Is Photography Listening?

I guess I could answer that question in just one word, and that word would be in the negative, but what do I mean by photography? Well, in this case I am using the word as a ‘catch-all’ for the photographic establishment. Those who have been part of the photographic world for decades, showing work, speaking at events, staging events, publishing their books, and generally providing an unelected ‘face’ for the medium.

These institutions and photographers have had a pretty clear field in which to operate over the past decades. As a result, mutually beneficial networks and friendships have developed, a case of, you rub my Polaroid, and I’ll rub yours!

The term ‘gatekeeper’ evolved as these networks became more powerful. Closed shop cabals that believed only they knew what constituted ‘good’ work and which photographers were and are of ‘note’. A comfortable world for those on the inside, frustrating and expensive for this on the outside keen to get in. However often you pay for their portfolio reviews, workshops and competitions, no matter how strong your work is, if you don’t know the players in the dressing room, the rules of the game and price of entry you will not be allowed to join the team.

I could continue the sport metaphor because in effect it is a game but it is not a fair game and it is not a clean game. Study at the ‘right’ photo school, create the ‘right’ work and intern at the ‘right’ place and you may get on the bench.

This is how it has been, and how it has continued to be over the past ten years despite social media channels having allowed photographers, and those involved with photography to build their own collaborative and supportive networks, events and initiatives. The cabals have continued to remain aloof on social media, not engaging with what they believe to be their community, choosing not to retweet or share others initiatives in favour of speaking ‘at’ and not ‘with’ that community.

But times have changed, and these cabals are beginning to feel the impact of those years of arrogance.

The Magnum photo agency has found itself in the centre of a number of issues recently all of which perfectly illustrate this sense of arrogance. Having been questioned with accuracy and passion about two of their members conduct, they chose to ignore the questioning with the presumed hope that it would soon end. After all, what damage can one person on Twitter do?

Well, the answer is a lot! Because that one person on Twitter in this case Benjamin Chesterton (@duckrabbitblog) has 15,800 followers, but more importantly he is respected and connected with the very community people like Magnum believe to be part of, but in reality are not. But he is not alone, the independent photo community has become stronger and stronger over the past years, whilst the establishment has been dismissing them as irrelevant to their core business’s, brand consultants and corporate mission statements.

That independent community now has the power of social media to call out bad decisions, inappropriate behaviour and unprofessional practice, and they are doing it loudly and consistently. Both Magnum and Martin Parr have found themselves in recent week’s called to account in the mainstream media as a consequence of independent outcries on social media.

The independent community are not only using their voice and collaborative nature to call out such behaviour. They are also at the forefront of innovative publishing models, and free online talks, portfolio reviews and events, whilst sharing good practice. They are calling out the ‘pay to play’ model adopted by brands attempting to promote themselves through pay-to-enter competitions, questioning the practice of the same gatekeeper judges repeatedly appearing as self-appointed arbiters of taste. In short they are a force for good in a photographic world that may have lost its moral compass.

I have spoken with a number of established associations that have been keen to hear what I have to say about the independent community. Interestingly they never offer to pay for such a consultation, despite their eagerness to hear my ideas. I am always happy to share what I think, with no reason to hold back, and my thoughts are listened to, but so far never acted upon.

I am not the only one to be ignored. If I was then others will not have felt so inspired to create their own entities as a reaction against the establishment.

Many of those I speak with have become so frustrated by the gallery system, publishing industry, funding game and photo magazine world that they have taken their own futures into their own hands and stepped away from established ways of working and engagement. They are independent and finding that fellow independent’s are there for them in a way that the establishment have not been.

The independent community is now challenging the reach, creativity and ethics of the establishment, and the foundations of that establishment are creaking. They had a chance to listen and chose not to, now they are reaping the rewards of that decision. Will they start to listen now? I don’t think so.

© Grant Scott 2020

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, 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 was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.

4 comments

  1. Everyone piled on Martin Parr, then moved on. Further conversations showed that Gian Butterini was in fact making a statement against racism in his juxtaposition of a black woman and gorilla. The photo subject’s family even agrees with this interpretation. I suggest a little googling to read later conversations about the controversy. Might make you feel a little better about Parr’s little corner of the photographic establishment.

    1. Thank you for your input. I have read the majority of comment on this issue from the very beginning to now. The MPF and Martin have responded to the issues raised.

  2. Honestly? Smash the very idea that there ought to be a photographic establishment. By arguing for its reform, you merely further legitimize it.

    1. Thank you for your feedback. However, I think you missed the point. I am not suggesting destroying the establishment or reforming it, I am commenting on its behaviour and the growth of an independent community that has an important voice.

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