The “So What?” Factor (I Do See You)

The “So What” Factor

Before you post a photo, video or anything personal on social media, do you wonder if anyone will look at it besides you? If you don’t, I think you’re in the minority.

When I first started out in photographic art, I shot all the time and I studied like crazy because my primary motivation was to learn as much as I could and get really good at it. Later on, a little ghost emerged turning my motivation into the desire for others to tell me that I was good. I did some shows, a couple of festivals, a little competition (not too much in case I heard I wasn’t any good at it) and a lot of self-questioning. My validation came from the lens of others, not my own.

No sale, no competition, nor any “like” or comment on a social media share ever filled the unquenchable thirst I had for this desire that I couldn’t identify.  In 2012 I stopped showing my work except online. I wanted to get really close to what this desire was about. It has taken almost two years and these last few weeks to get this close.

On Wednesday I attended a Lynford Morton  webinar on the legalities of street photography and we touched lightly on the “so what?” factor. The “so what?factor is something that has been mentioned around marketing circles for a while and it basically means, “will anyone care?” To test the “so what?” factor, I look at a piece of content (for example, a photograph) and before putting it out there for the world to see, I ask myself whether or not there is “potential value”; if there is a good story to tell, if there might be an impact, if there is any shock value or any true “umpf“. If there is no “potential value”,  then it’s crap. Throw it out. Well, the “crap” part is my word.

No One Wants To Play To An Empty Room: The Psychology of Applause

I am predominantly a street photographer, but I’m not an elitist about it. Some street photographers have the “so what?” factor litmus test down to a science.  I  often hear other classic street shooters warn newbies about using any images of the homeless or street musicians, claiming that these subjects are “easy prey” for artistic expression and often lack the “so what?” factor.  In my Atlanta Street Photography Group meetings, this subject has come up more than once. I do support maintaining the street photography genre’s definition to it’s most classic and cleanest form, but I can’t continue to use the “so what?” litmus test if the photo happens to demonstrate what compelled me to take it in the first place.

I’m certain that others – whether they are aware of it or not – don’t just ask the question, “should I show my work to the world?“, but depending on the piece of work, they also probably rummage through the associated insecurities that go with that (e.g. “Will anyone care? Will anyone like this?”) Then they will use a measuring device called, “feedback”. If no says they care or shows they care through the various “feeds” used to put the work out there, if there are no positive accolades, then, it’s REALLY crap. Throw it out!!

The bottom line is this: no one REALLY wants to play to an empty room …. there’s no applause in that. Even worse, no one wants to play to a full room and watch people get up and leave – or yet even worse, not applaud.

So why do we need the applause?

I love what Psychologist Mimi says,

Outside of the enormous egos that our celebrities tend to have, there is at the basic level of humanity, a grand need, a craving even, to be appreciated by others.  Applause is a sign of that appreciation and is thus about building social capital and social currency…Everything we do is now a performance. We live and breathe being an act.

Appreciation. If it were as simple as appreciation, then I could certainly find one or two people to throw some small tokens my way about my work. No, it seems bigger than that. The “so what?” factor might really be, down deep, about meeting some socially-designed qualifications of worthiness and being seen, as well as appreciated.

What It Means For Creatives To Be Seen

When someone acknowledges your creation, you feel seen. This fills a basic human craving to be part of a connection larger than the yourself. Yet there are artists throughout history that never once showed their work and they kept going and going, creating really provocative, fine art. Vivian Maier produced over 100,000 negatives and slides and none of them were ever seen by the public (until after she died). Though her work is emotionally moving and recognized among professionals today, she kept her art a secret. She never got any applause. Did Vivian ever ask of her art, “so what?” or say, it’s crap”? Possibly, but she did not throw it out so that tells me something very important. 

I also wonder if Mozart, Gaugin, John Lennon or Madonna ever used the “so what?” factor litmus test before sharing their works of art….

I had to walk down a new path and live my life for me and not for anyone else. I had to be free to be me.

Tiny Buddha

To these photos of mine that I’ve posted here (yes, photos of musicians, dear street photographers), do I say, “so what?… they are crap… throw them out”  – or do I honor the moment I made a connection with these musicians? Do I recognize them publicly because they became droplets in my own existence that carry a lot of weight? Do I honor them because I saw something in them that I wanted to magnify and expose? In exposing them further to you, do I trust that there may be something you identify with positively, either consciously or unconsciously, which might form a meaningful droplet in your existence? And do I go ahead and expose them to you even if you don’t see them – or me – and even if I never hear any applause for them?

… I’m still thinking about it.

Meanwhile, dear artist, for all the times I never said anything about your creations or gave YOU any applause, I want you to know that I do see you and I applaud (clap! clap!) for you….but you’re an artist. You didn’t need that from  me anyway, did you?

[photo locations: Key West, San Francisco, New Orleans. Digital Nikon D300 and Olympus E-P2]

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Christine Burke says:

    Thank you for writing this. I think a lot of Artists, of all varieties, think this, but are afraid to admit it to themselves or others. Maybe it’s the ‘Ostrich Syndrome’ – bury my head in the sand and pretend that I don’t care whether I’m appreciated or not. Thanks again for the article ❤


    1. casadresden says:

      Thank you for reading it, Christine. You’re right. Many of us pretend we don’t care when in fact, we place sometimes way too much emphasis on what others think and feel about our work. It’s human and natural to want people to like what we do. It’s difficult to separate ourselves for that, but that’s what I keep trying to do. Thanks for your comments!


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