Why does it always have to be about something?

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Every day, I’m being bombarded with a flurry of pedestrian pictures, grouped in projects that are “about” this or that. These days, photographs always have to be “about” something. Pictures can never be merely pictures.

Make no mistake, a group of pictures will have to add up to something. A group of random pictures that doesn’t add up to anything is just that, a group of random pictures. And I’m not more interested in that than in the pedestrian projects. But still, if pictures add up to something that doesn’t necessarily amount to some aboutness right away. The history of photography is filled with practitioners operating along the line of groups of single pictures.

So what’s going on here?

I am perfectly aware that present and/or future students of mine might want to use my words against me (such attempts happen all the time). But if you can’t tell me what your pictures add up to, you’re not going to get very far.

Having got this out of the way, there probably is a plethora of reasons for photography’s aboutness problem. For a start, it’s the medium itself. It is this machine (or machinery, if you add all the processing/post-processing) that records what is out there in the world. On the simplest, most basic level, that is about something, namely about what is being depicted. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But that’s not quite the level I’m interested in.

Aiming for the somewhat higher level is tough, where you can consistently take photographs that, if taken out of the sea of mediocrity, move more people than your friends and family. After all, how do you do that? What are you interested in? Why is this picture stronger than that picture? Those are very difficult questions. A very useful crutch is to ask, well, what the pictures are about when they’re being put together. As a teaching tool, aboutness is great – much like training wheels on a bicycle.

Most photographers are usually very good at deflecting blame for problems. Apart from schools (with MFA programs being the most popular scape goats usually), it’s surely the curators’ fault that projects have to be “about” something! And of course the critics’! And the bloggers’! And the gallerists! And the collectors’! Anybody really who is not a photographer, but who somehow has some form of importance in the world of photography (how real or imagined that importance might actually be).

I think you can see where I’m going with this, because you have probably seen it expressed here or there in an article online: If we could only go back to the good-old days of Garry Winogrand, where the solitary (mostly male) photographer prowled the world, collecting his pictures, then all those ills that ruin photography these days will simply disappear. Well, we can’t go back, and that’s a very good thing. If you still want to follow that model, then great! Enjoy! You will still have to operate under the obligation that your pictures will have to add up to something, even if they’re not “about” something.

But placing the blame with photography’s satellite fish does not miss the point entirely. Of course, there’s an irony here: the medium that tried so hard to be taken as seriously as all the other arts now complains about, well, everything that goes with that. Maybe photographers should have considered this a bit earlier.

Polemics aside, aboutness does make everybody’s job easier, not just the teachers’. For example, a new generation of photography curators has emerged, with many of its members having no actual photography background whatsoever. Instead, they were trained as art historians and/or doing curatorial studies. It’s no surprise to me that those kinds of curators often struggle with understanding photography. Speaking “about” something clearly helps them (especially if it’s packaged in gratuitous amounts of pretentious art speak).

At the other end of the spectrum maybe sit those who don’t have much exposure to the medium. Handed a book filled with pictures, they will still expect them to be “about” something. This is simply because there is that very valid and useful expectation that an authored book containing, well, anything really (words, pictures, words plus pictures, …) tends to be “about” something. Seen that way, aboutness essentially ties in with our human desire for the world to make sense, for the world not to be just some random, possibly threatening collection of stuff.

Aboutness itself clearly is not necessarily bad.

As I noted above, often enough it is, though. For example, there are so many photography projects about very valid concerns, social or otherwise. I couldn’t be more sympathetic concerning fights for more social justice, say. But still, if presented to me in the form of photographs, mediocre pictures simply won’t do, even if the cause in question is dear to me.

What I’m seeing is a flood of forgettable projects with mediocre photographs that were clearly fleshed out to be “about” that one (usually easy and simple) thing, easy to comprehend, easy to digest. Based on what I hear from friends and other critics I don’t think I’m the only person having that impression.

So I suppose my main problem with pictures “about” something is not the general principle. It’s the fact that all too often, the photographs end up being bad, simply because their makers stop when they’re about whatever it is they’re supposed to be about. That’s really not how this should work, though. You don’t use training wheels on a bicycle to learn how to ride with training wheels. You use them so you can ditch them as quickly as you can.

In other words, if a group of stellar pictures are “about” something, that’s very different than a group of mediocre pictures that are only being held together by aboutness. And the latter is something you see a lot. In fact, we – collectively – make it too easy for photographers to get away with that, in part because we have become too comfortable looking for photography that confirms our belief system, instead of challenging it.

Honestly, I know what I believe in, and I’m even convinced that I’m right. But still, I’d rather have an artist challenge me, because I also know that I might be wrong. And I’ve lived long enough to have learned that I would now disagree with my younger self about quite a few things. Exposing myself to art is one of the ways I try to grow, to learn something, to possibly become a better person.

But show me a project with mediocre pictures about something, and I’m not interested. If it’s about something I already agree with, what’s the point? My ego is not so brittle that I need pictures to confirm what I believe in. And if it’s about something I disagree with, then how can I be expected to engage with them, given that the pictures don’t make me to do that? Who wants to look at mediocre pictures? Life’s too short.

So what this all comes down to is not so much the idea of pictures being about something or not. I’m really more interested in photographs being given the starring role, and not any of the mumbo jumbo surrounding it, their aboutness being maybe the most prominent aspects. I want to get the task to unpack what might be going on, instead of having it handed to me.

Make me want to look at your pictures! Make me hungry for them! Make me want to discover what they might be about – rather than trying to use aboutness as a tool to hold a bunch of mediocre stuff together.

And let’s also accept work more openly again that is not playing along the lines of standard aboutness. It really doesn’t always have to be a project. As long as a group of pictures add up to something, without necessarily being about this or that right away – that’s great.