of all time, Madonna. She is a deeply insecure woman, and to her own accord, her insecurities it comes every 5 minutes. What I've got reading and listening to famous people is that fame is like a multiplier, whatever your issues will still be there, only multiplied. If you are insecure and are a nobody, how much more insecure would you be when you are famous and everyone is looking at you?



There you have it, I've exhausted the main observations I made about fame and photography. To recap, I've discovered that fame can be overnight, but a good hook is usually needed. Perceptions change for the better or for worse and while it might change everything, the flip side is, it changes nothing. Those are the things that I've noticed most, let me know what you think and also of your own observations below! Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.


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13 thoughts on “5 observations on fame & photography”

  1. Photography psychology- I like it! And the good thing is that, with a little bit of imagination, you could apply those observations to a self observation as a whole.

  2. Another observation about fame, as it relates to photographers, is that the level of fame photographers achieve is much different than that of, say, actors. Actors can become so famous that they can’t go to the grocery store without being reognized and hounded for their autograph and if you ask anyone on the street if they know who, say, Angelina Jolie or even Buddy Hackett are, they know these people by name and can recite things about their lives – and Buddy Hackett’s been dead for years! Where famous photographers are concerned, though, ask anyone on the street who Ralph Gibson, Joel Meyerowitz or even Helmut Newton are and they’ll probably stare blankly at you and say, “I don’t know.”

    1. Good point, in a sense we can divorce their work from them as a person. But when it comes to actors it seems like people can’t…they like them as people and not their capacity as an actor. Probably because acting seems to involve the whole person completely? More food for thought!

  3. If I can leave my mark on the world with photography by making it a better place I’ll be happy. . . Problem is one needs exposure for maximum impact. Recognition for your effort is a wonderful thing. Being famous would be inconvenient . At least we are behind the lens!

  4. I sometimes think that it would be an interesting experiment to see if it would be possible to become a famous photographer without changing a thing about the way I work, and not seeking to be so via a hook or a sudden fluke. I guess it would need someone or group to actively campaign for everybody to ‘pay attention to this photographer guy’ because of the body of work already achieved etc. But that seems unlikely considering the landscape we live in today.
    As it stands becoming ‘famous’ can indeed be a fluke, but people like, say , Chase Jarvis seem to have had to work very hard at being successful in this way.

    1. One thing I’ve learned is….if you don’t do anything (marketing), nothing will happen =)
      I don’t think you can become famous as a fluke, my experience has been certain things have been orchestrated beforehand.

  5. Interesting article. Many have worked for a long time to become overnight successes. Please check the link to Zack Arias, something seems amiss.

    1. Thanks! I didn’t want to give the impression that things can come out of the blue, that is why I said “I presuppose some work”. But one example come to mind where one person was your normal photographer, but mixed with a hook, things really took off overnight! Fixed the link, seems to have changed overnight (pun intended!)

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