The world of professional photography has been scratching its head trying to figure out why so many casual photographers are having as much success, if not more, than they are. After all, on one side you have experience, adequate equipment, preparation, knowledge and on the other, well, we don’t really know.
No need to rehash that social media has made everyone a publisher today, breaking the barriers of the gatekeepers. There are only a few experienced photo editors left that know where to go to find the right image. The rest are photoshop-trained researchers who have little to no interest in ever discussing photography outside of their overwhelming work schedules. Curated collections, like the one offered by photo agencies, are no longer the only place to find photography. In fact, they are slowing becoming the last place.
Sure, they offer convenience, extremely user-friendly databases and monthly all you can eat pricing. But they lack the key ingredient : authenticity. In its desperate search for credibility, professional photography has lost its authenticity. And here’s how:
Seeing the gradual rise of casual photographers’ images being used, pros though that the only way to react was to offer what they felt amateurs couldn’t : credibility. An image shot by a professional after all, is an image you can trust. Not only for the veracity of its content, but also the legality of its usage. With amateurs, who knows ? The whole thing could be photoshopped and in fact could even be a stolen image from the start. Safe in their belief that amateurs could never offer the same level of credibility, pro pushed on. It has affected commercial stock and it has affected photojournalism.
In commercial stock, the search for the all-purpose image, the one that can be used by as many different clients as possible has led to what we see now, extremely credible images. Perfect families of 4, with beautiful smiles on a perfect sunny day. So much so, they do not look real anymore. They are real in a projected reality of what should be real. But it is not. There is even a word for that, “stocky”. They are real, yes, but “stocky”.
In photojournalism, the pressure has never been so great to secure, beyond the photographer’s reputation, an absolute lock on the veracity of an image. When a useless video camera ( useless for the understanding of the image) is deleted from a frame, the Inquisitors of truth rose from the muddy water of the kommentariat and demanded the author’s head (which they got). The photo was not real enough. It didn’t portray reality to its deep end. It was not a mirror. The belief here is that if the image is not a 100% exact reflection of reality, it is not true. It looses all credibility. The result is a stale approach to photojournalism that champions extreme reality over commentary, stripping the most valuable quality of a photojournalist, his point of view.
It is not the filters and artifacts that people are so in love with in social media photography: It is the authenticity of the images they see. They feel, with just cause, that what they see comes from the person with no hidden agendas, no personality artifacts. That picture of a plate of sushi with a Lo Fi filter is not only what they really saw, but also what they like, and what they want me to know. Nothing more , nothing less. They are not trying to sell me anything. It’s just them at one moment in time. “Authenticity is the degree to which one is true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character, despite external pressures;” confirms Wikipedia. And that is what is missing from pro photography today. External pressures have taken over and its visible.
So much so that brands, the biggest spenders in photography as well as the most savvy in its usage are diverting their interest away from pro photography and dipping into social media for images. Why ? because they know that authenticity connects, convinces and sells. And as they are moving more and more towards being their own publishers, this trend will only accelerate.
Authenticity and credibility are not incompatible. In fact, they can enhance each other greatly. Our legendary pro photographers were masters in handling both perfectly and very much the reason they have gained their status. The Capa’s, Cartier Bresson, Klein’s, up to the Mapplethorpe or Leibovitz have produced profoundly authentic, and highly credible work. We admire them for that.
This trend is certainly not irreversible and it is not too late. Any pro photographer caught into the wrong flow can still emerge unharmed if he decides to let go the overwhelming constraint of being overly credible and let more authentic dissonance kick in. It is not that hard. If needed, a slow analysis of what makes images popular on social media is a great guide to reconnecting with what has probably been their first reason to enter photography: A passionate need to show the world as they perceive it.