If everybody can be a photographer…


General Photography


Here’s the big question: If everybody can be a photographer, what will be the function of a professional? Good question, isn’t it? We all have at least cell phone with cameras, if not iPhones (with the assorted “apps” to make the images look a certain way). It gets amusing when you look at how some photojournalists have started using their iPhones to produce work - why shouldn’t they be doing what everybody is doing? Of course, things get quite a bit less amusing when you think about the role - or let’s say supposed - role of photojournalists: You’d imagine that catering to the latest hipster trend seems pretty low on the list. (more)

Not that I want to complain about photojournalism, it’s having a hard enough time already. But there is a reason why I brought this up.

Let’s realize the following first: Photography is a fairly unique art form. I’m saying this not because it’s the form of art I’m most interested in. I’m saying this because I can’t think of another art form that can be seen in so many different ways, even when looking at the same image. Many photographs are routinely used in very different contexts. The same photograph might appear on the cover of a newspaper, in a coffee-table book, on a website, and/or on the wall of a museum or commercial gallery. While we’re dealing with the same photo, its function changes considerably based on the context it’s being placed in.

Of course, you could imagine the same thing for a painting. But a painting on the cover of a newspaper would still be a painting, whereas a photograph is taken as factual information (let’s ignore the details about that here). That same photograph, put on the wall of an art gallery, gets transformed into something else. We could argue about what that “something else” is (for the gallery owner, it might be a stand-in for a nice check, for a visitor it might be a piece of art), but it seems obvious that photographs have certain functions, and their meaning (in part) arises from their function.

Which brings me back to the iPhone photojournalism: When you take one function, a snapshot aesthetic which is openly sold as part of a certain lifestyle (the “app” is called Hipstamatic - it could not get any more obvious), and when you then take it and apply it to a very different context, we have a huge problem. War, we should realize (one would hope), is not hip. And depicting war in a way that makes it look cool or hip is definitely not hip. Of course, you could argue that I’m just some grouchy guy and you’re probably right. But I’m still pretty confident that it’s not a photojournalist’s role to make things look a certain way. Last time I heard making things look a certain way is what marketing departments do.

Of course, a photojournalist shooting like a Brooklyn hipster raises the following question: If everybody can be a hipster what will be the function of the professional hipster? Or to bring it back to the original question, it gets inverted: If every professional can take photos like an amateur photographer what will be the function of the amateur photographer?

All kidding aside, let’s get things into their natural order now. Let’s assume you have an iPhone with said app. Are you then a photojournalist? I think we all can easily agree that you’re not, and I probably don’t have to explain why.

I once had coffee with a photojournalist, and we ended up geeking out over the point-and-shoot camera we both used at the time. I never thought that owning one of those cameras made me a photojournalist. At the table there was one person who would sneak the camera into places where photography was not allowed to take photos of what war does to people (a point-and-shoot camera is easily concealable - unlike a big digital SLR). That wasn’t me.

What I’m trying to get at here is that it takes a bit more than owning a camera to be a photographer or at least a certain type of photographer. We might all be photographers, but it takes a bit more than owning an 8x10 view camera to produce images people like Larry Gagosian will be happy to sell for a lot of money. Ownership of an 8x10 view camera is not what makes a master photographer what s/he is. Even the basic skills it takes to produce a photo with such a beast won’t do.

So the answer seems incredibly mundane: The role of the professional has not changed at all, and it will not change. You could argue that what has changed is that it’s much easier now for anyone to become one such professional. But even that doesn’t seem to obvious (it sounds good, though).

It’s funny that photography seems to be the only area I can think of where you magically join the guild (so to speak) merely on the basis of owning the tools. Isn’t it funny that you never hear writers worry about the fact that everybody knows how to write?

Update (26 May 2011): A reader pointed out to me that writers do in fact have the same kinds of discussions. When I used “writer” I mostly had novelists in mind, or the people who write for, let’s say, Harper’s or The New York Review of Books. But the internet has created all kinds of problems for restaurant critics, say, etc. At the end of the day, however, I do think the problem for writers is just the same as for photographers.