"Wealth will increasingly be defined by our ability to go offline whenever we want." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Technology
September 7, 2012

Democratising Photography

Instagram is one of many mobile applications for sharing photos. But, because of it’s popularity, high profile sale to Facebook and deliberately retro and hispter-ish design, Instagram has become a touchstone for arguments about the so-called “democratisation of photography.” This debate typically involves the usual “dumbing down” arguments about the role of social media in […]

Instagram is one of many mobile applications for sharing photos. But, because of it’s popularity, high profile sale to Facebook and deliberately retro and hispter-ish design, Instagram has become a touchstone for arguments about the so-called “democratisation of photography.”

This debate typically involves the usual “dumbing down” arguments about the role of social media in changing the face of photography. Apparently, once upon a time, photography was a craft made safe for the rest of us by a guild of dedicated professionals. But now, with the advent of digital technology, “anyone” can take photos and share them with the world, thereby undermining the art and cultural significance of photography (not to mention the well-being of professional photographers).

It’s a nice story – shame is, it’s just not true.

Why The Backlash?

Recently, Ashu Mittal wrote a piece, Instagram – Good, Bad or Ugly?, that summed up many of my feelings about the backlash against Instagram and mobile photography coming from some professional photographers.

“I think some of the violent reactions to Instagram’s success can be attributed to resistance to change or probably the insecurities of some professionals now that “the barrier to entry” in the field of photography has drastically reduced.”

Photography is far from being the only field to change as a result of digital technology. Everything from journalism, to music, to film-making and every part of commerce has been turned upside down by the digital revolution.

Photography Was Always Democratic

I’m inclined to think that photography was always democratic – anyone could take it up. As a child, every house in my neighbourhood had some sort of camera and photo albums were commonplace. Companies like Polaroid And Kodak didn’t build empires by selling elite products but by marketing to the mainstream.

What Does Democratic Photography Mean?

Up until recently, deciding a photo or photographer was good was a decision made by a relatively small number of people. Editors, gallery owners, academics and other professional photographers made the decisions laregly on our behalf. It was a small and hard to enter community.

By contrast, anyone can like an image on Instagram and you can build a following there by bypassing those old guilds and gatekeepers. What has changed who gets a say, or a vote, in defining good (or at least interesting) photography.

And, focussing on this change clarifies what I believe is the really big and important question for our digital age – is popularity the same thing as quality?

Portrait Of An Instagram Artist

There is a growing body of working that mocks, or at least gently riducles the Instagram craze, especially the ludicrous nature of micro-celebrity. One of the best is this one,

What Has Changed

Many of us can remember the old cliche image of a tourist, weirdly dressed, with a camera hanging from their neck, randomly photographing anything that caught their attention, from plates of food to passerbys in the street. Now, with our smartphones, we have all become tourists in our backyard, shooting the same random moments from our day to day existence.

And, we can share those photos with the world at no cost and without having to seek permission from professional gatekeepers.

Personally, I celebrate this change; not just in photography, but in every creative field. Some of the most creative people I grew up with never fully explored their talents for reasons that had very little to with the quality of their work and everything to do with jumping through hoops that, for the most part, no longer exist.

And, if more and more people are creating photographs and other forms of art, for themselves and on their own terms, how can this be a bad thing?

Responses
fotoeins 10 years ago

Many thoughts and ideas to chew on! I was initially cool on Instagram, but I decided to give a try, especially on my present RTW. I feel that Instagram with my iPod Touch has provided a good photography alternative, which has been complementary to the photos I make with my dSLR. It’s also amazing to see how many have taken to the format, and I believe the format has allowed many to express themselves creatively, when once they might have been shy or reluctant with a point-and-shoot or a dSLR. Thanks for your post, Fernando!

Toni 10 years ago

As long as anyone could afford a camera, people have taken lousy photos. It’s just that previously the cost of D&P reduced the output and galleries would generally require work to be decent before being willing to display it to the public.

Instagram hasn’t made photography worse or better – in fact I’d say it hasn’t influenced it in any way at all. What it has done is allow people to present images in the same way that facebook let people write letters. If one likes that kind of thing and believe it opens creative possibilities then it’s positive. In one sense photography was certainly undemocratic if you were trying to break into the ‘inner circle’ of a club or particular professional group, but instagram may have actually made the barriers higher, no matter how many ‘likes’ an image gets.

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