Last week, I attended Off the Page: Photojournalism and Public symposium at the LCC, coinciding with the private view of their MA programme graduates. The speakers, including photographer Ed Clark and co-founder of #Dysturb movement Benjamin Girette, among others, examined alternative presentation formats for visual documentaries. Informative and engaging, it was yet another talk celebrating the “new age of photography” that broke away from restrictive (and ungrateful) media and is now free to express itself and disseminate its content far and wide as they please. This trend both frightening and inspiring and, at least partially, true, but I see two important points that this kind of talks completely dismiss:
- Audience. By which I don’t mean other photographers, eagerly collecting photo books and prints, nor your loving mother. I mean the people who will engage with your work and be influenced by it.
- Money. By which I don’t mean that many photographers kind of manage to make the ends meet, even after paying for most of the work out of their own pocket and calling it art or marketing.
Of course, the two are interconnected. It is true that many self-initiated project are a lot deeper and more creative than a typical assignments. However, more often than not, they are paid for out of the photographer’s pocket for the sheer love of it. It is also true, than we now have tools for reaching huge audiences without having to get out work published by the third party. However, do these millions of click actually have a real value beyond boosting the photographer’s ego?
Conveniently, there is always someone to blame: the media no longer commissions slow journalism and pays peanuts for the work it publishes, the Internet taught people to expect news and entertainment for free… And while it’s easy to always blame the middle man, the opportunity to communicate with the audience directly hasn’t solved any of this problems. Now, more than ever, it’s important to ask:
– Does the work really matter and, if so, why are not people willing to pay for it?
– How many people really engaged with the work, understood it, were changed by it and inspired to take action?
For example, I curate Everyday Eastern Europe project that reaches more than 10,000 people through various social media platform (modest number, comparing to many similar initiatives, but more than most of my personal work, at least on the regular basis). It’s very fattening to see an image getting more than a 1,000 likes, but I always wonder, how many people stopped to look at it for more than a mere second and, with more than 600 pictures posted to date, has it really change anyone’s perception of the area?
We no longer live in the world, where families subscribe to 1-2 publications that they read from cover to cover and which educate them on the terrible and wonderful things that are going on in the world and encourage to celebrate its beauty and take action against injustice. Nowadays, most people buy a paper (or, more likely, visit the website) to get an opinion – a juicy headline that will tell them, who the bad guys are and make them look informed when the relevant topic briefly comes up in a conversation with their mates in a pub. They simply don’t have time or interest to spend three hours in the middle of their day reading a detailed report on the issues happening on the other side of the globe in a country they could never find on a map, and the current media landscape caters exactly that kind of demand. The reason very few, if any, magazines, commission long-form documentary essays, is not because they are evil or stingy, but because very few people want to read them in their weekly papers.
This is not to say that no body cares and documentarian’s work is a waste of time – on the contrary, I believe there are more people interested in more things, but the way they find out about them has changed dramatically. Nowadays, it’s often a question of building and harnessing a small community of like-minded people, who deeply care about what you have to say, are willing to engage with the content you produce and pay for it.
Sorry, if this seems obvious, but I heard to many talks that completely dismiss the above argument, so felt it to be a relevant topic to debate.
* Featured image are my personal favourites from Consider This exhibition. All © belongs to the photographers.