Is Photography in Trouble?

You may think that the title chosen for this article is pure click bait. It is not. It is an honest question from someone who cares about the medium.

The rejection of basic ethical considerations, tribal attitudes and mean spirited approaches to work outside of an exclusive club mentality all contribute to the sense of a medium struggling with change. That change is the democratisation of photography thanks to a thin box in everybody’s pocket.

Here are some facts. In 2021 3.2 billion images and 720,000 hours of video were shared globally online every day. On average, one person in the US captures 20.2 photos per day. Following the United States is the Asia Pacific Region, which captured 15 photos per day. Next is Latin America with 11.8 photos per day and then Africa, with 8.1 photos per day. In last place in Europe, with 4.9 photos per day. 92 million selfies will be taken daily across all devices in 2022. This number coincides with the fact that 2.3 billion photos are taken every day, 4% of which are selfies. Since Instagram was launched on October 6, 2010, there have been more than 50 billion pictures and videos shared on the platform.1.2 trillion photographs were taken worldwide in 2021. That number will increase to 1.72 trillion in 2022. By 2025, more than 2 trillion photos will be taken each year. The average user has around 2,100 photos on their smartphone in 2022.

Those facts would suggest that photography is booming, engagement with the medium is at an all time high, but I wonder how many of those people engaged with making these photographs would describe themselves as photographers?

That is the problem for photography, it is schizophrenic in nature, the photographers and the non-photographers making photographs with both sides providing their own labels to describe which team they are on. This is of course ridiculous, everyone making photographs is a photographer. But that is not the way in which I hear and see many photographers approach this situation.

You are only a photographer if you understand photography, if you know how the camera works, a camera that is not cheap or simple. When written in such blunt terms the arrogance of such a statement is clear, and yet this is the assertion that can underly many photographers understanding of what makes them different from the smartphone user. The question I ask, is why would they feel the need to take such a stance?

I think it is because photography has been taken away from those photographers, it is no longer difficult in its process of creation or dissemination and therefore the mastery of the technical is no longer a point of difference. That leaves a point of difference to be found if you wish to differentiate your practice from those whom you consider not as serious as you.

The word photography no longer means what it once meant, it is not what it once was, and although many are keen or desperate to cling to old ways of making and thinking. However, their desires will not impact on the reality of photography’s progress.

Photography is not in trouble, but the way in which it is understood and represented by some photographers could prevent its evolution, not in reality but in the meaning of the word. To understand the history of the medium and to engage in its established practices is essential to maintain and respect that history. However, to define it’s contemporary reality by that past creates a sense of exclusivity inappropriate to a democratic medium.

Photography is not in trouble, but perhaps some photographers are in their understanding of what it has become. That may be a contentious statement but if we are not able to reflect upon ourselves with honesty how can we hope to reflect the lives of others within our images with a similar sense of truth and self-awareness?

I am positive and enthusiastic about the future of photography and I am also open to what that future may be, how that word will be interpreted and what a photographer of the future will look like. I hope you are too.

Image: Don McCullin/Imperial War Museum

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). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2022

9 comments

  1. Photography for me was always about what relevance it offered to my understanding of life in its broadest terms. It assisted to a degree in positioning myself in relation to the world about me – in forming a perspective. I could appreciate it on many levels – the technical skills applied at a given time in its history, the intent of the photographer and how that was articulated through the image, what the image could suggest metaphorically or objectively, the super-realism (I was never much convinced by surrealist photography) the craft of print, the social insights, etc etc.
    For me, the problem now is about over saturation of photographic imagery (and I include video and TV within this). There exists an overwhelming tsunami of imagery that I/we cannot even begin to make sense of or assimilate in a manner that is proportionate to a biological and perhaps more importantly, psychological functioning of the human mind. “Why”, one might ask, do photographers still look to large format cameras, archaic processes, or wet room printing as their chosen direction through the medium. I believe a lot do so because of the pace it offers as well as a sense of control it gives to the individual. Technical or technological perfections does not necessarily equate to human fulfilment.

  2. Can Photography be compared to driving a Car? A good portion of the population drive but as each car gets cleverer and drivers haven’t experienced old technology, their skill set changes.

    I have held an International Rally Licence , l learnt to drive before ABS ( what?) and with a manual choke and before cruise control. I have a modern sports car and also drive a pick up. An analogue camera , a DSLR and a smart phone camera are all evolutions of the camera. I would suggest that a driver who has never driven with a manual choke would have an issue with it but that doesn’t mean they are less competent with their current chosen vehicle – they just have a different skill set.

    And this is what it is all about – the skill set. Can you use your tools to make an image that you like / others like. The journey from A to Z can be done in a TVR TR7 or a Nissan Navara, the style of the journey will be different / shorter / longer but the journey will be made and if you reach journeys end at the preferred time who cares? Only the driver who chose the journey vehicle

    1. Thanks for the motoring metaphor, which is interesting although not entirely appropriate in addressing the issue I raise here in my opinion.

  3. In my lifetime company photographic positions have all but disappeared. Stock photography became assignment photography. It is not unusual, particularly in tourism, to see an iPhone image with only a photo credit as compensation.

    At my nephew’s wedding, held outdoors, the hired photographer shot with a polarizing filter on the camera. A quote by a newspaper photo editor I once read insisted the camera did all the work. Photography isn’t in trouble, in many respects, for the average person, it has never been better. Though there is a great number of talented amateurs, where I do take issue, is with those that think they are photographers solely due to a digital camera.

  4. Last year, my son passed away at the age of 28.. In our moments of grief, we opened all family albums and went through old memories. We had videos, but the printed photographs were better. The convenience of holding a photograph and passing it around (and snapping mobile pictures of it), is hard to replace by video.

    Not to mention, we have dozens of video tapes sitting in boxes, because it’s difficult to digitize them with no players around.

  5. Grant, it has been a few years now that I have been telling members of a 47 year old photo group here in the NY Tristate area that photography has committed suicide. I think your description is a bit more thought out, but I think our sentiment is similar in the end. Maybe it is only mortally wounded… at least the version that befriended me. Those who pick up photography’s torch will determine what the future of photo will become, only to be replace themselves by those who follow. What photography has given me in the past is enough, no matter what manifestation it embodies going forward. I’m looking forward to seeing what that is, even if I choose to ignore it in practice.

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