For the last…god, well over a decade anyway…I’ve been working as an artist, or at least existing online as an artist, in some capacity. As anyone who has ever functioned on the internet as an independent creator will know, you are responsible for your own marketing, you are a brand as well as a person, all that stuff. And holy fuck, does that ever affect how you interact with people. I mean, seriously. You have to be genuine, authentic and friendly because people respond positively to that and it’s a good way to be in general cause no-one likes fake people, but you also sort of have to see everyone you meet as a potential client, customer, reader, whatever. I don’t mean I’ve moved through my online life with cash flashing across my eyes, looking at you all like you were just a way to make money, cause fuck no. Definitely not that. Never that. But there is an element of ignoring certain behaviour and how it makes you feel because of how you have to seem when you’re running a business or you are a business or your audience’s perception of you as a person has the potential to affect whether or not you get to keep a roof over your head. And by you, I mean me. But also possibly you, depending on who you are.
Before I go any further, this is 100% not a passive-aggressive stab at anyone. I’m certain the people involved in the experiences I’m about to talk about won’t be reading this. If you are reading this, I’m not talking about you. OK? OK.
There are some things that set alarms bells ringing in my head immediately, based on solid past experience as well as common sense. One of those things is when someone who hardly knows me suddenly starts acting as if we’re great friends, as if we’ve known each other for years. I’m going to be straight-up here, it’s almost always men and you know the language I’m referring to. I know you know it. It’s at once excessively formal and overly familiar. It makes you (me, probably you) feel kind of…weird. You (I) might not be able to explain exactly why, but there’s definitely that feeling of discomfort. Not like they’re literally threatening your safety, but there’s still something not quite right. Except that person praises your work. They might refer to themselves as a fan (eww, don’t even get me started on that terminology). They talk about how much they support you as an artist, a creator, whatever. They support you as a person, even though you never asked for that. So they’re just being nice, right? Maybe it’s silly to feel uncomfortable about how they speak to you. Maybe you start trying to keep your distance in subtle ways. You leave it a while before you reply. You ignore certain parts of messages because you aren’t sure how to respond. Cause you have to be nice, don’t you? You have to be polite and friendly, don’t you? This is someone who supports your work, after all, and as everyone keeps telling you, when you’re an independent artist you will live and die by the opinions and actions of people who support your work, who consume your work (who consume you).
Except then it gets super weird and, in my experience, it always gets super weird in exactly the same way. There’s a sudden swing from excessively formal and overly familiar to aggressive, confrontational language and behaviour. Again, I’m not referring to literally threatening your personal safety, although of course it can sometimes go that way, and sometimes it has. I’m talking about talking. So you (I) draw a firm line and say no. You (I) aren’t saying the person is wrong, just that you (I) aren’t comfortable with how they’re communicating with you (me) so you’d (I’d) rather not communicate with them. And then it becomes all your fault. You’re overreacting. You’re doing exactly the same thing you said they did. You’re crazy, hysterical, wrong. Maybe they give up after not getting a response for a while. Maybe they start sharing screengrabs of private conversations with no context to try and convince other people that you’re an awful human. Whatever.
And then you start wondering what you should have done and when you should have done it to preemptively prevent that kind of behaviour. And god knows, everyone’s a fucking expert when it comes to telling you what you should have done. Thing is though, it’s not always that cut and dry. I’d go as far as to say it’s almost never that cut and dry. You (I) can go back through past encounters and conversations, trying to pinpoint the exact moment when you (I) should’ve asserted your (my) boundaries, laid down the law, been more firm, less accommodating, less polite, and it’s impossible. Sure, there are lots of things you (I) can point to and say, “That was weird. I felt uncomfortable there,” but those occasions are rarely serious enough to merit alienating someone who supports your work, who is a fan (again, eww), who just wants to be friends. It’s cumulative and that’s the problem.
I’m not saying literally everyone who is active on social media for reasons of creativity, art or business experiences this in exactly the same way, or at all. I’m saying I have and I know a lot of other people who have. I know there are people who absolutely do crave as much attention as possible from as many people as possible and have very few boundaries. I am most definitely not saying that’s wrong, by the way. I know there are people who work as independent artists or creators and hardly share anything of themselves as people, which I’m also not saying is wrong. Or ideal. Or right for everyone. Or a constructive choice. It is different for different people with different approaches and different boundaries for different reasons.
During the time when I was running a photography business and therefore relying mainly on my online activity to attract and keep clients, I was also running a tech business with my husband. I did not want those things to cross over (not for any awful reason, just that some of our tech clients were very demanding and persistent so I felt strongly that I needed to keep a distance between that and the rest of my life), so while I wasn’t super secretive about my real name or anything, I definitely didn’t use it in relation to my photography very often. Starting to use my real name – hell, my real full name (there’s another Tanya Simpson and she got there first with the real name thing) – for my writing and photography was a huge step for me. Standing behind my own creativity, attaching it to my name, to my identity, to me, was an act of empowerment. Again, this is not right for everyone and that’s cool. For much more practical reasons, I couldn’t be bothered working or creating under a pseudonym because it’s less hassle to just use my actual name. And millions of writers, photographers, artists, tattooists, politicians, teachers, dog trainers, psychiatrists, construction workers etc work under their own real, full names. So it’s not exactly a new or unusual thing and I don’t regret it.
What I do regret, and it takes a lot for me to say I regret something because it’s not a way I usually feel about anything, is allowing myself to remain in situations where I was wildly uncomfortable because I felt I had to prioritise not alienating any members of my ‘audience’ over actually feeling OK about the interactions I was having. I’ve been in situations, in the physical world as well as online, where I’ve had to deal with people feeling that they had a right to my time, energy and existence that they did not have. And in literally all of those situations, I had people who cared about me saying, “Seriously, you need to draw a firm line there because that is not OK and you don’t owe anyone shit” and I had other people saying, “This is part of the job (or the volunteer work, or the vocation). You signed up for this. Deal with it.”
I think what I’m getting at here is that I didn’t sign up for that and you didn’t either. If you’ve never experienced these issues, I’m really happy for you. If you have, I get it and it is not your fault. The existence of an independent creator, responsible for your own marketing, sales, business, networking, all of that (or simply responsible for encouraging people to engage with the art you create and share for fun), is not an easy one to navigate and we do it in an ever-changing world with ever-shifting etiquette and goalposts. It is fucking hard and there are no reliable rules.
I’ve lived with this for too long and I’m done. I don’t care if I’m shooting future-me in the art-foot by shrugging my shoulders and saying, “Nope, not anymore. I’m retreating, I’m putting up some walls and while I will always be fine to talk openly about past experiences and current perspectives because I’m a writer and it’s what I do, no part of me, my time, my energy or my life belongs to anyone but me.” For the record, that has nothing whatsoever to do with what name I create or share my work under and everything to do with what I am willing to accept in terms of how other people communicate with me.
If people looking at my photos or reading my writing is dependent on me being a brand instead of an actual human with feelings, or on my willingness to put up with people being seriously fucking creepy, I’m not up for that at all. I don’t care enough. That price is too high and I’m not going to pay it. I will throw my words and pictures out into the world for free or for a very low cost because I love to create and I love to share what I create, but I don’t owe anyone a piece of myself, for any reason, ever.
This post is dedicated to the last remaining fuck I had to give, as I watch it fly away to join all the other fucks I used to give about things that don’t matter anymore. Be free, little fuck. I’ll be fine without you.