“For me, I can shoot and take those shots and make them into something that I would consider better, more unique, more artistic. I like the more unnatural-looking things anyway,” she says. “That’s a big reason why I don’t want to just be a photographer, I want to leave an imprint somewhere because I did more than take a picture.”
It’s also what separates Melissa from Sean, at least on a creative level. Sean and Melissa have been together for a couple of years now, making coffee, taking photos, modeling for each other, being the other’s cheerleader in arguably the most crucial chapter of growth their careers. But most importantly, it’s this mutual respect for their crafts — for art, period — that makes them so compatible.
“I made him stand in front of my camera a million times, and with him being the creative person that he is, he was able to give me all these different looks and different types of feels; just new things that I wasn’t used to,” she explains. “Before him, I was used to just making everything look pretty.”
And she’s right; pretty isn’t necessarily everything, but eye-catching is. There’s an influx of visual artists thanks to platforms like Instagram and even Vine, but the age-old adage of needing to separate yourself from the pack remains the same. And in the cutthroat Internet world, it all comes back to branding.
It’s an annoying take on graphic design/clothing brand reality for Francesca. She says that her brand strategy is definitely influenced by similar methods of popular brands and influencers like PUMA’s Sophia Chang or even Soulection DJ SoSuperSam, even if it’s a pathway she isn’t necessarily comfortable with.
“I hate being in front of the camera and I don’t like pictures of me,” she says. “But part of the strategy is to just imagine how much more Empire would grow if you slap a cute girl’s face on it. I guess in a sense of trying to compete and being known or recognized these days through social media, a part of me is just saying I have to suck it up and just do it.”
Again, this isn’t to discredit Sophia Chang specifically or anyone else that has made a successful career by way of social media brand marketing. But it does present a question: with such an influx of self-proclaimed creatives coexisting on these platforms, how do you siphon between what is art and what is content? And who gets to define that? Even more so, how is value placed upon art? How do you pit subjective material against each other?
“Competing in anything adds a whole new factor into any art, because it throws you off in that the art then becomes a competitive thing — which I don’t really think it is, but it seems to be nowadays,” Sean said.
Like it or not, competition within art is the name of the game. The nature of the various social media platforms rely on the tumultuous numbers between one’s likes and followers. There’s no guesswork when resonance can be measured in hard data and statistics. It becomes formulaic after a certain point.
This might be the first part in deciphering the blurred line between art and content. In the strive for recognition, redirecting one’s approach to fit with what’s pulling in more double-taps would mark the first stepping stone where art goes awry into content territory, but the thought still might be a bit premature.
“The other week I made my Facebook account inactive and deleted Instagram and Tumblr from my phone,” Sean tells me on our coffee interview. When I press him on why he did that, he laid out an honest truth that is often unsaid nor understood; simply put, social media and its influence was changing who he was.
“I felt like internally I was going crazy because I was changing my daily methods and practices – the way I would practice dance and the way I would shoot – and the way I would search for beats or music,” he explains. “I kept seeing all these random memes and articles on what was cool and what was not. And it made me think, ‘Why am I listening to this album, I would never to listen to this before,’ or ‘why am I dancing this way, I’ve never danced this way before,’ and it’s because you’d get props for things that you don’t even like doing, but deep down you want to please someone, right? That’s what those likes and posts do for you; I felt like if I cut that off then I am free to think however I want.”
The domino effects of this phenomena are too complex to offer turning off the phone as an easy solution. It’s become such an integrated part of modern communication that there has to be validity in there somewhere.
“I think I’ve gotten past this weird threshold where you feel like you made an impact just because certain people reached out to you or you’ve reached people that make you feel good about your work,” Melissa explains. “That’s exactly what I wanted out of a social media platform – whether you have 200 followers or 100 million (followers,) what I want the most out of social media is for my art to reach a specific community. And I don’t care if that’s a small community of people or not.”
There’s more pros in being able to instantaneously share how we feel, what we’re thinking or show what’s taking our breath away at that very moment than there are cons. Social media was made to share bits and pieces of the human experience, selfies and all. By that definition, the platform’s mere existence nearly sets it perpendicular to art — a testament to the large conglomerate it’s evolved into. At the end of the day, social media is a tool. If it were to become a scapegoat for whatever millennial dilemma that spurns from it, the finger must also be pointed at the thumbs operating behind it.
Besides, it’s all just media anyway.