Whenever I speak about photography these days I start by defining where we as photographers are with the medium by denying its importance as a traditional practice. That may sound like a strange place to start, but let me explain. I am not being provocative simply to be provocative here, but to challenge a pre-conceived understanding of the role of the photographer and more importantly the photograph.
We have long understood the dictum that we are “all photographers now” due to the democratisation of the medium thanks to the smartphone, but our engagement with the photograph is rarely explained to those non-photographers now being perceived as photographers or at least the makers of photographs. The reality is of course that photography is no longer based upon the maker, but the receiver, the person who sees and engages with the image and that engagement is occurring constantly throughout the average day for the majority of people. Not through books or exhibitions, but through every other aspect of our engagement with popular culture and our decision making process’s.
Everything we buy online is informed by the photographic image. Our decisions are no longer based on touch, feel, weight or perceived quality, they rely upon a digital image and the photographers rendering of that object. A situation that the Covid years have quickened.
How we dress, what we eat, the houses we buy, the films we see, the cars we drive and how we vote are all decisions informed by the photographic image. In this sense we can confidently use the term visual language when referring to photography. It is no longer confined by the perception of the role of the successful photograph; it is now let loose to inform and influence outside of accepted professional practice criteria.
Understanding photography as a visual language provides transferable skills relevant to many occupations many miles from that of the photographer.
This in turn places more emphasis on the professional photographer to clearly define and evidence what they are bringing to the party, but that is a discussion for another time. One I have discussed many times in previous articles, books and on my podcast. I have also raised similar issues concerning the use of the photograph as evidence by the non-photographer, not evidence as is perceived by the academic dissecting the possibilities of subjective/objective truth within the photographic image, but the truth of what is seen by a doctor, built by a bricklayer, fitted by a plumber, created by a chef, experienced by a policeman or revealed by an investigator.
These are the non-photographer photographers, people using the photographic medium on a daily basis as part of their trades and professions, not connected with photography.
People for whom lighting, depth of field, exposure, the rule of thirds or any other consideration the photographically engaged or trained may consider to be the essence of what makes a successful photograph have no relevance. Their reliance upon photography is purely evidential, used as a record from which to gain additional information or to act as proof of a job well done.
I have no problem with this, in fact I can only see positives coming from this increased engagement with the medium. This is smartphone photography that has no need to define its self as such through a hashtag or disclaimer. It is not produced for books or galleries, but it will be archived and kept on record within the companies and institutions these people work for. In this sense it is a living and breathing evolving archive of our times. Niche I will agree, but valuable all the same.
Some of these people may explore photography further, some may not. It doesn’t matter, but what I believe does matter is that those engaged with the medium as a profession need to recognise and respect those who are not. This should not be a them and us situation. Photography is no longer under sole ownership of the photographer. It cannot be controlled or restricted to meet the expectations of a few or defined by the camera used, a level of photographic education or outdated beliefs. I can see no sense in adopting a King Canute role only to be overcome by the never ending tide, to me it makes more sense to put on some swimwear and dive right in.
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