Photography in the Real World

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The distinction between professionals and amateurs has been around for a long time in the world of photography. It’s not the most useful way to divide the medium’s practitioners into two groups. But regardless, I want to propose another way to separate them, based not on who or what they are but rather what they do: The difference between professionals and amateurs in the world of photography is that the former spend a lot of time thinking about what their medium is, whereas the latter are perfectly happy to “merely” take pictures.

I’m suggesting this way of distinguishing the two groups not because I have suddenly developed an affection for snark. I could easily see how my definition could be interpreted that way — in fact, someone out there probably is already writing an angry tweet right now. And, as always, I don’t intend to have the distinction between professionals and amateurs imply any sort of hierarchy. I realize this is the age of populism; and I certainly wouldn’t want to add to the utterly useless discussion of how “elites” or “gatekeepers” or whoever else simply can’t help themselves but get in the way of what “real” photographers do (or want to do).

Instead, I’m interested in something else. There exist considerable confusion, consternation, and outright despair over the state of the medium photography, the combination of which finds its outlet in the form of articles or even museum exhibitions. Especially in New York City, photography curators seem to be obsessed with trying to come to terms with their medium. The latest installment of this saga is an exhibition at the International Center of Photography‘s new location, entitled Public, Private, Secret. I have not had a chance to see it. Reviews have been, well, mixed.

This flurry of articles and exhibitions creates a bit of a lopsided discussion around the medium, which, if we just accept the numbers of photographs taken every day, appears to be quite popular. Unfortunately, these lopsided discussions contain a variety of assertions that fly in the face of what’s really going on. You have probably seen any number of articles that tell us how people have become so narcissistic because they take all those selfies (have they, though?), or people aren’t really enjoying anything any longer, whether it’s food, a museum, or a concert because all they do is to take pictures.

Theories are fine. After all, I used to work as a theoretical physicist. But in physics, just coming up with a theory wasn’t good enough. You’d also have to allow for it to be tested, if you weren’t doing that yourself.

I mean, just ask yourself this: why would millions of people constantly take photographs of their food, or at events, if that resulted in a decreased enjoyment of whatever activity it was they were engaged in? Does that make sense? Is that what people do? They go to an amusement park, say, and they then make sure that instead of having more fun, they’re having less? Knowing people — this one included — that strikes me as a highly unlikely.

Now there’s scientific research showing that indeed, when people take photographs of their food or at events, this does not result in a decrease of their enjoyment. Instead, taking photographs actually tends to increase enjoyment.

Writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, in an article entitled How Taking Photos Increases Enjoyment of Experiences, Kristin Diehl and two collaborators note that “relative to not taking photos, photo-taking can heighten enjoyment of positive experiences, and does so because photo-taking increases engagement” (my emphasis, p. 16 of the pdf). That’s the complete opposite of all of those claims that taking photographs means we’re less engaged: “While taking photos during an experience adds another activity, unlike traditional dual-task situations that divide attention, capturing experiences with photos actually focuses attention onto the experience, particularly on aspects of the experience worth capturing.” (ibid.) And how/why is this? Diehl et al.: “it is the mental process people adopt while taking photos, rather than the photo-taking mechanics, that triggers greater engagement and thus increases enjoyment.” There are a lot of details in the article that make it a worthwhile read.

So maybe museums, for example, can stop bitching about how “people don’t even look at the art any longer, they only take pictures” (not an actual quote, but you can probably find something like that easily — too depressing an exercise for me to engage in right now).

In general, using my definition of professionals versus amateurs, what we — those people who spend time thinking about photography — have to be careful with as are easy and simple conclusions that just fly in the face of what people are doing with the medium. If our theories only make sense in this tiny bubble we have created for ourselves, then they’re garbage. That’s what it comes down to.

In general, I do think that instead of endlessly ruminating on what photography is, we need to start approaching the medium based on what people do with pictures. Last week, I made the case for approaching photojournalistic manipulation that way, vastly expanding the topic at hand. Many of those artists in exhibitions like the one at ICP do great work. But I’m following a vast number of “amateurs” on all kinds of platforms (Instagram, Tumblr, even still rss) whose use of photography makes those “investigations” into the medium look pretty damn lame.

Of course, the problem is that the group of people I call professionals have historically had a very weird relationship with photographs made outside of their small circle. Now, we got a bunch of pidgeon holes for them, whether it’s being covered under “vernacular,” or “appropriation,” or that really strange case where someone is “discovered,” which almost always results in severing that photographer’s connection from the real world and changing it following the terms of this strange bubble we professionals operate in.

It’s time we popped this damn bubble and let some fresh air in.

Photography is not defined by our strange ideas that somehow make sense when we discuss them in a white, air-conditioned cube with like-minded folks. Photography is what happens when millions of people happily take pictures every day and use them for a tremendously large variety of things, some of which, unfortunately, might be a bit confusing for those who only know the insides of the white cube.

There is much gained from trying to understand what this all means, maybe even what photography is. But for it to make sense, for it to have a meaningful relationship to what’s going on in the larger world of photography, a world that of course has to include those millions of amateurs, we need to do a bit more work, and believe a little bit less in convenient talking points.