People take pictures of the summer
Just in case someone thought they had missed it
Just to prove that it really existed
People take pictures of each other
And the moment to last them forever
Of the time when they mattered to someone
The Kinks, "People Take Pictures of Each Other" (1968)
The rapid proliferation of digital cameras, cell phones and social media has caused considerable confusion amongst professional photographers and critics alike: what does this say about or mean for photography? At least on the surface, it would seem that we're all photographers now. Countless articles have been written about this, most of them trying to expand the thinking that Susan Sontag laid out in her seminal On Photography. Without going into too many details, there are two main approaches to this topic.
On one hand, it is presented as a problem: with so many photographs produced, the value of a single photograph has become zero – why then bother taking even one more photograph? It is alternatively presented as the culmination of the medium's history: photography has finally become the true democratic medium, an idea that always reminded me of Francis Fukuyama’s post-Soviet “end of history.” To be honest, I do not find either approach particularly enlightening, since neither offers anything beyond mere description.
As Susie Linfield has pointed out in the introduction of The Cruel Radiance, it is most curious that so many photography critics are dismissive not just of the medium but also, by extension, of its users. In the following, I argue that instead of trying to infer properties of the medium we are better off turning the lens inward: what do these innumerable photographs say about us? Given that sharing has become such an integral part of photography, we might as well start there. Facebook hosts billions of photographs, with around 300 million added every day (that's a mid-2012 number, it might be higher by now), and has acquired Instagram, combining photography with social media.
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Many professional photographers use Instagram, and it's interesting to observe how similar their images are to everybody else's on the service. This seemingly makes no sense. Wouldn't professional photographers, people who know much more about photography than everybody else, produce images that look different? They would if – and that's the key here – Instagram were centered on photography. But it isn't.
What Instagram is really about is sharing photographs. The photographs on Instagram are made explicitly to be shared. Taking a photograph with the Instagram app is a social activity. And as a social activity, it follows the conventions of other social activities.
This makes the decision by photojournalists and news organizations to disseminate photography on Instagram so problematic: the vast majority of people treat photographs on Instagram as social snippets, much like the “how are you?” when meeting someone. Photojournalists using Instagram for serious work are essentially behaving like Germans who, when asked “how are you?” in a casual setting, reply with a serious, in-depth answer -- because, in Germany, the convention of asking “how are you?” is different. Instagram features what I call “social photographs,” images whose purpose lies explicitly in their use in a social context and news photographs do not operate that way at all. Instagram is a website to share a very specific kind of photography, and photojournalists who use it find their news photographs encountered on a level perhaps different from what they intended.
But there is more. Given that we carry cell phones everywhere, and given that they all have cameras, these cameras have morphed into something new. We can now routinely observe people photographing events with their cell phones, instead of merely watching them. The aspect of sharing cannot possibly be the sole reason why we use a cell phone at, say, a concert. Often, the quality of our recordings is just not good enough. Why do we then do this?
I believe there can only be one answer: The act of photographing itself is what matters, not the photographs. The act of photographing has become part of being there, of experiencing, of participating. It doesn't matter whether or not I get a good photograph of some event. But it does matter that I photograph. I photograph because I am there, to affirm my presence.
Affirming one's presence is a social act. If you visit Paris and see the Eiffel Tower, having your photograph taken in front of it is an essential part of the experience. Of course, none of your friends would doubt it if you told them you were there. Thus the main focus of the resulting photograph is not to serve as evidence. Instead, the photograph is made as part of being there – being there without having that picture taken would make the experience incomplete. And it needs to be shared for it to become complete.
The photograph thus becomes almost irrelevant. It doesn't have to be a good photograph at all, as long as it shows you in front of the Eiffel Tower, and as long as it is shared with friends and/or family. The 300 million photographs added to Facebook daily signify 300 million different experiences, of people communicating about something they participated in.
News photographs find themselves at almost the very opposite of the spectrum: their main point is that they speak of something very important. The content of a news photograph matters greatly. Of course, they also need to be disseminated. Embedding them onto Facebook or Instagram opens up new possibilities for sharing. But, at the same time, these photographs now exist in a context where the image itself for the most part doesn't matter.
A photograph from a war zone might thus find itself next to images of people's breakfasts, some funny sign found in the street, or whatever else. Given the predominant expectations for photographs encountered on Facebook or Instagram, people will apply those to that war-zone photograph. At best, there is a mixed message being sent – an environment where photographs are social gestures, with specific content mattering little, is employed to share photographs whose content matters very much. At worst, people will just treat it like any other photograph, clicking “like” to make sure the photographer's feelings are acknowledged. This corrodes the idea of news photography.
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Anyone interested in or using photography in a professional context needs to understand how the vast majority of photographs are made and used today. These are social photographs, in which the focus is not on the photograph itself but the fact that it was made and shared. In a nutshell, one could say: I photograph, therefore I am. Photography has thus not been diminished by the flood of images over the past few years. Instead, it has become an integral part of our lives.
What this means, however, is that when we talk about the billions of photographs that already exist, one must be careful about applying older ideas of photography. Photographs made out of a desire to affirm one's presence, shared with friends and strangers, are not the same kinds of beasts as photographs made for newspapers, or photographs made for advertising, or photographs made to hang on the walls of art galleries. Pretending they are all the same ignores their differences, and it ultimately turns photography into a simpler, if not dumber version of itself.
Almost 200 years after it was invented, photography has now become a medium that is richer and more interesting than ever before. Sheer numbers, however, do not help to approach it. Instead, we have to understand how photography is being used, in all its different contexts, with all the different expectations we have of it.