On futility and the myopic nature of the photo world.
***Before I launch into a full blown rant. Let me make one thing clear. This is not a “photojournalism is dead” or “print is dead” blog post. There have been enough of those and aside from being mostly wrong, they ignore all of our own complicity in all of this.***
Last week myself and 11 other like minded photographers gathered at a house in Charlottesville Virginia in the days leading up to the look3 photo festival. Somebody coined it “lookpre”. The theme of the week was personal work, personal projects whatever you want to call them. We talked a lot about actual projects but mostly we talked about the different ways projects get seen/distributed/paid for. There was a certain level of existential angst present in the house. It wasn’t negativity, it was more a collective “why are we doing this?”. ”This” being shooting photo projects of our own inception. Over the course of the week, a couple themes emerged that solidified some things I was already thinking about.
Here is the disconnect that I think is leaving a lot of us questioning the purpose of all of this. We spend thousands of dollars and years of our lives on projects only to publish an expensive photo book that will probably only be seen by a handful of other photographers, editors and photo geeks etc etc. The incredible myopathy of our industry is staggering when you think about it. We have been looking in all of these pre defined spaces for validation when they are in all reality, probably not the best ways to disseminate work.
Say for instance you spend a year shooting a project. Now you have the edit locked down and you take said project and send it to a few magazines. More than likely the only real place for that work to live at an editorial outlet is online in the form of a photo blog. Magazines don’t have entire sections for photo essays anymore. One of the last great ones got killed this year when the NYTM re-designed and axed the “Look” section. These magazines expect exclusivity for their blogs (which admittedly do have big audiences) and in return, they give you about 500 bucks at most. Unless your project goes viral, your project will be buried in three days by the next one. The reason we go grovel at the feet of these idols is because we worship them and we NEED their validation. The work has become more about ourselves than it has about the work. The artist monograph isn’t about the work, its about ME. In my opinion, most of us (myself first and foremost) have been living in a closed loop that looks like this:
Grant applications (that you won’t get) >project work> pitching the project> maybe a magazine runs a few of the photos in print>runs in a big fancy photo blog>published in a limited edition of 500 monograph>gallery show>goes on your website to die.
I’m obviously being reductive but think about this. Along the way during this entire process, who are the people interacting with the work? Are they people who need to see the work and be changed by it or are they people who we desperately want/need to validate us because of our own desperation and insecurity because of our need to matter and be important.
Presumably, if you are a non fiction photographer (I know it sounds douchey but photojournalism is a dirty word and not really accurate anymore), you got into this because you wanted to tell stories in a meaningful way. This is not an indictment of our industry, it’s an indictment of myself. I haven’t thought in creative ways about how to actually make an impact with photos. I’ve created projects that end up just being a monument to myself rather than actually trying to engage people with them. I think some of the most interesting stuff happening right now is exactly the type of thing that terrifies us as photographers. Every Day Africa, the incredible instagram project by Peter DiCampo, is a perfect example of this. His name isn’t even really under any of those photos anymore, it’s been turned over to dozens of other African photographers and it has sparked crazy tough conversations about representation. They have started educational programs that are trying to engage young people in meaningful ways in public schools. They’ve even created curriculum for these schools. It’s incredible. That project is about as far away from the tradition of the aeteur photographer as you can get. Communal authorship, shared vision, using a vernacular platform to connect with real human people, not just other people who agree with us that possess a level of visual literacy that we deem acceptable.
Again, i’m not lamenting the death of print journalism, I make a halfway decent living shooting for magazines and I am incredibly thankful for that work. A few of those magazines have even supported some of my personal work in very real ways. I’m not suggestion we burn the house down. Rather, I think we live in an exciting time where parallel to these traditional platforms, we can also think creatively about new ways to make and share work that can actively engage people. It’s not depressing that some of those traditional avenues are changing, its good. It will force us to re-evaluate why we are doing the things we are doing and come back at them with renewed vigor, less ego and clearer vision.