I have always believed that photography should be an open church. In some ways it is. Anyone can buy a camera, anyone can make photographs and anyone can share their photographs. It is pretty democratic in these senses.
However, what the new photographer may not be aware of are the multitude of unwritten rules and regulations that some photographers seem to need to provide validation of their own work and beliefs. I was made aware of some of these recently by a friend involved with photography and photographers, who said this, “Purists! Film is better than digital. Period. Black and white is better than colour. Period. Staging photos is heresy. Too much post-production is heresy. Etc, etc.”
These observations are not new to me, they support themes I have written and spoken about for years. If you speak up and question perceived absolutes of fact you are always going to receive some flack. That’s par for the course and debate is good, however, too often I find that debate is not the intention of my inquisitor.
Dogmatic responses too difficult questions are often based on insecurity and insecurity is often deeply embedded in a creative psyche. The basic human response of fight or flight are at the fore when defending a position, a belief, a process, a practice or a photograph. Unfortunately, fight seems to be the dominant response amongst some photographers. Not a fair fight based on the rules of respectful combat, where the victor and the defeated can respect each others positions and courage, but as my friend suggests one of belligerence and intransigence.
This is a shame. Not only does it reduce conversation to a stream of subjective statements, but it also prevents the process of learning from those whose experience and opinions are different from ours. For this to happen we need to understand the difference between supportive formative feedback and opinions veering towards insults. I have had to learn this being involved in teaching within academia, but others have not. My beliefs are strongly held and borne of considerable experience, but I am always happy to be proved wrong and more informed. Unfortunately, constantly repeating the same dogma increasingly loudly proves nothing. It does not change the other person’s opinion and reveals more about the person shouting than they may realize.
Photography requires an open minded approach, an interest in all of the arts, an embracement of the difficult and the challenging. Because of this it is not suited to the dogmatic mind eager to apply rules of engagement outside of those of ethics and professionalism.
I often hear the argument that an option is correct because others believe the same thing. That it is correct because it works. That it is correct because they believe it is. The truth to all creative practices is that there is no correct, there is no better or worse, wrong or right. I say these things in public as I have created a platform to do so, in part so that those who choose flight over fight do not feel alone. Those who choose to support dogma tend to be louder than those more open to experimentation and we need to hear everyone’s voice to ensure a democratic environment. Surely, we do not want the quiet voice to be silenced, dogma amplified and division promoted.
Rigorous debate can be positive. Strongly held views can be held and a point of disagreement can be reached. Of course agreement is also an option. The truth is of course that we can learn more from failure than success, more from looking at what we don’t like than what we do and benefit the most from extending our comfort zones than living within what we have. All of this requires the ability to embrace all forms of photography, not like them necessarily but engage with them to some point. Certainly not to dismiss any alternative out of hand. Period.
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