Is Photography Losing Its Impact?


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.

Image by Thomas Hawk

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.

Image By Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information / Office of Emergency Management / Resettlement Administration – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID fsa.8b29516.

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.

No Distractions

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.

Image by Rawpixel

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

Image by Unsplash

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.

About Author

Federico has a decade of experience in documentary photography, and is a University Professor in photography and research methodology. He's a scientist studying the social uses of photography in contemporary culture who writes about photography and develops documentary projects. Other activities Federico is involved in photography are curation, critique, education, mentoring, outreach and reviews. Get to know him better here.

There will always be opportunities to take iconic photographs. And as for good photographs I’m of the opinion that it’s only other photographers who can see the skill that’s gone into them. I took a family portrait recently using high speed sync. I’d overpowered the ambient exactly as I’d set the camera up to do, blurred the background, subject was perfectly sharp, a softbox and diffuser were deployed for fill and to block out the direct sunlight etc., etc. However, the average Joe wouldn’t have a clue what went into it. You may get a “That’s nice,” and then they move onto the next photo. On the other hand, just scroll down your Facebook feed and look at the crap people post – blurred, noisey, badly composed, skew-whiff (but not a deliberate Dutch tilt), and then look at the ‘likes’ and ‘loves’ it gets. “Lovely picture hun,” “Looking great babe,” and so on ad nauseum. All we can do is just carry on.

Why is everyone so terrified of the thought that someone else might take a similar photo? I don’t ride a horse, to avoid being like all those motorists who drive cars all over the place. I don’t walk around upside down, because everyone else walks around on their feet. I frankly don’t mind WHAT other people do, so long as they don’t do anything unpleasant to me or my family. What is this phobia? Why is it now, after all this time, absolutely essential to be “different from everyone else”?

If that’s all that’s left, I can only pity studio photographers and wedding photographers. Out there, day after day, grinding away, taking portraits of people in the same venue (just shifting the lights around, or whatever) or couples on their “special day” (generally doing the same things and wearing similar costumes). Do we end up discarding them too, because in the end all their photos have a “sameness” to them?

There are 7 billion people on this planet – gauging the numbers by using cellphones as a guide, something like 5 billion cameras out there – we CANNOT all stand on the same spot, or sit on the same chair – and it’s absurd to imagine we can all be absolutely unique, in what we are, how we look or what we do.

Surely EVERYONE is entitled to take whatever photos they like? With whatever gear suits them? And if it matters, to strive to improve their photographic skills, as they do?

Yes, I agree that we are being bombarded by Photo’s and Images even more so now everyone has a camera in their pocket. It’s easy to become tired of, frame after frame of images that have no personal meaning or connection. That’s the point of photography, meaning and connection, photo’s that do say a thousand words and have a personal connection to us. For the rest, just skim. What has meaning to me might not have meaning to you but there’s will always be gems that stand out to everyone. There’s just more ways and noise these days to find those gems

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *