Photography: A Democratic Language Not An Exclusive Club…

I recently received a tweet that contained this comment “Just because everyone has a camera these days, it doesn’t mean anyone can make a great image”. I was tempted to respond immediately but restrained myself as the limited twitter character count would never have allowed me to respond to the comment with the required accuracy of language and understanding that the comment required and to my mind demanded.

The comment has come at a time when I am constantly being questioned by friends working as professional photographers and creatives concerning one central aspect of my own professional practice. That of working as a university lecturer teaching photography to young photographers. These comments from friends and the ‘tweet comment’ bring into sharp focus the most relevant and important question facing professional photographers in the twenty first century; where is professional photography now?

I read many articles concerning the detail and interpretation of a particular image, exhibition, book and/or a photographer’s body of work, commenting on the judges of a competition’s final decision, the technological merits of a new camera and the theoretical interpretation of work based upon sociological, political and economic mantra. These articles, posts and blogs inform, entertain and more often infuriate me due to their obstructive use of language but rarely deal with the bigger issue; the bigger discussion of photography’s global evolution outside of the recognised genres of professional photographic practice.

Let’s swallow the bitterest pill first and accept that the twitter comment that starts this post is both incorrect and inaccurate. Anyone today can take a great picture, the creation of a successful single image is beyond very few. However, the ability to consistently do so and construct a visual narrative are much harder skills to achieve. These are the main criteria I use to define what makes a twenty first century professional photographer.

The vast quantity of images currently being created across a broad range of image capturing devices is often commented upon as a series of statistics. Those that create these these images rarely see or describe themselves as photographers and yet they are the very people who are taking photography into its future life. They are documenting their lives without concern for peer review, comment or adoration from ‘the photographic elite’.

My role within academia has given me a depressing insight into this elite, a powerful cabal of ‘practitioners’ teaching photography, whilst attempting to protect it as something ‘special’, something intellectually beyond the uninformed. The work they create is often deliberately obtuse and deconstructed, supported by and clothed in a thick cloak of verbose socio-political language. Those creating images with their smart phones by the thousands on a minute by minute basis have no interest in this exclusive group and approach and why should they? As the multitudes use images as a newly democratic everyday visual language created for posting and sharing, those trying to deliberately mystify that language are stuck in a repetitive state of visual procrastination.

A recent meeting with someone deeply embroiled in this practice and academia, left me both saddened and frustrated. The work I was shown was repetitive and insular, non-communative and non-involving. The logic behind the work, weak and tired. There are many reasons for this approach to photography. In this case (as is so often the case) the reasons appeared to be intellectual snobbery and an archaic and inflexible understanding of photographic practice to gain university research funding. The more complex the context, the intellectual investigation, the language used to describe it, the better and more important the work, right? Wrong!

A graduate came to see me recently. He had graduated in 2014 from a leading university photographic course in the UK. He had been a star on the course, made connections, been published and taught by leading names within the elite I have previously alluded to. And yet, his view of photography was tainted and unrealistic. He had been told that photography had no future, that there were no jobs for him so there was no point in the course teaching him skills that the lecturers felt worthless. He commented on how the lecturers input was based on the need for him to follow their aesthetic and approach. He was dismissive of the course and explained that many of his fellow students felt the same.

One year out of university and he was lost. Photography had been presented to him as a world led and determined by a self- appointed group of taste and king/queen makers. Not as  an exciting and powerful global visual language. His education was not based on what was best for him, but what was best for the lecturers, based on their self-interested approach to what photography now is and could become.

That is not a club I want to be a member of.

I have no problem with selfies, I have no problem with pictures of burgers created to sell burgers, advertising images, editorial images, self-initiated projects, family snaps, Instagram, flickr, Facebook posts, smart phone images and tablet created images. It is all photography and I love photography. I love all forms of communication. That is what I teach! Photography based on passion with no boundaries and no frontiers. You want to shoot weddings? No problem. You want to have your work in galleries and exhibitions? No problem. You want to shoot food, fashion or dogs? No problem. I’m cool with whatever you want to do and I’ll teach you what you’ll need to know to make a career out of any of those things.

That is how I teach at university and I am sure (and I know) that there are many like me with the same attitude and approach. Maybe we should form our own club and make sure that there is no membership fee, acceptance criteria, dress code or club rules.

That would be the only club I would join.

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of the United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer in Editorial and Advertising Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015).

© Grant Scott 2015

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