In life it is easy, and I believe important to have heroes, but so often our choice of heroes is siloed by our interests. Looking up can be positive, an aspirational and inspirational process of introspection. However, looking down on others is never a good way to go, and yet the photographic community in my experience has an unhealthy sense of self-righteousness embedded within its DNA. It is not alone in this, most creative communities suffer from a similar sense of ‘better than thou’, but I believe that we should be aware of this corrosive attitude.
Some photographers look down on wedding photographers, I have heard wedding photographers look down on school portrait photographers, event photography is often derided, as is e-commerce still-life work. Above the line advertising photographers may look down on below the line work, and both may look down upon editorial photographers earning less than they are. Photographers engaged in art practice may look down on commissioned photographers working for clients, whilst those enjoying the medium as a hobby may be looked down upon by those for whom it is a profession. If you make photographs for the pure pleasure of doing so, or for payment, you may be judged unfairly by academics.
Everything I have just written may not be true, but then again all of it may have an element of truth. I’ll let you decide based on your own experience.
The photographic environment is competitive even if you don’t want to enter the competition, the very act of showing work introduces an aspect of judgement.
Such judgement is comparative and therefore competitive. It promotes the idea of looking up and down, of placing work and therefore the photographer into an imaginary, highly subjective success chart. Such charts exist within silos created by practice and subject matter. Landscape, fashion, documentary, portrait etc. etc. In every chart there are heroes at the top of the hit parade and it is these champions and their work, that images are judged against.
We are all used to seeing click bait articles claiming to inform you of the ‘Top Ten Portrait Photographers’
My suggestion is to step out of the silos, initially by avoiding labels for your work and in turn by looking at work by photographers outside of your comfort zone and interests. To seek inspiration and information from those only working within your field is both constrictive and non-sensical in my opinion. Just as my musical tastes are eclectic and wide ranging so are my photographic influences. I think this is clear from the guests who contribute to the A Photographic Life podcast. I want to hear from people creating work that is nothing like mine, just as much as I do from my heroes. I want to be challenged, questioned and informed from different perspectives.
I don’t want to be labelled or siloed and I definitely do not want to look down on work by those whose practice and instigation is different from mine.
Listening to a podcast recently I heard an expert on religious cults explain that the genesis of a cult is division. The creation of a sense of them and us. The cult needs an adversary to rail against and to base their beliefs upon as a response to the other. I have seen a sense of this in the evangelical NFT community recently. The zealous creation and proclamation of a NFT community points to this sense of a cult. It also confirms the sense of labelling, silos and judgement. If you don’t believe in NFTs, you are not forward thinking, intelligent or open-minded, some say as they look up to the Ape avatar heroes and down on the non-believers.
Looking sideways offers alternate opinions and approaches. It is the sign of the truly open-minded. You wouldn’t cross the road without looking both ways, maybe that should also be the case when you make photographs.
Image: Take from the film Sideways featuring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church: 2004
Dr. Grant Scott is the 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). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com
© Grant Scott 2022