Why Is Photography So Misunderstood?

You may disagree with this statement or not understand why I used the word misunderstood, so let me explain what I mean.

I spend a lot of my time explaining many aspects of photography, but I spend most of my time dealing with misconceptions. So often when addressing these I am met with the same response, “That makes sense!” It usually does because all I ever do is adopt an approach of simplified common sense to any conversation about photography.

My aim is always to use simple language to ensure maximum understanding, an approach honed in the publishing world of monthly magazines. I attempt to deconstruct misunderstanding that is too often built on information given on the basis of an unspoken agenda. That may be to sell cameras and associated trinkets, to sell workshops or maybe presenting the act of making a photograph as being beyond the ability of anyone who has not studied the theoretical meaning of the medium with the greatest intensity. All of these aspects can be important, but they should not be used, or seen as barriers to photographic engagement. I often speak with people who feel that they are.

I always start by saying that making a photograph is simple! It’s catching light in a box and it doesn’t matter what size, shape or make that box is. Once we can accept that, then we can move on.

It’s at this point that I usually start to talk about using the camera to document your passions and interests, only to be initially met with confused expressions that slowly morph into looks of incredulity. This is when the misunderstandings come to the surface. Here are a few…

My camera isn’t good enough, I don’t know how to use Photoshop, I’ve only got one lens, I haven’t studied photography, I don’t understand my camera, I am not a member of a camera club, I don’t have any lighting, I don’t have a studio, I don’t have a tripod, I don’t know what to photograph, I don’t want to photograph weddings etc., etc. None of which in my opinion have anything to do with making photographs.

These misconceptions and misunderstandings are based upon a false narrative, one that I have heard and seen stated many times. They seem to be a form of Chinese Whispers in which a simple message becomes elongated into a complex series of falsities that are accepted but rarely questioned. Perhaps this comes from a reinterpretation of learning where the student mishears the teacher and creates their own version of what they had been told. Or maybe it comes from the uninformed creating their own explanations of why and how.

I have my own theory on this and that is that the majority of photographic misunderstandings are based upon what photography was and not what it is. Where once it was a carefully guarded practice into which only the taught or dedicated were welcomed, today anyone can make a photograph and that is a good thing. The reality of course is that photography has very little to do with the physical act of making photographs. It is about connection, society, ecology, empathy, initiative, inquisitiveness, storytelling, and perhaps most importantly of all it is about the person holding the camera, not the camera they are holding. Perhaps that is where photography is most misunderstood.

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

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