Are too many people taking photographs?

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By Pedro Meyer

New York 2010 © Pedro Meyer

I have been asked many times what I think about the fact that nowadays almost everyone takes pictures. The question of course, has a sort of hidden agenda. It suggest that photography has become so common place so as to render photography into a commodity, taking away from it, it’s aura of sophistication, uniqueness and or the merit of being seen as some form of art, after all most people make pictures that are quite bad.

All along my answer has been consistently the same. I more than welcome the fact that so many more people today take pictures in comparison to, lets say, just ten years ago. Let me explain: if we were having this debate over the written word, probably no one would object that a nation make all the needed efforts to achieve total literacy. As a matter of fact, all over the world there is a strong awareness of how important it is for its population to become literate, at least in the dominant language of the country in question.

No one in their right mind, would expect someone to jump from not being able to read and write to becoming a laureate poet. Yet somehow the expectations that are being upheld for photography are a bit like that. We expect photos taken by people who yesterday did not even have a camera, to come up with at least good images, and if it does not happen then we should somehow be disappointed.

Let us look at this more in detail. To be visually illiterate is the equivalent to not knowing how read and write. However, as cameras have become more ubiquitous, and the price of the instrument coming down considerably, and the cost of taking a picture near zero , the number of pictures taken have increased exponentially. In other words, more and more visually illiterate people are making pictures because they can, not because they acquired a great visual culture before making their pictures.

Add to that, the fact that all the new technologies we have available today, have created cameras that are so intelligent that they make most of the decisions for the photographer with regard to the exposure and sometimes even the framing, allowing our new found photographer to obtain results that reward the efforts of pressing the shutter button. It’s almost the equivalent of someone speaking to a microphone and the computer translating the sound of the voice, into a written text. We would not say that this person had in fact learned how to write. Well much the same happens when a camera takes a picture that is acceptable even though the person behind the lens has no knowledge of photography what so ever.

So we have that the entry cost has come down so much that it has made the picture making process a lot more democratic. Add to that, the technology has empowered everyone to have some kind of satisfactory result. This would suggest that although pictures are being made, they apparently are not the outcome of a deliberate decision making process as when you really know what you are doing. After all security cameras register images and we would not call such results as being provided by a photographer.

Having said this, we have to wonder how accurate such thoughts really are. After all how can one say that someone does not know at all what they are doing. Maybe what is happening today has to be viewed in a completely different light ( no pun intended). Consider how any teenager sending pictures to all his or her friends, with regard to their latest adventures, would certainly fall into the realm of autobiographical expression, even though such a category might be far removed from any conscious decision making process. In fact I would think that this tidal wave of images, has left the intellectual community confronted with new challenges to understand and see photography in a “new light”. Certainly the concept of “bad photography” is taking hold as a new concept that has to be dealt with. Has “bad photography” liberated “good photography” from becoming something else?

As I see it, with so many millions of people, the world over, having now explored making images, their curiosity for doing something different and new to their previous results will probably lead many to a new era of acquiring more and more visual literacy and technological know how, and leave the curatorial world scratching their heads as to what to make of it all. How could anyone dealing with photography in the XXI century, dismiss as trivial the shear volume of photographs that have been created. The collective document that has been produced world wide, documenting so much of our daily life in this period, will surely become a fundamental piece of information for generations to come. If this was it’s sole merit, that alone would already give importance to all that has been photographed.

This opens up the field of photography in the realm of education and publishing in ways that will probably explode in the years to come.

The entry cost to participate in the creative world has come down so much that we can truly say that if you want to make a film, record a disc, make photographs, publish a book, and so on, it’s not something that is beyond your means, as it was not too long ago. It has finally come down to the most meaningful part of the act of creating, and that is that you have something meaningful to share. And if you don’t know what to say then don’t worry, then at least have a lot of fun doing what ever strikes your fancy, that also counts as contributing in some degree to the well being of all those around you, after all happiness is contagious, and who knows, maybe without you knowing it, are changing the face of photography for ever.

I am personally very gratified to see so many people in the world engaged in creative activities that we could hardly believe possible not too long ago.

Pedro Meyer
Coyoacán, Mexico City
November 2010

First published in

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