Don’t drink the Kool-Aid!

Don’t drink the Kool-Aid!
Samrat Yantra (Giant sundial), Jantar Mantar, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Freedom to Risk
Samrat Yantra (giant sundial), Jantar Mantar, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India


Back in November 1978 when cult leader Jim Jones encouraged his followers to drink a cyanide laced “favor aid” and commit suicide rather than face the consequences of their actions (Several leaders had murdered US Senator Leo Ryan.) Most of Jones’ followers unquestionably drank the “potion,” and 918 of them, including Jones, died. Since then, when people unquestionably follow a teaching or dogma we say that they “drank the Kool-Aid.” In a cult people lose their individuality, and they lose their ability to choose. In many ways they quite literally lose their souls. They look to the leader and the community for approval and for direction. But the scary part is they have lost the ability for self-reflection and don’t see this happening. They don’t feel like they have lost anything. In fact quite the opposite, they feel they are free; however, they are only free so long as they do what the group wants them to do. They seek approval from other members, especially the leader/s and when they tow the party line they get unending approval. But–if they step outside these borders and try to be unique and individualistic, they face ridicule and are often labeled as heretics.

What does this have to do with photography? There are powerful voices in the world of photography that influence and direct forms and trends in our field. I know many of these people personally, and have visited many of their sites. I know that most of them are not malicious in anyway. But I have begun to notice a disturbing trend where there seems to be unquestionable loyalty towards these people and–dare I say–their “empires,” or “fiefdoms.”  I have seen photographers view the teaching, trends and opinions of these leaders as sacrosanct and therefore unchallengeable. This is wrong on so many levels. Art has to be an individual act of expression. Once it starts to lose its uniqueness it becomes something other than art. Art has been the home to rebels and outcasts from the beginning.  Conformity is antithetical to art. I hope there will never be a political correctness to my photography.  We should never be afraid or embarrassed to voice our opinions, both vocally or in our photography. When the “experts” tell us that what we are doing is wrong we should cautiously listen with an open mind. But we should never be afraid to challenge their opinions and stage a mini-revolution by asking that most mutinous of questions–why? Why has always been a powerful word. It is a word that is a threat to some people. I think it’s a threat because it forces people to examine why they hold onto a certain view. When asked why it is difficult to parrot a response, you have to own it. Why is a word that people get tired of hearing.  I remember when my daughter Jessie was only three or four years old she went through a phase of asking “Why, Daddy?” There were more than a few times when I just wanted to say, “Because Daddy said so, that’s why!” But I didn’t, because I learned that when I had to explain myself I tested my own knowledge and my own understanding and inevitably grew from it.  Don’t be afraid to ask or to be asked why. Either way you will learn from it.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma–which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most importantly, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. ~Steve Jobs

Drinking the Kool-Aid is more than just following someone blindly, and buying into an opinion or dogma without question. It is quite literally artistic suicide. When we do these things we kill our vision. We kill our creativity. We no longer make any difference in the artistic world because our art becomes just a photocopy of others. Your vision is just that, yours. It comes from your life and your experiences. It is an expression of your uniqueness. It is OK to copy someone else’s work or style for a time as long as you do it as a exercise to better your own vision. We all learn from others, that is a good thing, but the more we vary our input the more our vision grows.

Photography, like all art forms, is subjective. Don’t let me or anyone tell you your art is bad. At the same time, don’t tell me I have to like your art either, or that is is somehow elevated above the rest of us schmoes because some art critic said so. That subjective point of view goes both ways. But feel free to explore and push the boundaries wide open. Put your subject smack in the middle of the frame if you’d like. Over expose it. Heck, process your images as an HDR if you like. If you listen to your heart, there is a really good chance you will see or feel if it isn’t right for you. You will learn nothing by playing it safe.

Earlier this year I started posting on Google+. I was told by several people whose opinion I respect that it was a wonderful place for photographers to gather and share their images and learn from one another. We all need community, we are relational beings. I had hoped to find a place where ideas could flow freely and an exchange of knowledge would happen. A place where I could get honest criticism and encouragement. A place where I might help others grow and grow myself. Frankly, I haven’t found this to be true of Google+. It quickly became apparent there were “the select few” and then there were the unwashed masses, or the rest of us schmoes. The select few were the keepers of style, leaders with literally millions of followers and everyone else trying to emulate them. I saw a few photographers dare to be different and question the status quo, but when they tried to express a different opinion they were smacked down, sometimes in the most harshest of ways.

Then one day it happened to me.  I questioned one of the top community leaders. Within minutes I received comments that were shockingly rude and mean, simply because I had a dissenting view. Not by him, mind you, but by his followers and other leaders. The irony is I didn’t actually  hold a contrary view at all, I was merely asking for clarification as to why he held one opinion over another. One of these people told me they’d like to “bash my head in.” I was shocked, this was someone I had long admired and looked up to, I had even met him once. I wrote this man a personal email to explain that I wasn’t trying to be difficult but simply trying to get more information. I asked his forgiveness if he thought that perhaps I had embarrassed his leader or had said something hurtful in my comment.

I never heard back from him. I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid. I don’t need a this type of community, but I still desire a community. The kind of artistic community I desire needs to see value in questioning, risking and trying new things. Since then I simply use Google+ and post from a distance. I don’t hang out there at all. There is too much Kool-Aid being passed around for me.

There is no reason why an online community cannot be supportive of new ideas that may be contrary or different, otherwise said community simply becomes a propaganda machine for the hailed “leaders.” We all want to grow in our craft and art but we cannot do it if we don’t push the boundaries, risk rejection and step out into new territories. Many years ago back in university I attended a college Bible study. The study was good, but the thing that made it a place that I could feel comfortable and what drew me back was an attitude that was typified by the motto that hung over the door, “Here you have the freedom to fail.” Everyone fails, but that’s not the point. The point is, do we have the freedom to risk failure? To fall flat on our faces and still be accepted? If you find a place where you have the freedom to ask why and to be asked why, to risk and to fail, you’ve found a place to grow.


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About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.


  1. Gavin Gough

    Wow! Nicely said. I couldn’t agree more. There are a lot of Emperors wearing New Clothes out there, I’m happy to be the kid shouting “But he’s naked!”. As for the Kool Aid, I wouldn’t even know where to find it, let alone drink the stuff. Being “uncool” is the New Cool.

    • Matt

      Sorry, I forgot to make this a multilingual post. Here: “Don’t Drink the Squash!” 😉

  2. Kendrick (from

    Yeah Google+ is a interesting beast, that’s for sure. It was totally strange how in the earliest days of Google+ these few select personalities were able to get so many followers but most of us just got a few of our friends. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, hopefully some kool-aid drinkers will read it!

    • Matt

      Thanks Kendrick.

  3. Tom Bourdon

    Its so true, to me Google+ has never really been an open forum to discuss ideas, much more a place to follow the masses and damn you if you dont. I too have been shot down for asking questions, so know I simple dont bother and stay clear.

    Its a shame because I like how Google + looks and some of the features but it does seem hard to make friends there

    Thanks for sharing

    • Matt

      Hi Tom, Thanks for commenting. I am sorry you got mistreated at Google+ as well. I do want readers to understand this was not a post meant to blast Google+. It really is meant to explore a bigger issue. Google+ was just too handy of an example.

  4. Ray Ketcham

    What is google+?

    oh that thing that looks a lot like flickr only vertical?

    I guess google+ works for folks who make photos for other photographers, I would rather make photos for a different group of people. Art isn’t made with a herd mentality, however it is more than just a subjective judgement on what is or isn’t art. It takes a lot more than just making photographs or understanding the “rules” to understand art. The language for art is more than just composition, lines and elements and deserves much more study and understanding. If everyone says something is a certain way and can’t answer why it is, they deserve the leaders they choose. I was told at a young age to choose my heroes wisely and have listened to that advice for more than half a century.

    • Matt

      “flickr only vertical” I love the description. I also liked, “Art isn’t made with a herd mentality” I think this is close to the core of what I am saying.

      Honestly, I see the so called “rules” of art or composition more like a “law of nature”. Not a rule in the sense you have to do it this way or that. The rule is just a fact. Like it is a fact that people’s eyes gravitate to the focused area of a photo over the out of focused area. It is a fact. Now the question is- do we choose to do anything with that rule. Sometimes we do, but sometimes we choose not to. But if you are going to tell me not to do something or that I am wrong to do something then by golly you better be able to make a healthy argument to back it up! And frankly I would love a good healthy discussion. The problem is there are way too many people either not knowing what they are talking about or thinking a million followers automatically gives them the right to tell me to do it their way. Sorry.

  5. Todd White

    I so agree with you. I have tried to integrate G+ into my social media plan and just can’t quite fit it in and get it too work. It seems elitist and difficult to find community in. Though it’s s dying place, I find community easier in Flickr. Thanks for posting this

    • Matt

      I am not sure it is dying. I know Scott Kelby and his crew are trying hard to revive it.

  6. Mike Alexander

    It’s a shame really. Internet sites such as Google+ could be a very rich environment for creatives to share and discuss with the intent to grow their craft. Instead, as you point out, they become a place with a few leaders (very few) and their flock of followers. They are places where you are more likely to get a digital beat down than advice and encouragement if you dare not to conform with their perceived standards.

    The problem with the internet (from someone who’s pay check once depended on it) is the anonymity it provides. People are far too willing to stand on their pulpits, declare their way (or their leader’s way) as the one and only, and beat the non-conformists with a digital stick when they have a digital wall to hide behind. They will type hurtful, slanderous, even threatening comments that they would never say to your face.

    I have quit every photography forum I ever joined. When I did participate in these forums, I received countless “follow the rule of 3rds”, “don’t centre your subject”, “follow this rule”, “follow that rule” that I just got fed up. If I listened to the comments I received on my photography, my photos would look just like everyone else’s, and that’s not what I want. My photography may not appeal to everyone, but it’s not meant too, and I would worry if it did.

    • Matt

      Thanks Mike, convicting or it should be. BTW see my comment to Ray about rules.

  7. Heber Vega

    Hi Matt.

    I don’t really know what else to add. Except that in photography, I find really difficult the fact of creating “online communities”. I have some sort of community around friends and people I personally know, I feel connected and informed about their careers/paths but this is complete different than a place to “hang out” and engage in constructive dialogue through Internet. I have put my hopes on groups that have promised that in the past but is not there, it doesn’t really exist.

    I think that takes me back to the “old times” of making genuinely friends. People that I can talk for real, care and spend time even if that means over Skype these days. Community is a hard thing online, although most people would like to think different in that matter.

    Anyway, thank you for posting this. There are so many photography “gurus” out there that don’t deserve to be call out that. For the same reason, WE need to watch out to not become one of them. Important is how we communicate with people online. Are we looking for fans? followers? Or do we honestly engage in conversations? Do we support others without interest? not expecting a RT back on my next tweet… and so on.

    Thanks again for bringing this up.

  8. Gavin Gough

    Interesting that the comments here from Ray, Heber and others have about a hundred times more value and integrity than the catalogue of opinionated nonsense which I read on the post you referred to. I thought I was going to read comments from well-respected photographers in a lively community but instead I encountered Lord of the Flies. I suggest you leave them to it and we’ll get back to the real business of making images that we care about, images in the real world, not forcing our bloated opinions upon others in a meaningless, virtual, elitist whirlpool.

  9. Craig Ferguson

    It’s probably just another symptom of the age we live in. Talent, hard work, originality, longevity, persistence are no longer deemed desirable when there are short cuts to fame to be had via popularity. People don’t want to take the time to build up a body of work over years anymore , they want to pick up a camera, copy a style, shoot for a few weeks and proclaim themselves a master. It’s not just photography, it stretches into music, movies, fiction and so on. I went to a presentation by Michael Yamashita a couple of weeks ago where he was introducing his newest book, and talking to him afterwards he mentioned that it’d been photographed over a 15 year period. I can’t imagine a new photographer today having the dedication to spend so long on a single work. It’s all instant fame, collect your likes and +1’s and move onto the next big thing, and if you don’t follow the latest trend, you’re a nobody.

  10. Fernando Gros

    Matt, thank you for these thoughts. I don’t see the issue as being about G+ per se, but more about our desire for community and, dare I say it, validation.

    I do wonder what the point of social photography is. As a new photographer, I’m very keen to learn. But, honestly, I choose my inputs carefully. If I based my growth on forums, I’d be rudderless. But, a lot of activity on Flickr, 500px and G+ seems to be based around impressing other photographers. That’s nice, in a clubby kind of way. But, at the risk of being provicative I wonder, what’s the point.

    Fellow photographers are not going to buy my prints, or book me to shoot. And, I’m not selling any servies for photographers (books, workshops, or seminars). So, what exactly do I gain from hanging around the social media photography ghetto?

    This might sound harsh, but I learnt a parallel lesson a long time ago in the music world. There were guitarists I knew who were awesome soloists. They hung around with other guitarists, created a buzz when they walked into guitar stores and were sought after as teachers. But, they weren’t always the first players booked for bands or sessions. To get the gigs you had to stop hanging around other guitarists and meet venue owners, studio enginners and band bookers.

  11. steve porte


    Your words are both on-point and timely. It is not just Google+ passing out the Kool Aid. Many of the photo-specific web sites and facebook groups have also become platforms from which the growing legion of self-proclaimed experts put forth the ‘Gospel’, and chastize the non-believers. I think that most of us are eager to learn, and happy to take advice or critiques from any legitimate source. But I also think that the internet has created a whole generation of ‘experts’ without a real vetting process. Being told that ones work is invalid or unacceptable because it doesn’t fit the guidelines created by some ‘authority’ of unknown qualification just rubs most people the wrong way. I’m with the posters above – let’s just go out and shoot.

    ~ Hardening of the categories leads to art disease….

  12. Steve Rees

    Good morning Matt, greetings from Alaska;
    I rather liked the post about the Kool-Aid. I think the problem of people employing the language of conflict and derision is more widespread than just the art world. I see it mostly in politics, but also in any other area where one person holds an opinion and seeks to bash a different opinion. A company I’ve had good dealings with has a forum where numerous people complain and harangue – sometimes they are folks labeled as “griefers,” looking to agitate or annoy – yet I don’t defend the company because I have no desire to get embroiled in an ongoing storm of animosity. I don’t like to sort through the negative posts.
    One thing that I think contributes to the griefing malaise is the widespread popularity of American reality TV (and its UK counterparts). People who see conflict as a reasonable method of conversation have argued that it is just the same as any other dialogue. I see it as conflict for the sake of conflict, or drama. All of that may be fine for TV, but I don’t think it promotes successful interaction with actual ‘real’ people. The language of diplomacy and teaching seldom involves insults or ridicule.
    It appears that a great number of people have drunk of many sorts of kool-aid. I don’t know if it is only the youth of today (some of us old folks tend to blame too much on the ‘youth of today’), or the speed of communication in our world and the lack of time taken to digest and reflect on opinions and facts.
    I think it was Mark Twain who once said, “Americans believe in things so strongly that they confuse it with being right.” – Anyone, please correct me if I’ve attributed this wrongly.
    I don’t know the answer to your dilemna of finding a community online, but I think you have figured out how to handle the unpleasant people. Perhaps you can find another online avenue to your desired community of photographers. I hope so.
    I’ve now, officially, gone on too long. Let me just say that I agree with you: Artists must think for themselves and they should feel their own pain and joy. Then show it to the world. I think everyone else can learn something from those artists who do; we should all search our own hearts for our path forward.

    – Steve Rees



  1. Reads of this (past) week 42… | The Travelling Tripod - [...] 1. a good article by Matt Brandon on the importance of being part of a community, yet the need…

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