After over twenty plus years working in and observing the photo industry, one conclusion is clear: One of the worst enemies of the photo industry is its own members.
While the forces of business, technology, and social trends have had some profound adverse effects on photography, nothing has been as eroding as the constant self-deprecating, self-mutilation that the industry has brought upon itself. As if the photo community, as a whole, couldn’t find any better means to climb out of its struggles other than by assaulting its own members.
Let’s take the most obvious, for a start. Advancement of technology by camera manufacturers, while certainly aimed at helping professional photographers, has, in fact, significantly contributed to its current demise. By introducing automatic autofocus cameras, manufacturers opened the door to inexperience new users who couldn’t previously take pictures, due to their lack of preparedness. Manual cameras meant that only well trained and experienced professional photographers were able to capture images, as they had to predict what would happen next and prepare their camera settings, aperture, speed and depth of field, to get the image properly lit and in focus. Automatic cameras with autofocus annihilated this previously vital skill and allowed for almost anyone to get a properly exposed, in-focus picture. All they need to do is be there at the right time and press a button.
Later came digital, which, by cutting the cost of taking pictures, broadly expanded the freedom to make mistakes. Here again, non-trained photographers could now compete with very experienced professionals. All they had to do was just keep their figures on the button. One of the frames would undoubtedly come out okay.
Let’s quickly pass over the succession of more affordable, more compact cameras leading to cell phones, which took away one of the last of the pro photographer’s privilege ( or burden), the always-on-me camera.
As well, technologies like Photoshop which eased the process of making great images, moving the actual moment of creation from the field to the desktop and from the photographer to the computer savvy, adding even more competition.
In others words, every technology advancement introduced has both facilitated professional photographers work while contributing to its demise.
On the value front, things do not much look better. In an effort to also help photographers, photo agencies were created. By pooling together the organization, archival and sales efforts of many photographers, they created a strong, reliable platform for pros to thrive. And they did for a while until some agencies saw an opportunity to stop competing by having the best images but rather the lowest pricing. Because the number of photographers was quickly growing, thanks to advancement in technology, each individual photographer became less relevant and easily replaceable. Photo agencies stopped being photographers’ agents and became photo marketplaces, offering less and less commission. All the way to today’s current microstock mode which is the latest and unfortunate evolution of photo agencies.
The irony is that most microstock post on social media today rant about newcomers who gladly accept lower commission rates when they did the same ten years ago.
The same sort of battle echoes in the ranks of long-established assignment pros as they denounce with hate the bad habits of would-be pros who offer their services for free. Be it in wedding photography, news, corporate, real estate, there is not one week without a veteran openly ranting about these supposed hordes of newcomers who destroy their business by slashing prices or working for free.
The battle lines have also been drawn between sexes. Female photographers have taken to social and non-social media to point fingers at an industry which they claim is mostly male-dominated. As well, with maybe less emphasis, the line has been drawn regarding diversity. White males should leave some space to women and minorities.
Recently, argument exploded around trust funds photographers and how they take away photographic grants from working-class photographers, even though they do not need them.
In the world of photographers, the worst enemy is the other photographer. The one that took that job away from you. The one that got her image published instead of yours. If only we could get rid of them, financial success would undoubtedly follow.
Sounds a bit like the discourse we hear about immigration these days.
But if that was not enough, the same community takes down statues. From Steve Mc Curry photoshop “scandal” to Robert Capa’s questioned D-Day images, via many others embroiled in either retouched images, false caption or worst, sexual misconducts, no one is safe. One after the other, icons ( and non-icons) of photography are being brought down. Even what once used to be prestigious awards, like the World Press, are being systematically doubted.
When does it stop ?
Some of these accusations are undoubtedly reliable, of course. But in an era of relentless social media public lynching, the photographic community has been particularly active. With the desolating effect of damaging its own reputation in the broader public, at a time it might actually be the most needed. The enemy of photography is not the other photographers, be it amateurs, newcomers, trust fund babies, men, women, microstock shooters or icons. The enemy of photography is doubt. Doubt in its ability to teach, inform, elevate, inspire, enrich, motivate. Its enemy is the constant public bickering and put-downs that do nothing but hurt everyone who try to make a living from photography honestly. The enemy is the blind hate, the quick, uninformed judgment, the jealousy and the irrational scapegoating.
For photography to thrive, it needs to be respected. Instead of shutting doors, it needs dialogue. Instead of creating tribes and subgroups, it needs to engage in dialogue and integration. Instead of looking for targets of hate and disdain, it should look for inspiration, positive influence and role models to look up to. There are a handful of very hard working, extremely talented photographers that could use more exposure. Why don’t we point at them? Sure, it will bring less “like” on social media. But man, will it feel so good.