Alexander’s background as a writer and photographer, as well as his journey from his hometown of Boston to living and working in Paris intrigued me, so I followed up with him. He was kind enough to answer my questions with thoughtful, thought-provoking and inspiring responses about the art of photography, the art of life, taking risks and making international connections.
A big part of the success of LensCulture, from my perspective, is its openness to the wider world. –Alexander Strecker
Leaving A Mark: LensCulture’s Managing Editor Talks Art, Global Reach and Happiness
You have said you are “deeply interested in the power of photography” but more broadly in the ways that visual languages have the ability to connect people across the world.
How do you define/describe the power of photography and what do you see as the future for contemporary photography in today’s image heavy world?
Photography is a uniquely powerful visual language because of its universality and broad appeal. It is both democratic and familiar, which is what allows it to reach such wide audiences. Show a group of 100 people a painting or a sculpture and many are sure to feel intimidated or that they “don’t get it.” A well-composed photograph though? Almost everyone will be drawn in.
This is probably due to the fact that all of us look at photographs every single day: on social media, on billboards, on products, everywhere we look. Unfortunately, a huge majority of those images aren’t very distinctive. But that means when we do see an image with a surprising perspective—yet in a familiar guise (a photograph)—it’s all the more seductive.
As for the future of contemporary photography, I think it will only continue to grow in importance in the decades to come. Remember: 150 years ago, making a photograph was a highly specialized activity that required training, skill, economic resources…today, nearly everyone is making pictures. To make a parallel: 750 years ago, writing was an activity reserved for a tiny percentage of the population. Today, it is (almost) universal. But in both cases, even today, there are only a small number who are able to utilize the medium with distinction. It is those people who work hard at the craft (and who have talent) who will be able to harness photography’s special communicative power and leave their mark.
You’ve interviewed a lot of photographers. Do you see a common denominator in terms of success?
Absolutely: obsession; stubbornness; single-mindedness. To put it bluntly: I’m not sure many truly creative, truly talented people are particularly “happy.” Instead, they feel a purpose and have a drive, dedication and focus. They are often perfectionists. Extremely exigent of themselves and always pushing towards new heights and challenges.
As many successful photographers have told me: if you feel you could do anything else besides photography—do that instead. As in, if you think to yourself, “I would like to be a photographer but I would also be happy doing X,” then you should do X. The same applies to any other creative pursuit: writing, painting, music and so on. The common denominator of successful creative individuals is that they derive their greatest satisfaction (again, not happiness) from pursuing their craft and aren’t able to get that same feeling anywhere else.
Now, I’m sorry if that’s a downer. I don’t think that should prevent the rest of us from pursuing hobbies and dedicating as much energy as we can spare for creativity. But if you’re looking for “major” success and a lifelong career as an artist, well, the road is a long and narrow one.
How about you—are you a photographer as well?
I was a fairly serious photographer for 7 years (all while in an academic context, never professionally). When I began working for LensCulture and started meeting the successful/driven photographers mentioned above, I realized something important: I’m not a great or obsessive photographer. Of course I still take pictures, but the gap between my own dedication to expressing myself visually and the passion of the individuals I was interviewing…immense.
While this might have been discouraging for my creativity, in fact, I found it invigorating. When I realized I did not have a special acuity for making photographs, it freed me to focus more on my writing. As I interviewed photographers (and wrote reviews of their work and texts for their books and exhibitions…) I began to see how I could really help photographers—who often aren’t great with words—translate their visual expression into writing. It’s a mutually beneficial symbiosis, I think!
LensCulture is just a huge force – what is driving that success and what can photographers learn from it?
A big part of the success of LensCulture, from my perspective, is its openness to the wider world. Every week, we publish work from every corner of the globe, from different genres, perspective, styles and backgrounds. We are not limited by a print deadline or a page limit or the whims of our advertisers—rather, we can reach out to anyone and everyone who is making inspiring work and share that with our global audience.
Another important (and somewhat unusual) aspect is our team’s diverse backgrounds. Some of us have strong grounding in photography and the art world—but just as importantly, many others on the team do not. I think one flaw in many artistic endeavors is that we choose to surround ourselves with people who confirm our worldview. That is easy and comforting but it’s also not challenging and rarely brings us radically fresh perspectives. Thus, the fact that several members of the LensCulture team did not have experience in the (relatively) tiny world of contemporary photography allowed them to see things with new eyes, question assumptions and push us to try things we might not have otherwise considered.
Photographers would do well to learn from this approach. I strongly recommend to photographers to get outside of the “photo bubble”—reach out to artists and journalists and storytellers and image-makers working in a wide variety of mediums and backgrounds so that they can challenge your assumptions about how things are done. Sure, there are some universals (see above: obsession) but there are also many particularities from different fields that can be applied to photography in very refreshing and exciting ways.
You brought LensCulture into the Instagram realm – the growth was outstanding from what I’ve read. How did you pull that off? What do you feel is the best social media platform for sharing visual work?
To answer your last question first: I think Instagram is the most vibrantly visual social media platform, bar none. Facebook is cluttered with pictures and words and ads and events…Twitter is fundamentally word-based…and (though I risk sounding old-fashioned) Snapchat is junky and amateurish. So, I’m a big fan of Instagram.
Now about LensCulture’s feed: yes, you’re right, it has had tremendous growth. In just under two years, we went from zero followers to well over 400,000. For our strategy, the key was giving away the account each week to a different photographer (or collective), allowing the feed to be a reflection of the site’s mission in general: discovering the best of contemporary photography and sharing it with a global audience.
For photographers, that’s not something they can emulate, since their feed should be (more or less) a reflection of their own pictures. Still, a few of the lessons I have learned in the past two years are relatable to any serious feed. First: consistency. From the day that I committed to growing LensCulture’s Instagram audience, there has not been an empty week or quiet stretch. Regularity is one of the most important elements to a successful feed. That doesn’t mean you have to post constantly, but once you set a schedule, you need to do your best to commit to it.
Second: professionalism. As a serious photographer, you likely have a website where you showcase your professional work. There, you carefully curate your self-presentation and are conscious of broadcasting only your strongest photographs. Would you ever post a holiday selfie or a picture of your breakfast on your professional website? Of course not! So why should Instagram be any different? Keep your Instagram as well-curated and top-notch as you would your professional website. If you want to have a separate account for personal photos, that’s fine, but don’t mix the two. It reflects poorly on the hard work you put into your serious pictures.
And third: engage with the community. I didn’t grow our feed by simply posting into a vacuum. I sought out already popular feeds (both individuals and collectives) and asked them to take over our account. I created hashtag competitions where people could enter their work and be chosen for exposure. And I tied in Instagram take-overs with editorial features and live events, so that people were engaged both online and off.
Finally, you’ve been in Paris for over three years now. How are you liking living and working abroad? What’s your favorite Paris hangout spot?
I love it! It hasn’t been a honeymoon by any means but overall, I believe living in a foreign context is immensely rewarding. It forces you to question things, make countless mistakes, grow up faster and get out of your comfort zone. The daily challenges of simply communicating with people means you never take anything for granted, which forces you to appreciate every tiny sign of advancement. It can feel like a grind sometimes, but the small steps of progress and richness of experience make it all worth it.
I moved here right after graduating college (having never studied French in my life) and being so far away from everything that was familiar to me forced me to learn and adapt very quickly. It also made me braver and bolder than I would have been in a more familiar environment: ignorance can be very beneficial sometimes! For example, there have been important figures in the European photography world—artists, publishers, journalists, gallerists—who I spoke to in a direct and honest manner because I had no idea how important they were. In the U.S., I would have been more sensitive to people’s social standing and thus more self-conscious. In France, naiveté was a very useful excuse to simply go for it.
I could continue on for a while about all the benefits of living abroad, so I’ll stop here. I realize I’m very fortunate how things worked out, but I also think that risk-takers are often rewarded. So, the least I can say is this: if anyone reading this has the opportunity to move/live abroad, they should seize it with both hands and not look back!