We’re All Photographers Now – or not

A friend of mine has had a couple of annoying experiences lately. In the first she did some photos for somebody starting out as a makeup artist (who had decided what sort of photos she wanted by picking out pro model photos on location from Pinterest and offering her friends in the back garden of course), which started as “I’ll pay you”, turned into “I’ll buy you lunch” and fairly quickly back into “No, You’ll pay me!”. Got her money eventually but no thanks and no credit for the photos when they got shared around. The other was photographing a friend’s wedding, a very low key affair but here we are, three weeks down the line, and the friend hasn’t said thank you yet. So she’s feeling a bit put upon, as though people are taking advantage of her skills.

We thought about this and decided that it’s because everyone’s a photographer now.Only of course, they’re not. Unlike other skills, now everybody has a smartphone, and digital cameras are cheap, and you can clock up hours watching Youtube videos on how to take better landscapes/portraits/kiddie photos/whatever then people lose sight of the fact that actual photographers are skilled experts who understand what they’re doing rather than just clicking away or rote following what they’ve seen on Youtube. Last series of Masters of Photography I’m pretty sure Oliviero Toscani said something like “you give a camera to monkey it goes click, it doesn’t make it a photographer”. It’s odd really, because everybody who can use a spanner doesn’t think they’re a car mechanic and everybody who can mow a lawn think they’re a landscape architect. Part of the blame for this I think lies with the huge volume of online photo sharing; let’s be honest, a huge percentage of the photos on Instagram really just aren’t that great, and a lot of the stuff on Youtube is pretty samey, and if this is all people see then they just start seeing all images as the same. I reckon you could spend a lot of time looking at photos of ‘models’ on the ‘gram before you saw something to even come close to Bailey’s 1962 photos of Jean Shrimpton in New York (and yes, they’re personal favourites of mine, you can pick your own).

I think that, ultimately, as photographers we just have to accept the fact that a whole of people just don’t realise that a good photograph is not (generally) produced by pointing a camera and clicking. After all that’s how they produce a photograph, that’s all photographers on telly and youtube are doing, therefore that’s all there is to it. What they’re missing is that the photographer is thinking and clicking, they’re aware of lamp posts sticking out of heads, of how the sunlight is hitting the model, of how blurry the background is, and they made choices based on this before they began taking photos. A couple of years ago I sat in a cafe in Piazza Navona in Rome and watched, with mounting frustration, people photographing their friends and loved ones in front of the fountains; hell it’s one of those things you simply have to do. But every single pigging one of them had the friend facing straight into the Roman sunshine and I knew full well that every one of them was going to have a photo of their friend or partner squinting in Rome, or at least with killer shadows which was going to make it look like a mug shot. Of course I photographed my wife in front of a fountain in Piazza Navona, it really is something you have to do…but on the other side of a fountain facing away from the sun. I have a photo of her smiling in Rome with her hair (she has great hair) nicely backlit by the same light which was blinding everybody else. I got this because I knew what was happening and made choices about the image accordingly.

Everybody isn’t a photographer, and if people want to get one to take photos for them, then they need to realise it’s no more just ‘pointing and clicking’ than fixing a car engine is ‘doing up a few nuts and bolts’ and at least say thanks and treat the snapper with some respect

The End of the Digital Nomad?

We’ve all watched them, and probably follow them. The Youtube channels and the Instagram feeds from the people who have no fixed base and travel constantly, living in airB&Bs and running their digital busineses from laptops. They do great travel photography. They spend a month here taking amazing images of fantasic places before boarding a plane to somewhere else to do it again. They’re great, they’re informative and even though for most of us they’re not aspirational then we at least get to vicariously travel to these places with them. I’m not knocking any of this, I subscribe to loads of them.

But.

With the climate emergency, how much longer can this lifestyle last?

There is no doubt among pretty much everybody who isn’t a politician that the climate emergency is real, it’s clear, present and dangerous. The simple fact is that flying is about the most damaging single thing you can do for the climate. All that cycling to work and turning off the lights you’re not using gets pretty much wiped out in your annual return ticket to your holiday villa. The simple fact is that if you really, really want to do something about the climate emergency then don’t fly. So where does that leave the digital nomads? Their lifestyles rely on them flying, a lot. They have built lives and careers around jumping on a plane to somewhere to run a workshop, or speak at a conference, or go to an Influencer press event. To be blunt; their lifestyles are at the expense of the future of the planet. Now, to offset that they don’t own much so they only rent a car when they need to use one, and the airB&Bs are always studio apartment sized, so in many other ways they’re pretty low carbon. But all those air miles almost certainly exceed the savings.

So ultimately, how much longer, morally, can they continue with these lives in their current form? Should they be making their lives look so aspirational for the next generation, are ‘Could You be a Digital Nomad?’ videos socially acceptable now? Fairly soon are they going to have to settle down, or at least be nomadic within the confines of bus or rail travel? Are the (few) people who currently go on their photo workshops in Patagonia, or Iceland, or Vietnam just going to have to forgo that? Is that going to be a problem. Most people run digital business from offices somehwere. Most of the great photographers lived before cheap air travel, I think I’m right that Weston and Adams never left the American continent, Cartier-Bresson was solidly european, Bailey could have done equally well just in London, and Avdeon’s masterwork is The American West rather than People I met in Various Countries .

Is a life based around easy, fairly cheap, air travel not going to be an option much longer?

I’ve decided that Snapchat is the worst thing for photography…like everrrrr

I’ve got a snapchat account, I don’t use it but I’ve got one because I like to experiment with all these things; I’ve got accounts on pretty much everything (apart from the Chinese social media platform WeChat which my son has so he’s beating me there). But I like to find out how these things work, some like the twin pillars of Empire Zuck I use a lot, some like Flickr I want to use more and some like Tumblr and Snapchat I hardly use at all. Putting this out there now before I get deluged with irate hate mail from Snapchat users, which actually would be nice because it suggests that real people rather than just bots read my blog, for what it’s for then I get snapchat. Somebody and their friends, at a party, quick photo, few filters, bit of text, all their mates see it. Job done. With the added bonus that the photo then disappears unless somebody screenshots it, and I understand it lets you know if somebody has? That last one is one of the great strengths of Snapchat for what it is…and the great curse for photographers.

Let’s face it, teenagers do things they really, really, really don’t want to come back and appear later in life, perhaps at a job interview. I know of one very successful woman with a great career who dimly remembers being patched up aged 18 by St John’s somebody later on than being in Trafalgar Square and new year and possibly before the copper explained she couldn’t sleep in the phone box. But at least there aren’t photos of this, genuine tangible evidence isn’t going to rear it’s ugly head now on somebody’s social networking. For things like passing out in Trafalgar Square Snapchat is definitely the way to go. Totes (down with the kids, me).

But that’s where I think it loses out in so many other situations, because you don’t have the photo. With all the others you take the photo, it’s saved on your phone, then you process and post it. If it’s no good then sure you can delete it from your phone afterwards, I’ve done post and delete loads of times, but the option is there. You take that photo with Snapchat and you can’t revisit it, you can’t look at it the following morning and say “hey, without the rabbit ears Auntie Flo would like a copy of that”, or “I don’t have any photos of me and friend x at event y”, or the organiser of the party realises they don’t have photos of something. With snapchat you’re condemned to the death of that image; it’s taken away choice and actually I think, no app should do that.

I know that it’s possible to take the photo, then put it via Snapchat later on, which would seem to me to be the best way to go as it gives you the best of both worlds. But in what I’m going to term ‘the snapchat moment’ who thinks that far ahead?

Why are ‘photographers you should know’ always on Instagram

Quite often on Youtube, and I do watch a lot of Youtube photography videos, you get a video called something like ‘5 Photographers You Should Know’, or something along those lines, and they’re always interesting to watch. However one thing I do find myself thinking is that these videos, generally by younger photographers with social media accounts tend to feature other younger photographers with social media accounts. Okay, let’s be clear on this one, there is nothing wrong with being a younger photographer or with having a social media account, both of them are admirable things; I’m not a younger photographer but I do have a social media account so I’m ticking a 50% of the boxes myself. But over the decades there have been many, many great photographers who date from before the time when social media accounts even were an idea, let along an actual thing. Why aren’t they featuring in these videos, why aren’t the 20 somethings suggesting that it’s really good to look at Adams, or Bailey, or Duffy, or Avedon; even Rankin seems to have slipped off the lists. I think it’s down to a simple thing: they’re in print.

I’m not buying into the idea that young people don’t read, that’s reactionary rubbish which too many old fogeys like to peddle, usually I suspect because they don’t actually understand the 21st century and like to be sniffy about things like social media. But what I am saying is that there is a tendency, and I can’t prove this, for younger people to not go looking for things outside their preferred media. Conversely, I think there is a tendency sometimes for older people to do the same, that dividing river has steep banks on both sides (wow, that’s an impressively pretentious metaphor). I’m lucky, and it is luck, to work in a school so I’m surrounded by teenagers, which really keeps your brain young I can tell you. We offer digital photography as an exam subject and lots of kids take it. The subject head has made a reasonable investment in nice books over the past few years, and I do like a browse on the office shelf and borrow a couple over the holidays. Well we got to the end of the Christmas break and I said on our return that I was sorry but I hadn’t got her Ansel Adams book back, to which she replied “hang onto it for as long as you like, I can’t get the kids to even open them”.

The course requires them to produce work ‘in the style of’ a photographer of their choice, and I found myself the other day looking at the exam work and thinking that if that were me I’d be getting out the plain white background and trying to do portraits in the style of Bailey (who I admit is my photographic hero), and then realised they’d never have heard of Bailey, or probably seen his work. Or Avedon’s “American West”, or Edward Weston and his peppers; if I could photograph vegetables like that I’d be totally a happy bunny. They’re not crossing the divide, they’re not seeing these photographers. Don’t blame the teachers, they can show them the work but they’re not engaging with it. There’s no colour, no filters, no effects and no sense that in 30 seconds you can flick off it and forget it existed.

None of them are going to get one of their classmates to kneel on the floor with a stuffed squirrel, ever.

Influencers and Brand Builders: not the Instagram for which we signed up

Bit of a polemic this post, and I’m not taking a pop at anybody in particular here, just in general. I also accept that there is no way this genie is going back in, because too many people now depend on rubbing this particular bottle.

Instagram used to be about sharing photos you’d taken which you thought other people might like to see, and that was fun; that was a social network. Then, from somewhere two new trends appeared. The first was that visual creatives found that Instagram was the way to get noticed (and photo editors decided that it was a great way to find photographers, models, etc without all that sitting down with people and taking about their portfolios). The second was the appearance of a strange new entity called the Social Media Influencer, which as far as anybody can make out means people who get paid or get given free stuff in exchange for plugging it on their social media channels. Eva Wiseman in The Guardian wrote a rather good piece taking apart the whole ‘influencer’ idea a while back. All of a sudden Instagram became business critical for some, and the entire business model for others. There were now channels on Youtube (which used to be for people to share bits of video) devoted to building your brand on social media. Blogs appeared exhorting us to do things like ‘post daily if not more often’ because that was what our brand audience supposedly wanted, and insisting that you remember to link you various bits of social media to ensure that as many people saw them as possible. Advice on getting five thousand new followers in a week appeared, and keyword tagging became a dark art akin to voodoo; there are probably social media tagging consultants out there, I haven’t looked as I worry I’d be too depressed by what I’d find. All of a sudden Instagram became a job, and you were told by various experts that if you weren’t treating it like a job you were doing it wrong. All of a sudden we were supposed to stop being people who took photos and wanted to share them with people: we were now supposed to be A Brand.

There is always an endless amount of railing about The Algorithm. I feel it needs capital letters because it’s always spoken of as though it’s some strange dark hearted mythical beast controlling everything from it’s lair: kind of like Cesare Borgia crossed with The Gruffalo. The complaint is that changes to The Algorithm decrease your engagement. Why by the way is that ‘a thing’, is it just that saying ‘the number of likes I get is smaller’ sort of sounds a bit narcissistic while discussing your engagement sounds like you’re a powerful professional presence doing serious things? A part of me thinks that actually the reason there is The Algorithm is that the tonnage of posts with which you’d be faced every day, if you followed the advice to follow everybody and every hashtag you can think of, would be almost unworkable. Of course, if you only follow a few folks you like, rather than follow the advice to follow everybody in the hope of increasing your engagement you’re not going to be affected. Generally I see most of my favourite user’s posts all the time. If you did everything you were supposed to do, posting daily, replying to all the comments (not because that’s polite but because The Algorithm is supposed to like it), checking your statistics and worrying about your engagement it would take all the fun out of it. I tried taking this attitude to blogging for a while and you know what? I hated it. I lost any enthusiasm for writing as I planned my posts and put things on twitter and linked like crazy. I didn’t write for months afterwards.

My strategy is to ignore all the advice and just use this, easy to follow, process: if I take a photo I like, and I think other people will like, I post it. Sometimes I post daily, sometimes I don’t post for weeks. I follow people who post photos I like, regardless of it they follow me back or not. I have a set of tags I use for my images which I know will put my photos in front of people who might enjoy them. I have, usually, somewhere between 100 and 120 followers on each of my channels at any one time and my engagement sucks. The people I interact with and I have a good time

Works for me.