Month: January 2014

Who’s photographing my child?

 

 

On July, 11th 2013 a disabled 44 year old Iranian man was held briefly by police, accused of taking inappropriate images of children. Around 20 people were  reported to have screamed paedo, paedo, as Mr Ebrahimi was taken into custody. The man was released the next day without charge and the police  said that there was no case to answer. Two days later a neighbour beat Mr Ebrahimi senseless and, with help from another neighbour, dragged him into a central courtyard over looked by around a hundred maisonettes and flats. He was then set on fire by his neighbour.

 

The ‘crime’ that Mr Ebrahimi ‘committed’ was photographing children who were damaging the flowers in his property as evidence to later give to the police.

 

The place that this heinous murder took place was Bristol, rightly regarded as one of the UK’s most progressive cities.

 

One of the most worrying trends in our society for photographers is that, at a time when children are safer than they have ever been, simply pointing your camera in the general direction of a child can lead to you being branded a perverted sexual predator.

 

The escalation of the reporting of news events that 24 hour rolling news and social media have created means that many parents seem to being living in a world of fear and tension where they mistrust any adult that they don’t know and are all too ready to believe the worst of anyone. If Mr Ebrahimi was guilty of anything, he was guilty of being an outsider. A disabled man that rarely left his flat, foreign and apparently owning a camera; all that was needed was the spark lit by his completely understandable desire to protect his property.

 

The UK is considered and correctly so, as one of the most tolerant society’s in the world. That such an event should happen here is shocking and shaming. It is also of very real concern to anyone who carries a camera.

 

Richard Dawkins, in ‘The God Delusion’, makes the point that over the stretch of recorded history there is a general advancement in the moral standards of humanity. He argues that the moral zeitgeist of society generally progresses with standards of action and thinking moving in a generally liberal direction and away from intolerance and bigotry. He also makes the point that there are sometimes set-backs in this general advance, and this current perception of wrong-doing on the part of those carrying cameras must certainly count as one such setback.

 

The irony, of course, is that we now have almost infinitely more ability to record events around us. Should a fight break out in my town, everyone will immediately reach for their mobile ‘phone. Not to call the police, but to photograph and video the fracas in front of them. Then, it is not for the purposes of evidence, but to ‘share’ with friends and total strangers who, not being present, will have an inevitably one-sided and distorted version of events to interpret as their imagination and predisposition will allow them.

 

The ‘photographer’, however (as opposed to just someone with a ‘phone) is regarded as being somehow different. On one hand he (and it normally is ‘he’) is considered to be a potential sexual predator by every other adult in the vicinity, and on the other the authorities (in the form of the police) regard him as a potential terrorist threat.

 

The trigger for this animosity, tension and distrust is, of course, the size and type of camera you carry. Later I’m going to argue that the distinction between ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ cameras may be of less significance in the future, but for the present I would suggest that carrying a professional looking camera creates in the minds of non-photographers a less than savoury image of the person doing the carrying.

 

This unease and distrust that photographers seem to generate is nothing new.

 

Weegee (the pseudonym of Arthur Fellig (June 12, 1899 – December 26, 1968), became extremely well known for his stark black and white street photography. Weegee worked in the Lower East Side of New York City as a press photographer during the 1930s and ’40s, and he developed his signature style by following the city’s emergency services and documenting their activity. Much of his work depicted unflinchingly realistic scenes of urban life, crime, injury and death. While we might (perhaps should) admire the quality of his work and the drive and determination he demonstrated to carry it out, Weegee’s photography is certainly morally ambiguous.

 

As he put it himself, ‘in my particular case I didn’t wait ’til somebody gave me a job or something, I went and created a job for myself—freelance photographer. And what I did, anybody else can do. What I did simply was this: I went down to Manhattan Police Headquarters and for two years I worked without a police card or any kind of credentials. When a story came over a police teletype, I would go to it. The idea was I sold the pictures to the newspapers. And naturally, I picked a story that meant something.’

 

In,’On Photography’, Sontag  discusses involves the ways photography can infringe upon one’s personal space and this is a charge that certainly be levelled at Weegee. She states, “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have… (p. 14).”

 

 Weegee’s numerous photographs of victims can be seen as intrusive because he not only takes his pictures without permission, but publishes them for all to see.  In the case of the criminals and drunks he manages to capture with his camera, you might argue, ‘so what?’ ,but it is easy to see this as predatory, especially his photographs of lifeless victims of crime.

 

Another danger of accepting this form of photography as valid is that it gives active permission to photographers to act in an intrusive manner. Sontag explains, “The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed (p. 41).”

 

With Weegee we see a photographer, who took photographs of whoever he wanted, regardless if they were able to object or consent. He created for himself the role of outside observer, but in this case outside the moral code of most people in society.

 

How far is the step from Weegee to one particularly noxious group of photographers in contemporary society.

 

Paparazzi are photographers who take pictures celebrities or others considered to be newsworthy, usually while they are going about normal life routines. Paparazzi tend, like Weegee  to be independent and accountable to no-one, but themselves. They operate by  taking advantage of any opportunity to ply their trade and are known to doorstep (hang about outside the house) of their victims. Many consider the behaviour of paparazzi to be synonymous with stalking and they have been known to target anyone considered to be in the ‘news’ to create images.

 

With such a group of odious practitioners plying their trade, and the misconception that we live in times of huge danger for our children, it is no wonder that photographers are held in low regard. Combine that with a reluctance to check facts at almost any level in society and those who wish to take photographs on the streets have serious problems.

 

 

In 2011, the Museum of London created an exhibition of street photography, tracing it’s history from 1860 to 2010. “The exhibition provides an interesting insight into how London street photography has developed since 1860. Each photographer has, in their own way, captured something of the character of this amazing city.”

 

And that quote from the curator of the exhibition sums up the enduring importance of Street Photography as a way of recording and interpreting the world around us in a unique way.

 

So, street photography is theme in photography that features subjects in candid situations in public places, often without them being aware that they are the subject of a photograph. Subjects are framed and lit in ways that often isolate them in the street, often at a point  of great visual interest.

That said, the greatest exponent of street photography, Henri Cartier Bresson, operated in very different way.

He gave them his gaze.

 

“Henri Cartier-Bresson gave his gaze to those he photographed, to those whose image he captured. He took their pictures, both in the modern photographic sense and in the sense of extracting their image from them: in both cases, there is the sense of something coming to light, something being drawn out into the open and so unravelling the enigma of the visible.” Agnes Sire, An Inner Silence: The Portraits of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

 

Cartier-Bresson is undoubtedly the best known of the Street Photographers. Using a 35mm Leica camera, he is rightly regarded as the father of modern photojournalism.

 

Cartier-Bresson became known for the term, ‘the decisive moment’, the perfect timing of the photograph. “Photography is not like painting,” Cartier-Bresson told the Washington Post in 1957. “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative,” he said. “Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

 

Cartier-Bresson, unlike many street photographers was not afraid to engage with the subject of his photography. Not for him the idea of the candid, snatched, furtive photography. Subjects can often be seen staring straight down the lens at the viewer in a way that creates an extra intimacy with the subject.

 

He was also a great believer in composing the photograph in the viewfinder of his Leica. Many of his images are printed with the sprocket holes of the film clearly showing, with no possibility for cropping the image in the darkroom. For this to be the case he had to be much tighter, much closer than many street photographers would be comfortable with.

 

 

The Street Photographer often seeks to convey a message about the context of the photograph, and as such pays great attention to the timing of his/her photographic exposure.

As was pointed out in the 2011 exhibition, although the digital age has brought about a huge expansion in the ability of take photographers, at the same time people are more and more reluctant to engage in street photography  due to perceived dangers, either to their personal safety, or the thought that their photography will be misinterpreted in some way.

This seems a great pity, and already there are growing gaps in the visual history of the street, as seen through the photographers’ lens. We live in an era of fear, fear of the stranger, fear of our neighbour.

This fear is a two way street. At the same time that parents are fearful of their children, photographers are fearful of taking images. Presumably this fear would find favour with the massively over-protective parents of the modern age, but the reality is that their children are statistically far more at risk from family members or close family friends than they ever have been from camera toting street photographers.

Perhaps this is a minor set-back in the development of the moral zeitgeist, perhaps not. More likely it will become superseded  by  natural changes in the camera market. For the moment, however it seems at beat a pity and at worst (as in the case of Mr  Ebrahimi) a shocking indictment on the state of our society.

On the day that I visited the Street Photography Exhibition, I encountered two boys, about 10 years old who were skateboarding in the street. One, seeing me approaching, called out to me, ‘Oi mister. Want to see something funny?’  ‘OK, then.’ I replied, ‘As long as it’s not you two mugging someone.’

 

One boy produced his ‘phone and showed me a series of videos of his friend repeatedly falling off his skateboard  trying to do a trick. It was indeed, very funny. Leaving them laughing in the street, I had to reflect on the question, if I had been filming that scene over and over again, who would have thought it was so funny?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photography – a Profession?

I read sometime ago about a professional photographer who took his own life.

There is no need to go into the specifics, but the generalities raise interesting questions.

In an age where anyone with a few hundred pounds can buy quality photographic and editing equipment, there are always going to be photographers who are willing to work for less money, or no money than the established pro.

The argument is that their work will of lower quality so the client ultimately suffers through paying less. And furthermore the amateur working for nothing will either give up (because who wants to work for nothing) or be recognised as having little talent and will not get further work.

These might be true, but will not help the pro, as there will always be others to take their place.

On the other hand, some of these ‘wannabes’ may actually be very good indeed, and the client may be getting a real bargain. On yet another hand, it might be the case that talented photographers don’t want to charge much (or at all), because for them it’s a passionate hobby, not a job.

When colleagues ask if I can photograph their children, should I then charge them? Actually the question is rhetorical. I don’t charge colleagues for photographing their families. Period.

Now you could argue that I’m doing some pro out of work, and I’m not going to argue about overheads, running costs, tax, etc, etc, etc.

If my colleagues want to go to a studio and pay studio rates, then they will. If they want me to bring around a few lights, a backdrop and a bag full of kit, well, we’ll do that.

It’s undoubtedly true that photography is going through great changes, but this has happened before, and no doubt will happen again in the future. The recent changes in technology have democratised photography in an incredible way. Digital photography has opened up the potential of image making in a way that was unimaginable when I started taking photos in the 1970’s.

This explosion of photography has led to a sense of entitlement in that many, many more people want to make a living out of what would previously been just a hobby.

Let’s imagine a conversation with a hypothetical pro, based upon conversations I’d had over the past few years, but not really about any one particular tog. In the tradition of Ali G, meet ‘me mate Dave’.

Me: Love the work Dave.

Dave: Oh, thanks, it’s going really well. Seems super popular.

Me: I’m sure it is.

Dave: Yeah, had 250 ‘likes’ in a couple of days.

Me: ‘Likes’?

Dave: Isn’t facebook great for photographers. I’ve got 1500 friends now.

Me: I’m sure they like your work.

Dave: They love my work. Well apart from a few, but I’ve unfriended  all them.

Me: OK, so what earns the money?

Dave: Weddings and fashion work. I shoot for lots of magazines.

Me: Do the magazines pay well?

Dave: Well not really, but it’s all good experience.

Me: How are the weddings?

Dave: Great, but it’s difficult with all these amateurs undercutting you.

Me: I’m sure it’s difficult for a lot of people.

Dave: Well, they’ll be sorry when their wedding photos are crap. You have pay for quality.

Me: So true. So tell me, how long have you been taking photos?

Dave: Nearly three years now.

Me: Oh, ok. Not that long then. Is all your experience in digital then?

Dave: Yeah. I mean? Who uses film anyway? Never even been in darkroom. Outdated, completely outdated.

Me: Right. So where did you study?

Dave: University of life me. You can’t learn experience.

Me: So true. I see from your website that you offer teaching as well. I didn’t realise you were a teacher?

Dave: Well we all do our bit, eh?

Me: And by teacher, you don’t actually mean ‘Qualified Teacher Status’, like in a school?

Dave: Hey you don’t need bits of paper to be a teacher.

Me: Just experience?’

Dave: Absolutely – you can’t beat it.

 

Now, Dave is a talented photographer in the area he works, but for me this begs the fundamental question, what does professional mean when applied to photography?

Going to our favourite source of insightful knowledge, Wikipedia, we get the following definition.

 

‘A professional is a person who is engaged in a certain activity, or occupation, for gain or compensation as means of livelihood; such as a permanent career, not as an amateur or pastime. The traditional professions were doctorsengineerslawyersarchitects and commissioned military officers. Today, the term is applied to nursesaccountantseducatorsscientiststechnology expertssocial workersartists, librarians (information professionals) and many more.’

Taking the first part of the definition – a professional works for cash, and does the task as a job of work.

The second part is more interesting. The examples given of traditional professions give a far narrower scope for being considered ‘professional’.

I consider my own field to be a profession, so what does that mean for me? Well, I work in education. After my degree, I took a postgraduate certificate in education; then I had to work a probationary year before getting qualified status. Three years for a degree, plus two qualifying to be a teacher.

So, one – expert knowledge, backed by qualifications at degree level.

Two – Specific training related to the occupational sector.

As a teacher I have to be a member of my professional association, which itself requires a commitment to certain ethical standards, which extend beyond my workplace or working hours.

Three – professional association.

Four – ethical and professional standards.

These four criteria make teaching a profession rather than a job. Other professions have similar characteristics. For an occupation to be considered a profession, it has far beyond providing work in return for money.

Let’s consider photography. Is there a requirement for qualifications? No. Is there a requirement for specific training or proof of competence? No. Is there a professional association that all practitioners have to join? No. Are there ethical standards that everyone have to subscribe to? No.

A photographer, or postman, or baker cannot come into a school, claim to be a teacher and undercut the salaries of teachers.  But the teacher, or the postman, or the baker can pick up a camera and claim to be a photographer, and charge as much as they can get away with, or as little as they please.

I’d initially thought of using binmen as an example, but then I remembered that the highly unionized, relatively well paid council employees of the past have been replaced, through privatization, with low paid workers with no job security, and few rights.

The reality is that photographers are not professional in the sense that I have used. Moreover, they are less regulated than plumbers without even the requirement for basic checks of competence. A  van driver has to have a driving license. What does a photographer need to have?

To many people;  many potential clients, ‘professional’ photographers are just people trying to make money out of their hobby.

A Crisis in Photography?

There is a (allegedly) Chinese curse; ’May you live in interesting times’. For many people    involved in photography, particularly people trying to make a living out of it, these are  indeed interesting times!

Photography is going through immense changes and the figures to support these changes are simply staggering. By November 2011, an estimated 100 billion photographs had been shared by social network sites, and by April 2012 Facebook users alone were posting photographs at the rate of 300 million a day!

These are numbers so vast that they are meaningless. We live in a world saturated with   images. Through sheer weight of numbers nearly every conceivable photograph has been   already been taken, and often taken very well.

At the same time, however, the level of photographic literacy and technical knowledge within the picture taking public  continues to fall. Not only do people not need much  technical expertise to take reasonable photographs, many are completely unaware that there is anything to learn.

This makes it hard for two distinct groups of photographers. The first is the ‘professional’ photographer who wants to make an income from taking photographs. In an age where     anyone with a few hundred pounds can buy a camera that will produce quality images, the ‘professional’ is seen as a chancer wanting to make money out of what is essentially a hobby His (or her) problem is that there will nearly always be someone willing to undercut him. The counter argument often cited by ‘professional’ photographers  is that this undercutting work will be of lower quality so the client ultimately suffers through paying less. And furthermore the person carrying out this work will soon see the folly of working for nothing  and will    either give up (because who wants to work for nothing) or be recognised as having little   talent and will not get further work.

These might be true, but will not help the pro, as there will always be others to take their place.

On the other hand, some of these ‘wannabes’ may actually be very good indeed, and the    client may be getting a real bargain. On yet another hand, it might be the case that talented photographers don’t want to charge much (or at all), because for them it’s a passionate hobby, not a job.

One of the enduring ironies of this situation is that of an acceleration life-cycle of photographers new to the industry. Many go from complete novices with a shiny new digital

camera  to disillusioned, over-priced dilettantes in a matter of a few years or months.

What, a few decades ago could be considered a stable occupation based upon knowledge and skill, has become a race to the bottom, with each advance in camera technology leading   inevitably to further competition and undercutting.

The second group of photographers finding themselves living in interesting times are those trying to make original and engaging art from the subject. As the writer and artist, Chris Wiley has stated, ‘the possibility of making a photograph than can stake a claim to originality has been radically called into question. Ironically, the moment of greatest plenitude has pushed photography to the point of exhaustion’. (Frieze magazine—Nov/Dec 2011).

Producing more of the same, repeating known themes, simply trying to improve on work  already done simply isn’t going to have an impact in a world where there are potentially 300 million new photographs produced each day.

The response by conceptual artists has been interesting to say the least. We have already seen the work of Slinkachu, who’s little people can give us an insight into the anomie of modern city living. Skinkachu’s work focuses on the photographic,  rather than on photography. The camera, the photography, is initially merely a tool to record the art of the installation. With his wider, contextual shots, the camera allows the artist to increase the sense of    isolation, and sometimes desolation, with which we imbue the figures.

Photography, then, used to perhaps explore a deeper meaning in our society than to produce technically competent, pretty pictures. Of course Slinkachu  is not the only, or first artist to use a camera in this way.

In the early 1990s Gillian Wearing started putting together photography exhibitions that were based around the idea of photographing anonymous strangers in the street who she had asked to hold up a piece of paper with a message on it. Of these “confessional” pieces, Wearing stated,

‘I decided that I wanted people to feel protected when they talked about certain things in their life that they wouldn’t want the public that knows them to know. I can understand that sort of holding on to things—it’s kind of part of British society to hold things in. I always think of Britain as being a place where you’re meant to keep your secrets—you should never tell your neighbours or tell anyone. Things are changing now, because the culture’s changed and the Internet has brought people out. We have Facebook and Twitter where people tell you small details of their life.’

In her work, ‘Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say’ the photographed subjects show candid insights into their lives that reveal a wide variety of complex feelings, often at odds with the superficial      facade that  people present to the world.

There is a distinction developing here; between the idea of photography as art in itself, and as art presented in a photographic way. For Slinkachu and Wearing, photography is a mechanism for demonstrating artistic ideas.

This emphasis on the photographic rather than photography has been used for some time by the installation artist, Andy Goldworthy. Using elements of the natural world, rocks, stones, leaves or even ice, Goldworthy creates ephemeral  installations in the open and then lets them naturally disintegrate. After time, only the  photograph is evidence that the artist had ever been present.

Goldworthy has been quoted as saying (of himself (sic)), “I think it’s incredibly brave to be working with flowers and leaves and petals. But I have to:  I can’t edit the materials I work with. My remit is to work with nature as a whole.”

What is striking about the three above artists is that the digital revolutions sweeping  across photography is almost irrelevant to their work. The photographic task, in each of these examples is to record the art, and film or digital is equally suitable to the task. While digital cameras might make the task of Slinkachu easier than the film cameras that       Goldworthy started his career with, both are incidental to the task of creating the art. The camera then, is just another tool of the artist, not the focus of the artistic intent.

Other artists have embraced the new technological opportunities with great enthusiasm, creating new works that would have been impossible a few years ago.

His images are taken from Google’s Street View; simply cropped and enlarged screenshots re-photographed on his computer screen. While providing an fascinating and somewhat  voyeuristic of the world as seen by Google, does this constitute photography?  Wolf argues that as  everything has been photographed a ‘gazillion’ times, and a new approach would avoid the clichés of simply repeating others’ work.

“In the beginning what I found amazing was that if one looked enough,  one could find almost anything. So many situations – accidents, heart attacks, bicycle crashes, dogs crapping, people giving you the finger – it was just an incredible cross-section of events. It seemed serendipitous but then I just realised it’s a matter of odds: you will have everything from a woman birthing a child to a guy dying on the street. And when we walk through the city we’re always only in one place and one time but that car is seeing every place in one time.”

Another non-photographer, photographer is John Stezaker. Stezaker doesn’t take  photographs at all, preferring to work with found images with which he creates  surrealist collages. Winner of the prestigious Deinutsche Börse photography prize  in 2012  Stezaker would be the first to admit that he is not a photographer. He argues that he artist who uses photography in his art and, in doing so, ‘interrogates the medium’ and its role as a so-called documenter of truth, reality and in particular, celebrity culture. Questioning photography as an objective representation of reality is nothing new. What is new here, and very interesting,  is the abandoning of new photography itself, relying on the work of previous photographers to create something new.

In each of the above artist’s work, in different ways, the art  is about the nature of the photographic – the making of the images, rather than the taking of a photograph. The end result being more important than the process of making it. It’s not about photography.  The advantage for the artist of digital photography is that much of the physical work of photography has been removed. No longer do photographers (or perhaps more accurately, those using cameras) have to concern themselves with choice of film, have to use darkrooms, of even have to load a camera.

This frees the artist to be more conceptual, and it is perhaps the conceptual artist that is currently more successful, both in terms of being noticed and monetary rewards.

That said, and for all the evident changes, photography continues to be incredibly popular. Festivals, galleries and books on the subject can be found in increasing numbers all over the world. Advances in technology make even self-published books viable and there can be few events that do not have an ‘official photographer’ (paid, or unpaid), in attendance.

We do indeed live in ‘interesting times’, but this need not be a curse. Those who complain the most about he plight of the ‘professional’ photographer unable to make a living are often a small step away from those who they blame for ruining ‘their’ industry. There are exceptions, of course and for many talented hard-working photographers, times are ‘interesting’ in the Chinese sense of the word.

To many people, photographers have got it made. They expect to be paid (and paid well) for something that looks like a hobby. Indeed, many amateur photographers are very talented and modern technology has allowed the amateur to achieve technical results that were, not so long ago, impossible without extremely expensive equipment.

Take, for example, the portrait photographer of thirty years ago. His Hassleblad, medium format camera was accompanied by  an expensive flash meter and bulky lighting equipment. Today’s modern DSLR’s, with wireless off-camera  flashguns are a fraction of the cost in real terms and far, far easier to use. That they still might not produce a result technically as good is an irrelevance to the grateful client who only really wants a pretty photograph of their children or pets at a low cost.

Not since Kodak made the Brownie, with it’s famous slogan, ‘You press the button. We do the rest’, has photography changed so much as the past two decades. The emergence of social media sites such as facebook, flickr and instagram have changed the perception of photography in a profound way. Photography has ceased to be the elitist pursuit of ‘professionals’ or purist hobbyists and has been truly democratised.

Anyone can take a photograph now. That doesn’t mean, of course that anyone can take a good photograph. Some things are a lot easier than in the past, but the skills that go into making a great photograph are not purely mastering the controls of the camera.

For many, the vast majority in fact, the ‘Why’ is simply the desire to produce good photographers. For others, it’s wanting to make money, while for others it’s the creation of art. This piece has concentrated on conceptual artists and their use of the photographic, rather than photography.  For these artists there is no crisis in photography. The advances that have led to the undercutting race to the bottom that so many in photography  constantly bemoan simply are irrelevant to them—they are on a different trajectory altogether. Neither is there a crisis for the vast majority of photographers, they are playing  for the love of the game. If there is a crisis, it’s for those who see photography as a means of making money, and they do have problems.

Want to earn money? Become a plumber.

 

Every now and then, well about every week actually, I get a message that goes something along the lines of, ‘Photographers are skilled artists – they should be paid and not expected to work for nothing’. The last one I got on this theme was a photo of a central heating unit with ‘suggestions’ of why a plumber ‘should’ work for nothing to gain ‘exposure’. The tag line went something like, ‘If you wouldn’t ask a plumber to work for nothing, why would you ask a photographer?’

Well, my next door neighbour is a plumber and I certainly wouldn’t ask or expect him to come and fix my plumbing for free. I’m going to be paying for his years (decades actually) of expertise, obviously. I’m going to be paying him for the insurance policies he holds to protect me. I’m going to going to be paying him for the years spent at college gaining his essential qualifications, and the mandatory refresher and updating courses he has to undertake to keep his qualifications current.

Most of all, I’m going to be paying him because he does this for a job. While he is very good at what he does (excellent in fact), it’s hardly a passion for him. He’d give it all up to be a musician if he could.

The world if full of under-employed and unemployed musicians. On the other hand my neighbour has a skill that is in high demand and short supply. As such he can attract a reasonable fee for the labour that he expends fixing my plumbing.

On a recent trip to Orkney I met a guy while waiting for the light to change at the stone circle at the Ring of Brodgar. I was hanging about with my little compact camera, eyeing up his new Nikon D600, so obviously I asked him how he found the new camera.

To cut a half hour chat down to a few lines; he bought it as an upgrade to his D60 and he’d only bought it a couple of days before. He’s been interested in photography (well, taking photographs) for about a year, and he let the camera sort out the complicated bits, leaving it on the green ‘bit’. One day soon he wanted to take a course on photography to learn more about it. And would I like to see some of his images?

Well, yes, I certainly would.

The images on the back of the camera were a mixed bag, to be sure, but quite a few were very, very good.

The next day I was in a bookshop looking at two books of photographs of Orkney. They were both taken by ‘professional’ photographers, but to be honest they looked like holiday snaps to me. Compared to the best of the shots of my new friend (who really was on holiday), they didn’t stand up favourably.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this guy with his new toy could produce the consistency that a wedding photographer needs, or would even want to, but this chance meeting illustrates that with the latest equipment, knowledge about photography can sometimes place second to just being in the right place at the right time and having an eye for your subject.

Now, my D600 owning friend would be the first to admit that he lacked knowledge, and the more he used a camera, the more he wished he knew. However, his lack of knowledge didn’t stop him from taking some excellent shots.

Let’s ‘fast forward’ this guy a year or so. Now he’s learnt a fair bit about photography. He’s learnt to apply that to his camera, and he’s learnt how to use photo editing software. He’s in great demand photographing family, friends, and work colleagues. He may have even had a few publications (no fees, of course). What, then makes him different from a ‘professional’ photographer – apart from the rather obvious fact that he’s not earning money from his hobby?

One thing I haven’t mentioned is that this guy just happens to be a trainer by profession. It’s entirely conceivable that he could run courses in photography at the point in the future where his knowledge have grown sufficiently to allow him to teach others.

The depressing reality for those trying to make a living out of photography is that this guy isn’t a special case.

At a recent trip to the British Wildlife Centre my daughter spent half an hour teaching  someone how to use his Canon 650D with a rather nice 200-400mm zoom. Another visitor to the centre was trying to manage three children and a buggy around shooting with her Nikon D800, and a trio of pensioners in the canteen must have had 15K of equipment lying on the table in front of them.

Any one of the above might get a really, really good photograph (or indeed many) and most would quite happily sign away the rights for a credit in a magazine!

Photographers in newspapers are being laid off, or not being replaced when they leave. National Rail are currently inviting members of the public to photograph railway stations for a competition. The prize? To have your photograph on the National Rail website! There are even magazines who will only publish your photographs if the meet the editorial standards of the magazine and you pay them a fee.

While complaining that their livelihoods are being destroyed, some photographers act in a similar vein. The photographer who brought the example of paying to have images printed in a magazine to my notice and is keen to argue that photographers should be paid well, often advertises for unpaid assistants to help on jobs: to gain experience!

In a world where a few hundred pounds will buy equipment capable of producing professional results, there are many people who will happily pay a few thousand pounds to get the ‘best’. Many of those people will, and do, regard photography as an enjoyable and rewarding hobby that brings its own intrinsic rewards. They are simply not in it for money.

Going back to where I started, I’ll continue to pay my neighbour to do my plumbing because it’s a difficult, skilled job. Even if I felt I could do the task myself, the thought of working in cramped, badly lit conditions, without the correct tools and with (possibly severe) consequences if I got it wrong make his fees the far lesser of alternative evils.

Photography is a great hobby, and the more you learn about it, the better your photography will be. In the past it was an exclusive subject which few people really understood, and which required expensive, bulky equipment and usually a well appointed darkroom to achieve good quality prints. Digital photography has truly democratised photography, bringing low cost photography to a huge new audience.

But as a job? Perhaps it would be better to train as a plumber.

 

 

The rise of the moral panic

 

Photography and the rise of the moral panic

I take it as accepted that a photograph can only show one aspect of the truth of an event. A fractional slice of time cannot possibly convey the whole story, even though it may be more than enough to create a powerful vision (sic) of the events unfolding before the camera.

Here I would like to suggest that this slicing of events can be create a wholly false picture of events which can lead to a (sometimes purposeful) distortion or at the very least misreading of the scene before the camera.

Imagine the world envisioned by the science fiction author, Larry Niven, in his 1973 story ‘Flashcrowd’. A news report appears on your TV screen alerting you to a protest/riot/media event anywhere on the planet. Grabbing your camera, you can instantly be transported to the event to witness, record, and possibly take advantage of the situation.

The plot of the story centres on a TV journalist who, after being fired for his inadvertent role in inciting a post-robbery riot in Los Angeles, seeks to investigate the teleportation system for the flaws in its design allowing for such spontaneous riots to occur.

While this technology does not exist, the facebook generation are constantly subjected to an inverted,  second-hand version where someone’s version of an event is flashed around  social media without any form of censure, critique, or in some cases, reason.

While it is commonly accepted that untruths travel faster than truths, what is often overlooked is that truths are often inconvenient and do not sit well with the narrative of those happy to pass on the untruths.

This subject has been examined by the sociologist, Stanley Cohen, in his study, ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics’. Cohen looked at conflict between Mods and Rockers in Clacton on Easter Sunday 1964. The two groups came into conflict on the beach with some beach huts being vandalised and some windows broken. On the Monday morning the story had been a headline in every national newspaper with such titles as “Day of Terror by Scooter Groups” (The Daily Telegraph) and “Wild Ones Invade Seaside – 97 Arrests” (Daily Mirror). 

Cohen’s criticism about the media’s coverage of the episode is that it was subject to exaggeration and distortion of the facts. Such phrases as ‘orgy’, ‘riot’, ‘siege’, and ‘screaming mob’ were incorporated into the text, and exaggeration of the numbers involved all resulted in the perception of the event as a much more violent affair than the facts support.

Exaggerated and inflated reporting of a relatively minor event by the media led to an ‘amplification’  of events and rhetoric. In this way the media serves to create ready-made opinions about the course of action to be taken.

The initial cause, and the initial social actors are soon forgotten as the moral panic about the breakdown of society consumes them and labels them as a common enemy to society; they become new folk devils to be vilified by all ‘reasonable’ people in the wider society.

Change ‘media’ to ‘social media’ and this process of deviancy amplification goes into fast forward. In the Niven story, flashcrowds  could arise spontaneously from any  news report. When everyone can literally go anywhere without effort, the desire to witness, or become involved in events becomes overwhelming. In the social media world photographs and accounts of events are shared without any reflection or, in many cases, simple checking of the veracity of the account.

Often this ‘sharing’ is done innocently enough, but not always – consider the number of viruses that permeate the internet.

A critical viewer of social media should ask themselves a few questions before sharing reports and photographs.

Firstly, it this genuine? A recent, widespread, and completely inaccurate report of the death of the musician Lou Reed  was followed a week later by his actual death. The first account could have been checked fairly easily, and was soon denounced as a hoax. However, when Reed really died a week or so later, the initial reaction was to denounce this news as yet a further hoax. In itself, this falls into the category of annoying rather than dangerous (although presumably distressing to many), but it is very common to receive  reports  and ‘advice’ which might lead someone to change the security setting of their computers. One should always question deeply the motives of anyone starting such a hoax, even those spreading it might be doing so for purely altruistic reasons.

Secondly, is this a ‘chain letter’? The suggestion that something bad will follow inaction on your part to ‘share’ someone’s delusions is moving the goalposts towards a degree of callousness that beggars belief. Preying on the insecurity or naivety of sometimes vulnerable individuals  should be robustly rebuffed. Someone who sends something of this nature is clearly not a ‘friend’. Deleted, blocked and reported!

Thirdly, is there some deeper motive to this? Many people will ‘sell’ their political or religious ideology through social media in the form of calls to action for particular causes. If you are aware of, and in agreement with the cause, then this might be fair enough, particularly if shared by a known contact with similar views. If it’s completely out of the blue, it might be a data gathereing exercise by someone, or containing something (even) more sinister.

It wouldn’t be possible to spread rumours and untruths without the complicit agreement of the social media community.  Logic suggests that about half the people using the internet are of average or below average intelligence, so there will be many people simply not bright enough to do the research to check information before they pass it on.

Add to that those who have an ideological, religious or other commitment to the message being spread, accurate or not, and  the growth of new folk devils seems inevitable.

It used to be said that there were lies, damned lies and statistics. That was before the existence of social media. Now perhaps, it’s Facebook, lies and statistics. Or is that just too cynical?