I found myself one Saturday evening sat in front of the television with my wife watching a popular mainstream entertainment programme presented by the comedian Michael McIntyre. An aspect of the programme is that somebody is ‘set-up’ to become the ‘unexpected star of the show and sing a song at the close of the programme.
The unexpected star on the episode I watched was a seventeen-year-old girl, who from the moment she appeared on our screen documented every comedy event with her smartphone. In the five minutes she was on screen she created at least five photographs as she created a visual record of everything she saw that was either unexpected or humorous, she even found time to create a selfie with a reality television celebrity who was part of the ‘set-up’.
The reason for this burst of photographic activity was not missed by McIntyre who commented in the excitement of the sting being revealed, that she had walked away from her phone, surely a traumatic situation for someone of her age.
The previous week I had watched the documentary film on Netflix American Meme, a film that follows the journeys of four social media disruptors, Paris Hilton (@parishilton), Josh Ostrovsky (@thefatjewish), Brittany Furlan (@brittanyfurlan) and Kirill Bichutsky (@slutwhisperer), as they hustle to create empires out of their online footprints. Footprints created and left through the creation of photographs and short- videos that document every aspect of their lives. It’s an interesting film and one worth checking out to gain an entry level insight into the business side of such social media engagement and the dark emotional impact it can have on those who find themselves absorbed by such digital immersion.
Only one of the people featured in the film came from a photographic background or with a photographic intention and yet all of them relied completely on the photographic image as their central form of communication. The one photographer who is featured, Kirill Bichutsky, a night-life photographer known for posting vulgar ‘Girls Gone Wild’-style pictures on his Instagram account @slutwhisperer fell into photography by mistake thanks to some informal portraits of the artist Drake. His documentation of half-naked girls in clubs being covered in champagne and imbibing countless shots are created as part of his club-night tour of the States promoted through his Instagram account. In that sense his work has a self-perpetuating sense of hardcore marketing of soft-core image making. Images created to promote the next event with no pure photographic intention.
All of the characters featured in the film just like the unexpected guest on the Macintyre show have an umbilical cord attachment to their smartphones, constantly documenting where they are, what they are doing and who they are with. In addition they also employ photographers and filmmakers to create images of themselves to quench the thirst of their armies of fans hooked on their image laded digital feeds. But the centre of all of these feeds is the self-creation of visual imagery by those who do not see themselves as photographers. Not once is the term ‘photographer’ used to describe the act of making photographs in the film by those creating the images.
Surely, this is where photography is today. An expected functionality of a device to be used by those with little or no training or interest in the history or context of photography as a form of documentation. A shorthand language of global communication to be used by influencers to promote, market and sell product even if that product is the ‘self’. The mental health, and wellbeing of such activity is starting to become widely investigated and reported on and the affects such activity has on those included in American Meme is clear to see.
As someone fully engaged with photography and filmmaking from a more traditional route I find the appropriation and re-interpretation of visual storytelling by those who see it intrinsic to their lives outside of a traditional understanding both positive and informative. It challenges my understanding of the medium and how it is evolving, how others see it and how photography is viewed by those who have no interest in photography outside of its use as a communicative tool.
This is not in my opinion the death of photography or of the professional photographer, it is the transformation of photography, the democratisation of photography. It is not an intentional dumbing down but an inevitable result of technological developments in image creation and dissemination. The challenge for those involved with photography as photographers is not to dismiss the evolution of the medium but to respond to these developments both creatively and professionally.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer in Professional 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). His next book #New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019. He is currently work on his next documentary film project Woke Up This Morning: The Rock n’ Roll Thunder of Ray Lowry.
His documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay will be screened across the UK and the US in 2018.
© Grant Scott 2018