A new view of photography

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Given that the world of photography has much more in common with the world of filmmaking than with the world of painting, one might as well ask why we treat photographers the way we treat painters and not like any of the people involved in the making of movies.

Instead, in the world of photography we pretend that photographers craft the outcome of their endeavour entirely on their own, regardless of any of the other people involved — in particular those in front of their cameras. It’s an absurd situation, and it’s time to move beyond such a simplistic approach to creating photographs — an approach that, we might note, comes with considerable grandstanding, which neither in the world of the so-called fine arts nor in the world of photojournalism reflects very well on the takers of the pictures.

This standard approach to photography has now come under attack from a number of fronts. There is Europe’s privacy law, known as General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which owes its existence to the excesses of US social-media companies. The idea is simple: people have the right to own their own data. With limited exceptions, photographs fall under data (which makes perfect sense, especially since most photographs taken today are produced with digital cameras).

This idea poses a threat to the arts. Assuming we want to treat street photography as a form of art, if you can’t take pictures of strangers willy nilly, then isn’t that an assault on the arts? Well, kind of. It’s hard to see, though, why a niche occupation such as taking photographs for art purposes should be viewed as more important than the privacy rights of millions of people. Furthermore, there are exceptions: a number of countries have codified laws that create explicit exceptions for art-related photography.

Second, there is the growing realisation that since its very inception, photography has been a handmaiden of any number of utterly gruesome practices, whether it’s colonialism or outright genocide (the two aren’t mutually exclusive as a number of countries have demonstrated). If photography is an exploitative tool (which historically it has been and which it continues to be), then to treat it as if it were not simply is wrong, both ethically and morally.

Third, a number of companies recently have trained their so-called artificial-intelligence algorithms with other people’s photographs and other images without bothering to ask the authors for permission or offering remuneration. In a nutshell, the companies adopted the idea of appropriation and applied it on the grandest possible scale, ripping off thousands of people.

© Estate of Alberto Korda/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2023; Slim Plantagenate/Alamy Stock Photo; REUTERS/Alamy Stock Photo; John Birdsall/Alamy Stock Photo; J Marshall – Tribaleye Images/Alamy Stock Photo; Jordi Salas/Alamy Stock Photo; Michael Sparrow/Alamy Stock Photo; Sven Creutzmann/Mambo photo/Getty Images; Mohamed Chabâa; Photo Justin McIntosh; GM Photo Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Historically speaking, the idea of artistic appropriation has always been problematic — mind you, not in the arts (with its often limited understanding of real-world ethics). Up until now, artists such as Richard Prince who have been able to successfully defend their practices in court mostly were able to do so because they were able to hire competent lawyers. That Prince could have simply licensed the images he used apparently never occurred to him.

But it’s one thing to rip off one artist — artists in general are anti-social creatures, so as long as they are not affected, they will not display much, if any, solidarity with a peer who has been. It’s quite another to rip off thousands of them: thousands of artists who don’t feel much solidarity with each other still are thousands of artists. As of the time of this writing, it’s not clear how any of the various court cases will play out.

The attentive reader will have picked up an underlying red thread, and that’s capitalism in the form of copyright and the legal system. In the end, photographic authorship is mostly discussed in legal terms. If you don’t feel solidarity with other artists and can’t expect any in return, the law is your only friend if someone steals your pictures, meaning your only chance to fight against that is to go to court.

The courts are stacked with legal experts who have limited understanding of the arts. They’re ill-equipped to deal with the issue of stealing pictures. Their best approach is to consider financial aspects, meaning if wealthy artist A rips off mostly unknown artist B, then, well, it’s appropriation (because, you see, artist B does not suffer from financial hardship as a consequence). As has always been the case, having money trumps having none.

American copyright law includes the idea of “transformative use”. But if even art experts are unable to decide whether something has been transformative or maybe transformative enough — how exactly do you quantify this? — then how are people outside of the field supposed to deal with this?

However you might feel about any of the aspects discussed above, it should be really clear that the idea of a photographer being the sole creator of their pictures can be a very limiting if not flawed idea. It can bump into any number of problems — unless maybe you’re photographing sticks and stones out in the wild, far away from other human beings. But even then someone might claim that your pictures look just like theirs.

Photos Frederick Douglass, John Chester Buttre, Mathew B. Brady, Samuel J. Miller, Lydia J. Cadwell, James Presley Ball

Thankfully, there now is a book that looks at photography using an expanded angle: Collaboration — A Potential History of Photography, authored by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Wendy Ewald, Susan Meiselas, Leigh Raiford, and Laura Wexler. The title — Collaboration — might strike you as a misnomer. My guess is that anyone looking at the book will pick some example and then ask “but how is this a collaboration?” What you want to do instead, though, is to use the book as a challenge to your ideas of what photography is and how it is being made.

After all, even if you take a photograph of a stranger without them noticing — let’s say you take your Leica for a walk to do street photography, then that stranger finds themselves in your picture. If you did this in Europe, the GDPR would tell you that now you own someone else’s data. Let’s assume that you are familiar with that, and you’re making efforts to rectify the situation. You could, for example, talk to the stranger after you took your picture and ask for permission. In that case, it’s easy to see how you could view the whole transaction as some form of collaboration.

Alternatively, you could decide not to do that. Ignoring the legal aspects here (which differ from country to country), you’d then be deciding to reject the idea of collaboration, placing you into the vast pool of photography that was and still is being made in an extractive fashion. You’ll find examples in the book.

Collaboration presents 115 different photography projects or groupings and places them into eight categories (here called “clusters”). The categories serve to give the overall idea structure, and they allow for the detection of patterns by a reader who might not have thought about the general topic before.

For each item in the book, you get to see examples of the photographs and a number of added texts. The texts include a brief essay by either the authors (who call themselves CoLab) and/or an outside experts. There typically also are words written or said by either the photographer and/or the person(s) in the photographs.

While each item discussed only gets a single spread, the breadth and richness of the material covered provides incredible rewards, in particular since the reach is global. If you’re only familiar with your standard Western photography, your eyes will be opened to a lot of other photography (and thinking).

Art Institute Chicago. Alfred Stieglitz Collection; National Gallery of Art, Washington. Alfred Stieglitz Collection; Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of Carl Zigrosser, 1975; National Gallery of Art, Washington. Alfred Stieglitz Collection; © The Irving Penn Foundation; Photo Ansel Adams. Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona. © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust; Todd Webb Archive, Portland, Maine

I might as well get the following out of the way: as a writer, I prefer to follow Ludwig Wittgenstein’s dictum that what can be said at all can be said clearly. That’s not the case for some of the writing in the book. Especially the texts written by the main authors is filled with academic jargon that non-academics might find tedious (at best). I feel that the publisher might have been well advised to push for more accessible writing.

But I suppose that’s a small price to pay for what otherwise is an absolutely invaluable and essential book that, ideally, will find its way not only into the studios of photographers but especially into the classrooms of photography schools. From now on, anyone studying to get a masters will have no excuse any longer for not knowing that photography’s standard model of authorship is flawed.

The most exciting aspect of the book is the fact that it points out ways forward, regardless of who you are as a photographer. I suspect that every person looking through the book will be drawn to different material. Inevitably, there will be follow-up research: looking to find more information, based on what’s presented in the book.

In other words, even as the book is a rap on the knuckles for a world of photography that by and large has been too satisfied with itself to consider the place of a photographer in the world, there already exists a lot of work out there that can move each and every photographer forward (assuming there is interest — I realise that that’s not a given). And that’s what matters.

Highly recommended.

Collaboration — A Potential History of Photography; edited by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Wendy Ewald, Susan Meiselas, Leigh Raiford, and Laura Wexler; photographs and texts by numerous authors; 288 pages; Thames & Hudson; 2024 (for the US edition)