Research + History = My Thoughts
Posted on October 31, 2012
I came across a link on twitter about a recent “photo-essay.”
The essay was hyped as “great,” “fantastic,” “amazing,” as well the rest of the modern single-word comments associated with online photographic expression.
The only problem was the essay wasn’t great, and it surely wasn’t original, but it was written about and hyped and tweeted and commented on as if the photographer had broken pioneering ground or exposed the world to a story that we had never seen before.
I have a little advice.
We need to learn our photo-history and do our research before we do this, otherwise we do little more than prove our lack of knowledge and prove our lack of ability to judge whether a body or work is good or not good.
Look, I understand we have the ability to do this. We can instantly carpet the world with an image, a story, a post, etc, and sure, there is an upside to this, or at least there can be. But if you are touting yourself as a professional photographer you should know better, and ultimately what you are doing is lessening the impact of the story you are trying to hype because the real audience for that piece visits the link and says, “This isn’t good.”
I’m not sure what can be done about this because many of the people doing it have successfully built audiences of followers, some of them sizable, so I can’t see this slowing down. We as a public, as an audience just need to stop participating in the charade.
This particular story had not only been done before, but it had been done more successfully, skillfully and by someone I actually know. So when I saw the link my first thought was “Nice, I can revisit this story.” And then I saw the work.
It is VERY easy to say, “Everything has already been done,” which is a complete and total cop out I’ve heard countless photographers make, but let me just say that is complete and total shit. It’s not true, but it sure provides an easy excuse for copying someone else or taking a lesser stab at a well known story.
As a photographer you have to do your research, but I’m actually thinking now that a lot of photographers aren’t doing research at all. In fact, I would guess the photographer who did this story might not have ever even searched for prior projects regarding his chosen topic. I reviewed portfolios a while back and when I reviewed the documentary photographers I referenced prior stories which were directly related to their work and all I got in return was utterly blank stares. It is so easy, so damn easy to become so completely and utterly self-centered in this photographic world, and being blind to history is a great first step. There is such a rush today to be known, to be famous, to make money, to sell prints, to get likes, to be shared or to build an audience that it absolutely takes over and in many cases ruins the chances of making anything memorable.
A few years ago I did a project, a strange one, and during my research found out another photographer had done the same story ten years prior. He was European, did the story in a matter of days, and had a different angle, so I decided to do it anyway. I got into the field and KNEW what this person had already done. I made sure I kept to my storyline….MY storyline and put my own fingerprints on the project. I also suffered the ramifications of working behind someone who had promised everything to everyone and delivered on nothing, so be careful of that as well. After five chapters of the project I quit after realizing the work wasn’t good enough. I knew I had to begin again, make it better, and stronger, and reinforce MY view on why the story was important to tell. I’ve not yet begun to redo it because I know I can’t half-ass ANYTHING. If I do I’m selling myself short, I’m selling the story short and I’m selling the people in the project short.
I guess the question I have is “What the Hell are we doing?”
I think what the lack of knowledge regarding history and the lack of research, coupled with the successful exposure of second rate work proves is that VERY few people are actually paying attention. The photographer who created this work and the people that helped blanket it around the world surely aren’t, but ultimately it could potentially gain them followers, but what good is it if these followers aren’t paying attention?
There are more people wanting to be photographers than ever before, and it appears that the VAST majority of these people want the entire world to know about their work. This is like a traffic choked freeway of content. There is no possible way for anyone to keep up with this.
When you do a project, come up with an idea, for the love of God do your research and learn your history. If you do this and you create a unique and strong voice you won’t need to hype yourself to exhaustion. The real audience will find you.
We all want to be encouraging, especially to young photographers and people doing the right thing, but we can’t give a hall pass for BASIC responsibilities that come with the title “professional”. Slow down, do your homework and provide us with something of quality. You won’t always succeed, nobody does, but don’t let that deter you, and just because something has been done doesn’t mean you can’t do it. If you understand your story, and what has been done before – where it fits in history – you can ADD to the legacy, history or understanding.
One of the best things photographers can do is talk to other photographers. And when I say this I don’t mean someone with 10,000 followers on Twitter. Likes and screen after screen of one word comments might mean someone likes to write about equipment, but it might not signify good photographer.(Yes, this was a slam.) And remember, many of the world’s best photographers are nowhere near social media. Why? Because they are out making work. So when I say show your work, discuss your ideas with other photographers I mean real working photographers with a track record and portfolio to prove it. These people, when willing, are a HUGE resource who want nothing more than to help you and to help photography. They can save uneducated photographers from themselves.
If we do this we can all celebrate, not just our own work but the further progression of the industry and craft of photography.
When I write a post that takes a stand or sheds light on an issue I always run the risk of getting the usual comments of “Oh, you are just being negative,” or “What gives you the right?” or “How dare you question the power of social media?” About 99% of the time these comments come from people who are trying to build an audience. You know the type. Everything is unicorns and rainbows and every shoot is perfection and photographic life is akin to a suburbia lifestyle catalog. When your business is on the line and you are trying to create a facade of happiness to gain more business I get it, but I don’t have to live like that. I’ve always tried to be honest and gaining followers is not my priority. I’ll take truth and honesty over followers any day, and I’ll never stoop to writing about equipment all the time.
All I’m doing with this post is pointing out a pattern that is VERY CLEARLY going on. But I’m also pointing out how to change things for the better even though I have little faith anything with change. But, you never know. It’s worth putting out there and maybe somewhere something will stick.
Creating original art isn’t easy. Blazing your own path isn’t easy. Breaking from the herd isn’t easy. But the great artists do, so next time you have a story idea or are about to hit “retweet” make sure you get a second opinion. It can help us all.