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Is There a Recipe for ‘Going Viral’? We Asked 19 Photographers

IMG_0173© Rich McCor, who uses paper cutouts to bring familiar scenes–like famous landmarks–into a new light. McCor also currently has an open Kickstarter campaign to fund the manufacture of paper cutouts that can be used by photographers around the world.

Rich McCor: My day job is with a creative agency, so we’ve spent a fair bit of time looking at how and why things go viral. Despite that experience, I was under no impression that my own photos would go viral. It happened very organically without much involvement from me. I do think that because my images have a universal appeal, that helped; in one week, my images were on the Lad Bible and also Cosmopolitan magazine, two brands at completely different ends of the spectrum.

In anticipation of this Thursday’s edition of The BlowUp, where ten New York-based photographers will discuss their experiences with “going viral,” we asked photographers whose work has recently gone viral to share their secrets, presented in a three-part series of posts. For this last installment, following parts one and two, we asked photographers to think about the phenomenon of going viral; is it possible to follow a particular formula that inevitably leads to going viral, or is it far more random and complex than that? Now that they’ve achieved peak viral status, these artists opened up about what it takes to blow up online… and whether or not it’s even a worthy goal.

The BlowUp is a quarterly storytelling event in which a group of 10 NYC photographers are each invited to discuss a short tale behind an image or series. In the past, themes have been music and subcultures, and this time we’re tackling viral photography. Speakers include Sophie Gamand, Arne Svenson, Caroline Tompkins, Victoria Will, Kristine Potter, Allaire Bartel, Amos Mac, Kirra Cheers, Nina Berman, and Henry Hargreaves. You can purchase tickets here.

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© Laura Hospes, who documented her time battling depression within a mental hospital

Laura Hospes: No, I don’t think there is a recipe. And sadly enough, sometimes the most excellent work is not seen by the public. But if I can give a little advice for everybody: keep it as close to yourself as possible. This advice is not only for photographers but for every artist, or even for everybody on this planet who wants to make something.

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© Sebastian Bieniek, who created a series of double-faced portraits using simple drawings

Sebastian Bieniek: No, no! When you make excellent work (in my opinion), you’ll never go viral! To go viral, it has to be very easy! You know people have to think: “Shit, I can do this too! I can do it even better! I will show you!” When you have people at that point, it goes viral!

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© Jen Lewis, who took abstract photographs of period blood to challenge the stigma surrounding menstruation

Jen Lewis: [laughs] If there is a formula, I don’t know what it is. I’m still not quite sure what happened last spring when Beauty in Blood had its viral moment.

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© François Brunelle, who photographed complete strangers who so closely resemble one another they could be mistaken for twins.

François Brunelle: I don’t know about formulas, but sincerity may help, and your project has to be in sync with what people want to see and feel. For this, I guess you need a lot of luck.

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© Suzanne Heintz, who photographed her (fictional) “life” with a mannikin family as a satirical response to the expectation that women marry and have children.

Suzanne Heintz: No. I think there has to be more to it than excellent work. In my opinion, there are two qualities that seem to send it into orbit. Remarkableness and a relatable personal truth. There has to be something so unusual about it that it can’t be ignored. For me, it was the fact that I went beyond what most people would do and worked for fifteen years traveling and photographing mannequins in public places, as if they were my imitation family. That’s pretty unusual; therefore, it stuck out like a sore thumb amongst other stories. Beyond the unusual nature of the story was that the work touched a common chord. It connected to them on a personal level. Without those two elements, I don’t think my work would have travelled very far. I see the same elements in other works that go viral as well. I don’t want to call it a formula, but I do think these are two things that need to be there, if your work is to do a couple of trips around the planet.

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© Anastasia Pottinger, who photographed the bodies of men and women over the age of 100

Anastasia Pottinger: I don’t think there’s a formula at all. I think it is luck and timing. Definitely NOT anyone who makes excellent work is going to go viral. There are a million artists out there making amazing work that no one knows about. In fact, most people don’t really know who I am. If I mention the project at an open house event at my studio or someone sees my prints on display, they might say… “Wait, I think I saw something about this on Facebook, right?”

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© Freddy Fabris, who reinterpreted the works of the Old Masters within a Midwestern car shop for ‘The Renaissance Series’

Freddy Fabris: Anything on the Internet has the potential of going viral, whether it’s a cat video or fine art, and everything in the middle. How and where you put it out there may be part of the “formula,” but I feel the process of virilization itself is a bit like a wild animal; you can’t fully control it once it’s happening. On the other hand, to what extent does going viral really validate your work? There is a lot of great work out there that hasn’t gone viral; does that mean it is in any way lesser? I doubt it. I think Art & Internet are still trying to figure each other out. Clicking on a “like” button requires a very short attention span. How does that compare to the experience of standing in front of an actual Fine Art print, or painting, or whatever the artwork is, where you can really appreciate all the nuances and details?

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© Eric Pickersgill, whose series ‘Removed’ took mobile phones out of images to convey the personal disconnect that technology has facilitated

Eric Pickersgill: I have looked to other viral artists for guidance during all of this and have also spent time with their work, and I can say that there isn’t a formula per se in triggering the viral phenomenon. We all seemed to have arrived in this place by different triggers.

The one constant is that the idea of the work is more often than not something that the masses either agree or disagree with, and more commonly, both. I think my project specifically knows no cultural or geographical bounds, and so most people have a reaction to the work. I think projects that seem to have smaller audiences are often catering to a very particular audience and that their meanings can be difficult to understand. Or, on the contrary, work may be too pointed or judgmental and alienating in that way.

I think viral projects are ones that the viewer does not need to have an MFA to understand and that are also timely within popular discourse. I also want to state that going viral is not the end all and be all of success for an artist. I think that there are so many different platforms and venues for your work and that you have to decide what is best and most meaningful to you in distributing the work. I think if you are starting a project and have the goal of going viral, you couldn’t possibly be making it from a creative space that would allow you to truly see the work in front of you.

When I started Removed, I initially wanted to have the work only exist as silver prints and in a closed gallery that did not allow devices. I wanted viewers to have to physically be in the space and unplugged in order to experience it. I was quickly advised that I would just be in the gallery by myself if that were my strategy, and so I started to rethink what my real intentions were with the work and how I wanted people to engage with it.

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© Thomas Dagg, who used his Star Wars action figures to create a magical universe in which the beloved characters are real.

Thomas Dagg: The Star Wars series was the first large personal series I did as a photographer that I worked night and day on and obsessed over. I definitely think there are certain things that work needs to have in order to be “good” in the majority of people’s eyes, but even that is incredibly subjective and up to chance. Analyzing the work afterwards, I can say that I was extremely passionate about this project and cared a lot about it and the subject matter. I tried my best to make it as clean and as perfect a composite as possible and as beautiful photographically as I could (again, super subjective). I also tried to have an idea flow through the work. I wanted it to show me, but at eight years old. If it reminded others of how they saw the world at eight, then even better. I don’t think there’s a formula for going viral; that’s a lot of luck and getting that one person to retweet or post about it before it explodes. BUT, if you can create something thats hits on the three things above (passionate about subject matter, beautiful, and relatable to others), I think it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

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© Gregg Segal, who highlighted national waste levels by photographing families laying within one week’s worth of their own trash

Gregg Segal: I don’t have the answer to what determines whether work will go viral, but perhaps it’s pictures that touch a nerve or go for the jugular. The images may be arresting, compelling in part because of the statement they make – or it may be enough that the picture is titillating.

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© John William Keedy, who used photography to visualize the struggle of living with anxiety

John William Keedy: I think what helped make my work in particular go viral is the relatability of the issues it addresses. I think work that touches on a subject close to a large number of people is more likely to be shared. I also can’t imagine having images that are sleek and visually appealing hurts.

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© Pete Thorne, who captured sensitive portraits of elderly dogs

Pete Thorne: I’m not certain there is. I think the work has to be good, and it has to resonate with a larger community. But the interwebs are strange, and everyday I’m both amazed and appalled at what comes up.

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© Hannah Price, who photographed men who catcalled and harassed her in the streets of Philadelphia

Hannah Price: No, I don’t think there is a formula. Well, I really don’t know because it only happened to me once, and I wasn’t trying… I guess a segment of the formula is the subject matter and its timing with society.

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© Jessamyn Lovell, who found and photographed the woman who stole her identity

Jessamyn Lovell: It’s a tough question. The short answer is no – there is no formula and just because you are making good work does not mean it can (or you want it to) go viral. I will say that if you are making good work, and the content is timely and relevant, and you can articulate clearly what it is about, the chances of getting it noticed on a larger scale are better. I actually sent out a targeted old school press release to my favorite art media sources, which is what got the momentum to speed up.

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© Wynne Neilly, who documented his transition during testosterone treatment

Wynne Neilly: I don’t think there is a formula necessarily. I think that things happen because of circumstance, and at the time, my work was speaking to something that was being talked about quite a bit in the media.

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© Jo Farrell, who told the story of China’s last remaining women with bound feet

Jo Farrell: I manage my own promotional and press material; I source, resource and research. You have to be your own marketing guru and networking nymph. It only has the option to go viral if you put it out there. You can be the most talented artist in the world, but if you don’t promote yourself, you will never be ‘discovered.’

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© Eliana Cardoza, who photographed actress and comedian Aniela McGuinness as she took on various roles throughout her journey undergoing mastectomy surgery

Eliana Cardoza: To be honest, I really don’t know. When we started this project, going viral was the last thing on our minds. When it happened, it took us by surprise.

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© Olivier Fermariello, who photographed the intimate, sometimes sexual lives of people living with disability

Olivier Fermariello: I am among those who think that if there is nothing to be said, it is better to leave a blank page. To me, it is not interesting to go viral. Whatever project it is, it should be interesting; it should carry on a message, values, something… I hardly even get close to this with my own project. Going viral, really, is the last of my concerns.

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