What should be the role of the photographer in modern society?


General Photography


As you probably heard already, Foam are celebrating their tenth anniversary looking forward (instead of back), asking What’s Next? The website is a collaborative effort, with the idea being to crowd-source (to use the lingo) the discussion and invite everybody to contribute. Part of the site is a suite of questions (you can also submit your own), to hopefully shed light on different aspects of photography: what might we expect to see next, or at least where might things be going? Over the next few months, I want to tackle some of the questions here, as a way to bring them into the blogosphere, a medium ideal for this kind of approach. (more)

The first question I picked is What should be the role of the photographer in modern society?

There probably are thousands of ways to approach this questions, starting with the counter question “What is a photographer?” That’s not such a stupid question, given that we are all photographers since we all own cameras or devices that include some sort of camera (think cell phone), and we all take photos with them. But I think we can ignore this question. If we’re all photographers then the question obviously concerns us all, and we could paraphrase it as, for example, “How do we use images in ways that affect society?” If we’re not all photographers, and we use the word “photographer” only for those people who - in whatever way - make a living from it, we don’t have to change the question at all.

Whichever direction we pick, the original question is incredibly valid. It only gets more interesting if we’re all photographers: Suddenly, it’s not just talking about other people any longer, it’s talking about ourselves! But ultimately, the question is always about us.

I noted in a review of Paul Graham’s Beyond Caring that when Margaret Thatcher declared “There is no such thing as society,” photographers went out and produced photography that showed what that sentiment was leading to. The idea of a socially engaged photographer is typically taken as something from maybe the 1960’s, but we’re talking about the 1980’s here. So it’s not quite as much a thing of the past, as we often assume, but still… it’s something that looks a bit antiquated today, doesn’t it?

I brought this topic up when I talked to a group of undergraduate photography students a little while ago. I don’t remember how this came up, but as part of an answer to a question I asked back whether people felt they had a social responsibility as photographers. A large number of the students said they did, even though many were not sure how to go about it.

When you look at contemporary photography, the number of artists documenting family life is pretty astounding (documenting family life in whatever way, be it documenting their own day-to-day life or the lives of their grandparents, say). I don’t want to pretend that I know what this actually means. It would be a conveniently simple explanation to claim that these days people are just so self-centered that they don’t care about the world any longer (it helps picturing the person making that claim as having a cane, grey hair, and a raspy voice, resulting from too many cigarettes and booze). As is often the case with such simple explanations, that’s only true to some, probably small extent. And even documenting personal spaces can be incredibly political, as, for example, in the case of Ashley Gilbertson’s Bedrooms of the Fallen.

If there’s one thing that has obviously changed over the past thirty years, it’s the range of visual options a photographer has. For a dramatic photograph you don’t have to shoot a incredibly grainy, crooked, high-contrast, b/w photo any longer. A simple portrait might do. But somehow, we still seem to think that if the photographs don’t look dramatic, there is no real drama, resulting in the regularly voiced complaints that photography supposedly today has no passion any longer. It’s worthwhile to remember, though, that what we should be talking about is not the form itself. Focusing on the form, on the many examples of seemingly detached photography, might end up giving the wrong impression of how much photographers really care.

Something else might have changed that might be closer to the core of our answer to “What should be the role of the photographer in modern society?” I might be mistaken, but I think a lot more people these days think that as an individual you can’t change things anyway. I don’t think that’s true at all. I think a photographer today can change just as much as one living fifty years ago (if you object to the word “change” replace it with “make an impact” or whatever else you might be more comfortable with).

The best approach to the question might actually be to pose it, to talk about it. Or maybe more accurately to have debates about it in circles outside of photojournalism (photojournalists seem to have no problem talking about their role in society, probably for obvious reasons).

Photography is a social medium. Photographs acquire their meaning in the social sphere. Maybe we should ask “What is the role of the photographer in modern society?” (instead of “should be”) to make things easier and more obvious: The moment you take one of your photographs and show it to someone, regardless of whether you share it on Facebook, hang it on a gallery wall, print it in a book you sell, or whatever else, it does something to that other person.

So a photographer might as well think about what role she or he might have in modern society. There might not be one answer, the answer, but that makes the question only even more interesting. I think that is important, that realization, that photography is a social medium, that photographs can make other people see things differently.

That would be my answer: The role of the photographer should be (I’m going back to the original) to help or guide or make other people see things differently (regardless of the photography). Note that I’m using “to see” not necessarily literally, and I’m including emotional as well as intellectual reactions. The moment a photograph has done that to a person it has moved beyond the realm of the illustrative and decorative. That’s when it gets interesting.