Opinion: TikTok’s photography feed lacks originality, opportunity for aspiring artists

By Steven Nunez, Photojournalist

Justin Sullivan / Getty

Artists from any medium often turn to apps such as Instagram and Pinterest for inspiration. More recently, the hottest social media app TikTok—a site where users can create and share short mobile videos—drives popular culture forward with its intricate dances, popular music and viral video challenges.

Like any other social media app, there’s a community for any subject of interest. As a photographer, I tapped into the app’s photography world and found myself disappointed with its lack of originality.

Being new to the app, the first piece of photography content on my “For You” feed was from Alex Stemplewski, a photographer from San Francisco. His viral video, with over 82 million views, was simply him asking a random mall employee to model for him, and the photos he took turned out pretty basic. He created work that any other amateur photographer could shoot by directing the model to pose with their hands on their face and using a railing as an element of leading lines. After watching the video, I was confused why something so simple could go viral.


I asked her to model foryou.. and she said No! 😂 #photographyeveryday #challenge #4u @brentography_

♬ The Box – Roddy Ricch

I checked one of the most used hashtags for photography, #photographyeveryday, that has more than 1.3 billion total views, and noticed the first nine posts that filled up my phone were from Stemplewski. And most of those nine posts were him asking strangers to take their portrait.

Stemplewski’s method for going viral is lazy, considering the method simply includes finding white teenage girls in Urban Outfitters and taking portraits of them through a window or up close with a wide aperture.

He sets the trend of creating content by photographing strangers in stores. It’s ridiculous that these models use products in stores that they haven’t bought for photoshoots.

Annaleigh Johnston, for example, filmed a TikTok of herself modeling at a Tommy Hilfiger store using their scarves as props. This would be considered clout chasing, using high-end brands to boost your contents’ likes and shares. However, the fact that all the photos were shot up-close to the point where you couldn’t even tell the branding of the scarf made the idea of going to a store like Tommy Hilfiger pointless.

The worst TikTok photography I saw was from, of course, Stemplewski. In one video, he pulled out a kitchen strainer and held it over a stranger’s head in public for a photo. The strainer’s pattern didn’t even cover her whole face. If he can do that and get praise for it, I can put a cheese grater over a stranger’s head and go viral, too.

It’s not so often I come across photography that I find original or that uses some sort of special technique.

However, I do enjoy some of the at-home photography setups on the app, such as TikTok user Derrick Freske applying light painting on his model in the corner of a room. This piece of content shows you can do a lot and get a great result with a simple set up of an LED light and tripod.


light painting portraits pt. 2 #editing101 #photomagic #photographer #myphotography #lightpainting #behindthescenes #model #photography101

♬ Rodeo (feat. Nas) – Lil Nas X & Nas

Overall, the bar is set low for the creatives of TikTok’s photography community. Portraiture seems to be a big sub-category of interest on the app, but most of the work follows the same style of editing with high contrast and intense retouching of eyes on Adobe Photoshop.

As a photographer, I would be more motivated to bring my work to TikTok if they didn’t have a rigged hashtag algorithm. The app should add a section of recent posts next to their top posts section like Instagram does when you click on a hashtag. Then everyone could have a higher chance of getting more exposure, and it could raise the bar to a higher level.

Hashtags are important on social media apps because they open doors for people’s content to be seen by a broader audience. Using them on my Instagram posts have definitely brought me a lot of attention and growth, but when looking at TikTok, it doesn’t seem like the place for me. I don’t want to have to hop on a trend of asking strangers to shoot candid portraits or compromise my work in any other way, just for some clout.