ⓒ Ian Teh/Panos Pictures
We seem to be awash in an ever-present pining for the glory days, when pictures had a moral authority and weight, and when lots and lots and lots of photographers were able to make a living shooting socially concerned black and white documentary work.
Unfortunately, those days are gone. The economics of journalism in general have fundamentally changed in ways so well documented I won’t bother bringing them up here. And the moral authority of images has been undermined by what I would consider a good thing: People’s increasing visual sophistication. The average person is much less likely to look at a newspaper or magazine and expect to know the whole truth from one shocking picture.
Still, though, much photojournalism is caught in a self regarding loop, photographing the same subjects in a style that borrows heavily from Christian art of the renaissance – pietas, madonnas, crucifixions, moral stories of suffering and redemption, the whole deal.
Now none of what I just said is particularly new or original – it pops up again and again, but we seem to be having the same discussions over and over again. Witness the latest flare-up in what seems to be an annual event – the arguments over World Press Photo. This year it’s Stephen Mayes, the outgoing WPP Secretary, who’s provoked the firestorm (witness the comments!), as noted over on Colin Pantall’s blog.
Colin goes through an interesting discussion of why we all photograph the same things. His general point is that we seem to be photographing similarly because we are trying to shoot for others expectations of the world and not, to use the cliche, being true to our own vision:
If we do that, we might as well go and work in a call centre or flip burgers because there is more passion and feeling and depth in that than replicating someone else’s work and vision, than doing something we have no real involvement with.
The replication is the thing though. Why do we all replicate other people’s work? Perhaps one of the reasons is this is what we are told we should do – by newspapers, magazines, our professors and lecturers (they have to do something to keep their students minds of the fact that 90% of them aren’t going to make a penny from what they have studied for 3 years), the blogosphere and things like portfolio reviews.
I think some of this may be true, but a bigger question for me is why photographers seem to be so backwards looking in general – why does photojournalism seem to be such a redoubt of the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality? Why are art photographers so obsessed with replicating various styles of painting? Why, as Stephen Mays points out and Colin Pantall widens, does photography “…investigate a very limited series of tropes in a very limited series of visual approaches, becoming a self replicating machine that churns of copies of itself in perpetual motion,” and, more to the point, why is asking Nan Goldin to speak, an artists who last contributed something original to photography 20 years ago, still considered a provocative act?
I dunno. I’ve been reading about this stuff in a specifically photojournalism context for too long this afternoon. Start sifting through the following list if you’re feeling like being bewildered…
The World Press Photo winners this year
Stephen Mayes speech excerpts and full length audio
Foto8 World Press Photo report of the same event
Bromberg and Chanarin’s firestorm from last year and in pdf form. Look at the comments here, too.
Foto8 tries to deal with the criticism of that essay. And again, repetitively.
Tim Hetherington, a WPP winner and excellent photog, takes some of this on. It’s also where the 10-90 ratio comes from.
Concientious’ take in one and two and three parts, last year. I hate that Alec Soth can post his comment and no one else can.
Clearly fault for the current state of photojournalism is widely shared. There are structural problems too, duh.
Yeah, I know it’s not easy. But still.
Check out the discussions section on BURN magazine. Some interesting things there…
Some new directions? Here’s a great list of where to start.
An insightful summary that neatly articulates the frustration that so many of us feel