Do you wear a photo team scarf? Do you identify with a particular photo tribe? If so why? Why do you feel the need to see yourself and your work as part of a labelled sector of photographic engagement? Too many of you reading this the very idea of constraining your creativity by following prescribed rules concocted by those who like genre defining constraints would seem ridiculous but to others those same rules provide a sense of community.
My observations lead me to believe that one of the most defined tribes is connected with street photography, whilst other strongly defined communities seem to be landscape and documentary practice. Of course the two largest tribes seem to be defined by those most pointless of questions “Is it art?” and “What is art?” The stance taken by those who choose to call themselves artists and not photographers or exist within the art world rather than the commissioned one (I rarely, if ever use the word commercial) can also be seen as diversive. Although interestingly, I have recently had conversations with art based photographers who seen themselves as being commissioned but by arts organisations rather than brands. The tribal borders further blurred.
The truth of course, is that all photographers are the same, the same but different. The same in that they all use a box to capture light, they all press a button when they think they should and they all create an image defined by what they want to include within a regular shape. Different in that we are all the result of our lives lived.
The human need for community is strong. The need for validation stronger and when that validation comes from within a community it has a sense of authority that many need to believe in their work. Like minds come together and that can be a positive situation unless those same minds decide that their tribe knows best and all others are inferior. This sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’ is unnecessary and negative. Street photographers dismissing fashion photography, contemporary art photographers looking down on commissioned photography, traditional landscape photographers criticising contemporary landscape photographers, analogue vs digital, digital vs analogue, smartphone vs DSLR, street photographers arguing with other street photographers about what constitutes street photography! I have seen all of these happen and there is no need for any of it.
We are all photographers, people with cameras making, taking and finding photographs.
We may not understand other work outside of our interests but we should never disrespect that work or the photographers making it. The aesthetic may not be ours, the reason for instigation outside of our remit, but the photographic community needs to be a respectful and democratic one if it wants to be seen and act as a community in the true sense. I am not against community but I am against tribal beliefs that define and confine what photography is and can be.
We long ago discovered that photography does not have to be black and white; it has mid-tones as well as the opportunity for colour, it is about balance, understanding and empathy, not didactic totalitarianism. So, the next time you see two tribes going to war to loosely quote Frankie Goes to Hollywood, remember that a point is all you can score. Nothing more.
Dr. 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, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).
Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/
© Grant Scott 2021