Business + Marketing

After a Year Off Social I’m Back, Living an Uncurated Life

March 27, 2020

By Nick Fancher

Last month, I returned to social media exactly one year to the day after leaving behind 60,000 followers on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. I made my exit for a number of reasons, with anxiety playing the largest role. I didn’t know where the feeling originated, or much less why, but living with it wasn’t worth what social media was offering me in exchange. After I left, many people (myself included) wondered if my photography business could survive the departure. It turns out that not only did I survive, I also learned how to thrive both personally and professionally in the process.

My first month off was spent managing work that was already coming in— not an effective gauge of what the rest of the year would entail. Month two was a different story. Depression set in, and all of my fears and issues that were barely being numbed out when I was on social media were now bubbling to the surface.

Read: Simple Ways to Strike a Healthier Balance Between Life and Your Photo Business

I wasn’t yet aware of the unaddressed trauma from my childhood, which was what was causing the anxiety. I later learned through counseling that I’d been using Instagram as a barometer to gauge my survival. I’d compare myself to my photographic peers, all the while asking me and my inner child, “Are we good enough to survive this?” It was similar to FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out) but in my case, it was more accurately described as FONS: the Fear Of Not Surviving.

In my therapy sessions, I learned that my identity and self-worth had become too wrapped up in photography, which was not only my primary passion but also how I provided for my family. That’s a lot of weight to give a thing. If all I was was that thing, I’d better be damn good at it.

Instagram made it really easy to curate my life, showing only my very best work. For a while, it felt good to be affirmed. Being liked and accepted (a.k.a. increasing my follower count) meant that I mattered. I was special after all. Instagram seemed to be my savior, in a way, giving me the affirmation I so longed for as a child. I assumed that if I used it in just the right way, I’d catch the right editor’s eye and brands would see my specialness, and I’d get my big break.

So I spent hours a day on it, trying my best to hide my flaws and post nothing off-brand. I would later discover that I’d been using it in quite an anti-social way. 

Aside from curating what I posted, I also curated who I followed. I wasn’t using this as a place to follow friends and family, but work only. I only followed a select group of photo industry accounts and a few aspirational clients, thinking that this would minimize my time on the app and make me hyper-focused, resulting in growth of my business and craft. Instead, when I opened the app I was met with anxiety rather than inspiration. My feed was just post after post of the best work being produced in the world. Any joy that I would feel over a shoot I’d just wrapped would immediately pale in comparison to what I was constantly seeing. I would later learn that the issue was never about what I was making but what I was valuing.

Once social media was out of my life, I realized just how much down time I had on my hands. I really only needed a few hours a day to run my photo business, so I needed to find healthy ways to pass the time and replace the gap that social media had left behind. I started going to a support group for Adult Survivors of Childhood Trauma (ASCA) at the urging of my wife. I took a ropes course and joined a climbing gym. I dusted off my bicycle and started riding again. I was in my studio less and less.

These activities grounded me in the tactile world around me. It taught me to be more present with my family and friends. When I was in my studio to work, I had the focus and energy I needed to stay on task. An unexpected thing came out of these activities: the trust, risk, and confidence that I was learning while climbing were carrying over to running my photo business. I learned that it was okay to attempt big moves, to make mistakes. That’s how we grow. It appeared that my image-making and my business were along for the ride. 

For the past decade, I have conducted at least one personal shoot a week, sometimes much more. Since I no longer had social media as a platform to show my recent work, I created a photo blog on my website to fill the space it left behind. I now had room to post more than ten low-res, cropped images. I had the space to expound on the conceptual or technical decisions I was making in a particular shoot. Most importantly, I had a space that I could control—there was no algorithm controlling who sees it. Old followers who noticed I was missing from social media were slowly migrating to my blog, and we now had a proper format for longer exchanges.

I also began going through five years of email archives, assembling a database of old clients and customers. I began a monthly newsletter of recent work I’d created, linking them to blog posts on my site. The newsletter proved to be more powerful at bringing in work than social media ever was. Though I only have around 1,000 subscribers in my newsletter database, compared to the nearly 60,000 I had between social platforms, I sold out my recent Creative Portrait workshop with a single email. Though I had heard it said before, I was finally learning that it’s not the size of the audience that matters but their level of engagement

An unexpected thing happened as a result of these actions: As the number of people subscribing to my RSS feed and website traffic increased, so did my Google ranking. If I had an editorial shoot in Los Angeles, I would use the appropriate hashtags and soon discovered that my images and posts were showing up as one of the top organic Google searches under “Los Angeles editorial photographer.”

I used to use social media as a means to be discovered and get more photo gigs, but by abandoning it, I improved my mental and physical health, and the gigs came as a bonus.

One thing that my improper use of Instagram had stolen from me was the ability to have something special for myself. As soon as I would create something new and beautiful, I would rush off to get it validated by my followers. There was often only a span of hours between when I wrapped a shoot and when I got it up on the ‘gram. The inner child in me was crying out, “This is good, right? Am I good enough yet?” Because of what I was emotionally attaching to my work, I would feel confused, rejected and lost if a post underperformed.

Now that I no longer had a platform offering that kind of immediacy, I was forced to really live with my creations. Since I didn’t have IG to open up on my phone, I would instead open up Dropbox and look at my recent shoots, considering what I’d just created. The feeling of accomplishment that followed was not only more sustainable and rooted in self-acceptance, but it also felt better than any amount of likes I had ever received on Instagram. After a while, I’d find that a month could easily pass between when I completed a shoot and when I got it up on my blog. In that time, I really had the space to live with the work, creating a private history with the images. By the time they were up for the world to see, I’d already sucked all the worth out of them and knew what I had. I no longer needed followers to tell me their value. 

Read: Building a Genuine Social Media Following From the Heart

When I left social media, I never had any intention of returning. I couldn’t fathom it. I didn’t even understand what was happening inside me at the time. All I knew was fear. But after putting in all the emotional and physical work over the past year, the fear inside me began to fade and eventually vanished.

Though it was a victory, was it worth risking a relapse by going back onto social media?

I considered this for months, talking it over with my therapist and my wife. I now knew that I didn’t need it to survive. In fact, 2019 was my most profitable year to date, with my business jumping by 8 percent in revenue. So why even bother with social media? 

I knew I no longer needed it for personal validation or financial survival, nor did I need to replicate my portfolio since I already have a website. I also didn’t want to pull attention away from my blogging since it has proven to be really beneficial.

But I wondered what might it add to my life if I were to use social media in a new, healthier way: What if I looked at it less as what it can do for me and more about what it allows me to do with others? If I actually use it to keep up to date on my friends, family, favorite bands—maybe it could enrich my relationships and life. Perhaps that was the way it was intended to be used in the first place.

And so, I’m back on Instagram. But in a very different way. At the advice of my therapist, I’ve put hard limits on myself: I use it for no more than 30 minutes a day, and I don’t post more than twice a week. No more than one out of five of my posts is my professional work, and when I do post professional work, I use it as a teaser to push followers to my blog.

Because my expectations are different and I don’t need it to save me or tell me who I am, the anxiety is gone. I’m taking the necessary steps to living an uncurated life.

Nick Fancher is a portrait, editorial, music and commercial photographer, an author and an educator. This article is a follow-up to Fancher’s story about why he left social media. Keep up to date with his most recent work at