Sounds like a silly question, right? But like any art form or information media, photography has seen major shifts over the last decade and, in particular, over the last five years.
Social media is oversaturated with kitties (I love a cute kitty, don’t get me wrong), babies (awww), bathing suits, and food photos from every possible meal. Sometimes this imagery is higher quality than others, professional vs. non-professional, and sometimes it just stinks. Don’t you agree?
Even advertisers are flocking to social media to promote their brands and to produce content (often for free) to advertise to the world. But with this oversaturation of imagery and watered-down messaging, can photography matter? What sets apart a professional quality image from others and why? What do you want your role as a photographer to be in this ever-changing visual world?
The advent of the Internet has been the most powerful tool for the creation of art and, in many ways, the most destructive tool for originality at the same time. Cultures that once celebrated their individuality expressed through national garb, now are morphing into similar looking American brand-wearing societies. This shift can be seen not only in fashion (the easiest place to visually recognize a changing society), but can also be seen and experienced through a homogenization of food culture, art, and music. So what is photography’s role in this shift towards homogeny and how can photography help to preserve, capture, create, and make cultural differences, social changes, and art?
Today I was reminded of this idea, the question of photography’s relevance or irrelevance, as I viewed a piece from my favorite photographer, Dorothea Lange. Lange’s most famous work, "Migrant Mother," was created in a rural, impoverished region of California in 1936. In this one image, Lange captured an entire societal breakdown. Simply photographing a mother and her children with their look of lost hope for the future, Lange and this image illuminated the great problems with unemployment in rural America in the 1930s. When this photograph was published, it helped the public realize unemployment had great impact not only on the workers, but on family as well, perhaps for the very first time. The Migrant Mother became the face of a generation and a symbol of necessary social change. As a result, the government rushed aid to the camp to prevent worker’s starvation and laws and policies were erected.
So what type of message do you want to share when you photograph?
In art, of course, everyone agrees that quality and not quantity matters, but not everyone who takes a photograph wants to create art.
Photography can and does matter. A major leader in the travel industry believes that “the very best of their images remind us that a photograph has the power to do infinitely more than document. It can transport us to unseen worlds.” That is a true and immeasurably significant mission statement.
“But they have also, increasingly, documented societies and species and landscapes threatened by our urge for homogenization,” writes Robert Draper in his 2013 essay. “The magazine’s latter-day explorers are often tasked with photographing places and creatures that a generation later may live only in these pages.”
When we photograph, let’s consider that thought. Let’s think of ourselves as responsible parties in a collective. Look to document, preserve, and even empower wherever you go, won’t you? One photograph can, in fact, make a difference, as Lange proved in her work and as countless photographers have done ever since.
So again, we can ask ourselves…are we creating imagery that adds to the world, helps to illuminate societal needs, reflects questions and offers valuable answers, or are we simply adding noise to an already cluttered landscape? My hope is that we all consider this thought and aim to use our imagery for good.
That, friends, is entirely up to you.
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