Photography has evolved dramatically in technology and image exposure capabilities. This has resulted in a generous democratization that has brought the craft and discipline closer to the people. But since we are constantly bombarded with visual content (photographs and video), and despite the fact that I'm not against the democratization of the medium, a question keeps popping into my head. The following words may sound like a rhetorical exercise, but I'm really worried about my question: Will humanity be able to be impressed by photographs in the same way classical, iconic images have changed the perception of real-life situations? Will we, as human beings, be able to save meaningful images in our brains even though we are progressively bombarded by visual content on the news, internet, social media, and traditional ads?
“The inventory started in 1839
and since then just about everything
has been photographed, or so it seems.”
Susan Sontag – On Photography
The bombardment metaphor is not an exaggeration at all. Erik Kessels made a point about this reality in 2011 with his “24 Hrs in Photos” installation. He picked one random day (24 hours straight) and printed every single image that was uploaded to Flickr on that day. Flickr … FLICKR, 2011… A lot has changed since then. He chose the only photography-sharing platform that was oriented to people that had at least a minimum interest in making photography an important part of their lives. Nowadays we have dozens of photography-sharing platforms, not to mention social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Even though he narrowed his source of images to a single platform, he ended up with this, an overwhelming avalanche of images reaching from FOAM's floor to the ceiling.
How Photography Changes Awareness
Photography changes awareness in relation to a specific subject (economic, political, social, geographical, etc.) by presenting reality as it is, but also as perceived by the photographer. In an image, there are three variables: the photographer, the photographed subject, and the spectator. They all collide in the grammar of the image, and they all play an important role in the final image. Hence, many people are able to be informed about happenings through this rendition of reality. Nowadays, social interactions are being heavily transformed due to the dynamics of social media, and we are enjoying a beautiful era where information is becoming freer and freer. But this democratization of content (as much as the consumption and creation of it) has made us less impressionable when a strong image is presented to us. The reason behind this could be either that there are a lot of strong images available daily or simply that those images (and many others) no longer linger in our memory, resulting in a loss of interest (or impact) in a couple of days.
We have seen how photography presented America to Americans during tough times. We also have seen how photography shaped the general view of the Vietnam War, and we have seen how photography resulted in a never-ending debate about the moral and ethical high ground of photographing the atrocities of human kind with Kevin Carter's photograph “The vulture and the little girl,” which resulted in a more complex debate if we include Kevin Carter's suicide.
Photography has been able to impress us, but it is getting harder for it to remain in our brains for long periods of time. Technology is not going to evolve to fix this; therefore we must change our imagery consumption habits. Getting rid of distractions and immediacy could be the answer.
Infinite scrolling and algorithm-generated suggestions are triggering us to spend less time reading an image, and we end up limiting images' capacity to affect our consciousness. There are many forms in which photography can divorce from screens and our frenetic way of consuming content online. The answer is simple: printed photographs could impact our memory more. Holding a photo book, a magazine, or a print, or gazing at an image inside an exhibition is a different, slower, and more focused way of reading an image. This could even lead to “Contemplative Reading in Photography,” and by doing so, almost any image can really impress itself upon our lives. From purchasing an object to driving to a museum, the actions surrounding our interaction with the photographs lead to a richer experience. We have the potential to become more sensitive spectators; we have the ability to return ourselves to that stage in which humankind was impressed by photographs in a lingering way.
Taking It Beyond
There is no need for heavy analysis or breakdowns to engage with a photograph, but doing some critical thinking could enhance your own craft as a photographer. You can do it with other people's work or with your own. You could even do it with the Great Masters' work—after all, this exercise will be for your own growth and maturity in photography.
Where to Start
If this exercise appeals to you, I suggest you start watching and reading (and in some cases watching the videos and listening to the audios of) the 100 most influential photographs from TIME Magazine.
The primary goal is to work within our own image consumption habits in order to achieve more sensitivity in terms of photographs' messages. After changing our own pace and consumption habits, we can spread the word and even help others. Try to share your own work in printed format once in a while (it doesn't have to be high-quality, just decent enough for you to feel comfortable showing them to people). A friend of mine does a very clever thing (and I have heard about some other photographers doing this): he carries a small pack of maybe 25 postcard prints of his images. He does this as a disciplined thing, like the mindset of having a camera always with you. This has also helped him change regular people's perception of Documentation Photography (which is his niche). They are impressed by prints, not by digital imagery.