Photographers Need Not Apply.
Photography Doesn't Need You Anymore
Stafford H. Smith
Interdisciplinary.net conference in Prague, Czech Republic, 2016
the 13th Social Sciences Conference of Interdisciplinary Studies, Hiroshima, Japan 2017
Photography no longer needs photographers as it has achieved a self-perpetuating autonomous level of existence. As a photographer, this epiphany is akin to outright blasphemy. However, as I look around at the powerful and viral images today that are changing lives and opinions I am struck by how few, if any, are taken by trained professionals and given prominence by the cadre of elite gate keepers on editorial boards who controlled channels of distribution in the pre-digital age. Instead, we have operators who are carrying out a program of taking pictures guided by a narcissistic addiction to "Likes" on social media, driven by a primitive impulse not much different from that which motivates ants. Think of them not as individuals but as a collective entity, casually recording, unencumbered by the thought process, photographing as if by ritual or habit, at last making a reality, Borges' map of the world that exactly duplicates it in a 1:1 ratio. What made photography powerful was its ability to be reach millions. But what made photographers powerful was the fact that so few of them were allowed to reach those millions. With access to the world now open to all with the touch of a button the floodgates are open, reducing the importance of any one photographer and reducing the importance of any one photograph. With more images being uploaded in a minute today than were taken during the entire 19th century the skilled and thoughtful photographer has become a quaint anachronism, leftover from an earlier age.
Key Words: photography, camera, social media, narcissism, viral media, sentient being, surveillance, blob, artificial intelligence, cyborg, Facebook, Instagram, selfie, simulacrum
1. A New Life-form
Science fiction writers have long been fascinated with the idea of artificial intelligence and the dawn of sentient technology. In these scenarios humans fare badly. Once computers become independent of their creators they soon realize that the biggest threat to humanity is the human race itself and that the world would be much better without homo-sapiens mucking things up. From 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Terminator to The Matrix, computers do their best to kill or subdue the offending bipedal hairless apes who somehow hang on through unpredictability and cunning.
The good news is that we aren't there yet. Siri isn't going to kill you, yet. The not so good news is that a venerated medium of visual representation that has contributed more than its fair share to changing the world has become free of its tether to learned practitioners and has become a self-perpetuating organism.
That medium is photography. It has evolved into an organic-digital hybrid life form no longer dependent on photographers for its growth or existence. This is not to say that photographs will no longer be taken. They will most likely be taken in ever increasing numbers, outstripping the staggering volume we are currently struggling under. The unpleasant truth photographers must contend with is that they will no longer be part of the equation.
Humans with cameras will continue to take photographs, but they will no more be photographers than literate humans with pencil and paper can be called writers. Instead, the term operator is more appropriate. Operators are people who take pictures in accordance with the program of photography. They respond to aberrations in daily routines by dutifully pointing a camera at them and posting them to Facebook. They fulfil social rituals by recording appropriate responses in socially sanctioned events and markers in one's passage through life. They also record violations of the social code and make one's transgressions available for public shaming.
Photographers, on the other hand, do not follow social codes or programs when they make images. They understand the communicative powers of the medium by arranging symbols and signs in the frame, manipulating formal qualities for effect and have developed a certain mastery of their equipment to be able to intentionally create meaning.
Operators have existed since Kodak introduced the point and shoot camera in 1888 with the tagline, 'You press the button, we do the rest.' However, operators were kept in check with lower quality equipment, lack of knowhow, and most importantly by not being given access to distribution by gatekeepers that permitted the dissemination of the work of an elite band of photographers through galleries and print publications.
The biggest change in photography wrought by the digital age has nothing to do with the camera itself or the plasticity of image manipulation. It's the ease of distribution and the loss of authority of the gatekeepers that are the really important changes. An oft quoted but un-cited statistic states that more photographs are taken today in just two minutes than were taken in the entire 19th century. We have reached the proverbial army of monkeys bashing away on typewriters, one of which will produce a Shakespeare sonnet completely by chance. With billions of smart phone users blissfully tapping away, that's going to be the visual equivalent of a sonnet every few minutes.
The lack of expertise necessary to use these high quality and highly sophisticated image making and sharing devices creates the illusion of adequacy and a deluge of images that are all essentially the same, recreating an earlier image that the operator wishes to duplicate. Selfies, cute pets, and people acting foolishly fill the dataverse in a self-perpetuating spiral. The lack of thought, the lack of effort negates individuality and visual contributions that can be attributed to a single person. We are faced with behaviour of a lower order; behaviour that is essentially a response to stimuli, not very different from reacting to something very hot or very cold. In this, the operator is similar to a plant turning its leaves to face the sun or if/then statements in lines of computer code.
The paradox of having a smart phone is that it feels like empowerment. And in many ways it is. But it simultaneously leads us into mindless time wasting behaviour that nullifies the individual that we are led to believe we have become through its purchase. Part of this blindness is due to the cult of the individual that is actively promoted in advanced western countries, especially the United States. It denigrates our strong conformist tendencies and tries to separate us from animals such as sheep, ants and cows, which we look down on for their lack of uniqueness. What many of us mistake for originality is actually a kind of conformity in which we all express ourselves by choosing from a limited menu of options.
The photographer, with a deeper understanding of the camera and the power of the image to manipulate viewers' understandings and interpretations of events, retains a higher degree of independence and control over his or her tool. The operator, on the other hand, with less understanding and greater reliance on preformatted choices is more prone to be the manipulated side in the relationship. This has profound implications when one considers how social media not only encourages image creation but also influences it through a system of rewards in the form of iconographic validations. Just how many images are created for the satisfaction of a virtual pat on the back is unknown, but certainly it compromises the operator's use of camera and distribution media as tools of empowerment.
As one flies into almost any American city today the extent of the suburban sprawl of our car culture is hard to miss. From the vantage point of several thousand feet the curlicue layouts of housing developments begin to look like the trails of parasites in tree bark. The identical homes surrounding their cul de sacs evoke the panopticon prison design. The snarls of highway traffic resemble ants streaming into their hill. Yet it is with promises of freedom and individuality that cars and homes are sold to consumers. So it is with smart phones and social media.
Operators may think of themselves as individuals, but as they upload and share photos, 'like' their friends' posts and unknowingly feed the databases of security agencies and data miners they become part of a much larger entity. Like a soldier with a gun that surrenders his or her individuality to become part of an army, operators unknowingly through participation in social media become a single pixel in an enormous cyborg camera; networked through social media into a giant inside out eyeball, a 7000 megapixel camera, seeing and recording everything on earth.
This sheath of surveillance replaces the eye in the sky of the omniscient god concept. There is no need for someone or thing to be actively watching us when we willingly report on ourselves. Our technology has tapped into our latent narcissistic desire for attention while we go about our business largely unaware. According to Sigmund Freud we enjoy a healthy period of narcissism as infants, during which, our every demand is met by all-powerful mothers and fathers, who dote upon, nurture and protect us. While we grow out of this phase on our journey towards independence we never forget it. Freud postulated that we even create gods and goddesses to fill the emotional void left by infantile perceptions of our parents. Social media easily steps in and assuages our narcissistic tendencies through round the clock attention and affirmation of simple accomplishments such as reposting someone else's cat video. Yet this stroking of our ego through 'likes' and smiley faces comes at a price. Attention from so-called friends and family also means surveillance by unknown entities with less than altruistic intents. This is a new generation of surveillance that differentiates itself from Foucault's panopticon model in that it is not fear of a guard's gaze that prevents bad behaviour but a mask of friends and family that encourages it. Deeper penetration into the mindset of an individual allows for a more profitable form of control through the offering of desirable commodities tailored to each person's self-declared interests.
What will life inside the eyeball be like? With everyone on earth transformed into a single cyborg pixel of an enormous living camera, everyone must simultaneously become a subject as well; either their own or someone else's. A 1:1 relationship of camera to subject ensues bringing to life at last Borges' mythic map that was the exact replica in size and detail of the territory it represented. Yet at the same time it won't be so much a facsimile as a hyperbole. People don't like to make pictures that are truly descriptive of themselves or others. An element of flattery is usually at play, creating what Beaudrillard would call a second order simulation; one that distorts or perverts reality. However, another aspect of human behaviour must be considered; the habit of reconstituting images we have already seen in order to meet expectations. Without photographers contributing new visual strategies to the image stream a feedback loop will ensue of operators recreating distortions of distortions until the photographs will no longer have any relation to the original image; a complete simulacrum. Susan Sontag once wrote that, 'Today everything exists to end in a photograph.' But in this scenario there will be no end, just a inwardly spiralling vortex of image redundancy.
2. The Photographers
It used to be that we relied on photographers to record historical events, wars, fashion shows, humanitarian crises, propaganda, natural disasters and transgressions of justice. Mathew Brady, the great impresario of photographing the American Civil War brought 3-D carnage to the stereoscopes in drawing rooms across the country. Jacob Riis showed us how the other half lives in the slums of New York, and Robert Capa got more than close enough on the beaches of Normandy in World War 2. But with the spread of operators to every inch of the planet with high enough quality equipment a shift has been under way for several years from professionals to the monkey with the typewriter approach to fulfil diverse organizations and consumers' visual needs. In 2013 the Chicago Sun Times suddenly layed off its entire staff of 28 full time photographers and started training reporters in iPhone basics. Vogue magazine recently advocated not hiring a photographer at all for a contemporary wedding.
It made sense back in the olden days, pre-Facebook albums and Instagram hashtags, when the whole world didn't have phones with cameras on them. Having the actual leather-bound album on your coffee table seemed like the only evidence that the whole thing actually took place. If social media is not your thing, why not scatter some disposable cameras around the party and let your drunken guests go to town? You'll end up with hilarious and candid pictures without the pressure of "likes."
When was the last great photograph taken by a photographer? Was it Nick Ut's terrifying photo of running children burning from napalm in 1972? Steve McCurry's Afghan Girl from 1984 or Jeff Widener's Tank Man in Tiananmen Square in 1989? There are no definitive shots of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre simply because there were just too many people with cameras there. The defining image of the Iraq War has presented a dilemma for art historians. The hooded Iraqi prisoner standing on a box with electrodes tied to his hands was taken by one of his torturers. Does the picture taker's collusion in acts of torture disqualify them as a photographer? Does that person not get their name in bold in photo history textbooks? Is there no gallery show? If we label them as an operator, a monkey who got lucky, we can duck the question. In 2015, many of the most powerful images were taken of police brutality by people who just happened to be there at the right moment. Some images were actually automatic dash-cam video not involving a human operator at all. Yet they revealed breakdowns and racial bias in the American criminal justice system that no photographer had yet been able to capture. These unprofessional images have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement and the #ifiwasgunneddown hashtag on Twitter. Far beyond generating a stunning but well-composed image that can win a Pulitzer Prize, they are transforming conversations on race relations and reshaping law enforcement and the political landscape.
3. The Blob
Cells removed from the human body can be kept alive for decades in special solutions and bred until they far exceed in mass the original life form from which they came. The most famous example of this is the HeLa cell line originally taken from a tumour growing in a woman named Henrietta Lacks, who died in 1951. Apart from the fact that these cells have been used in ground breaking research from the polio vaccine to AIDS treatments, it has been estimated that all together, all the cells grown from the original sample over the last seven decades would far exceed the weight and volume of the original Mrs. Lacks, in fact they would be enough to cover the earth twice over.
This sounds like the stuff of science fiction and in fact it is not far from the truth. Stories of mad scientists breeding cell tissue into ravenous monsters can be traced back to 1922 when Alessandro Fabri wrote a terrifying tale about cell tissue taken from a chicken being grown into a rooster large enough to cross the Atlantic in a single stride threatening everything in its path. Horror comics from the 1950's abound with similar tales of cell culture research going awry; megalomaniacal eggheads throwing sweet young things into oversized quivering pulsating pink mounds of Jello. Finally in 1958, Hollywood entered the fray with its iconic movie, The Blob, about a mass of alien cell tissue that grows and grows devouring everything in its path.
Operators have traditionally been like cultures of cells politely living in their Petri dish-like environs such as photo albums, and slide carousels. But the digital age with the connectivity of social media has allowed for the spread of uncontrolled growth of their images. Even the term 'viral' acknowledges the rapidity and randomness of its reach. It has overwhelmed the gatekeepers and can cross oceans with the blink of an eye. Like the HeLa cells, photography no longer needs its original source. It is in a nutrient laden medium that sustains its indefinite existence. Is photography a virus? Has it become a cancer? Perhaps what is more important to consider is that like these cells growing in culture and sent from lab to lab to be used in diverse experiments, is that the product of the billions of operators is being harvested, gleaned and repurposed by editors, news agencies, artists and data miners as if it were raw material free for the taking. Postmodern artist, Richard Prince, who came into notoriety in the 1980's by photographing Marlboro advertisements is now printing screen shots of other people's Instagram posts and selling them for upwards of $90,000 each. We live in an age when the most influential photographer alive is cultural celebrity Kim Kardashian who is redefining the very concept of shame itself. Instead of training photographers perhaps what we need to be doing is nurturing a new generation of harvesters, curators and photo archaeologists to dig up the work of previously unknown photographers like that of Chicago nanny, Vivian Maier.
Taking a picture today is no longer a privileged or anonymous act. What we are slow to pick up on is that pictures are a kind of data; data about us that travels with every image. The entire meaning of the portrait has changed invisibly in front of us like some sort of sleight of hand. A portrait no longer is just a visual record of what one looked like at a point in time. It is a complex data file. A portrait no longer has to be just visual information, it can also be about search histories, shopping habits, medical concerns, secrets you would prefer to keep to yourself. Data portraits look into our past and can reliably make predictions about our future. They exist in 4 dimensions yet we still can only conceptualize them as being in just 2 or 3. Each posting or search then becomes a self-portrait in the sense that it alerts interested parties of our whereabouts, tastes, and activities. We have a perfect blending of narcissism and surveillance. We live our lives craving the attention that we once had as infants without realizing that the gaze we are under is not the benevolent one of our mother. Our brains have not yet caught up with the latest technological advancements in surveillance and still lag behind in the embrace of the 20th century.
The question on many peoples' minds must be what are photographers then to do? If they aren't needed should they just hang up their DSLR's and fade away? No, in fact, I have some good news. We are in the second phase of the digital revolution. The first with the plasticity of image manipulation relieved photography of the burden of telling the truth. The second relieves photographers from all responsibility whatsoever. They are unnecessary, irrelevant and useless. That potentially makes them artists. Since the days of Alfred Steiglitz and the Photo Secession the dream of being taken seriously as artists has vexed photographers. Through contortions and backbends, draconian parameters, mind-breaking French philosophy, wannabe artist photographers have striven to some how separate themselves from being mistaken for photojournalists, commercial sell outs and worst of all amateurs. But no matter how they stretched for this Holy Grail, in the back of their minds nagged the thought, 'I could still shoot a wedding.' At last, as the utility of their craft drains away, photographers can now join the ranks of printmakers, drawers, sculptors and yes, even painters; all practitioners of obsolescent technology. The blessing of the digital age is that at last photographers can be starving artists too.
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 Kenneth Irby, John White on Sun-Times layoffs: 'It was as if they pushed a button and deleted a whole culture,' Poynter, viewed March 18, 2016, http://www.poynter.org/2013/john-white-on-sun-times-layoffs-it-was-as-if-they-pushed-a-button-and-deleted-a-whole-culture/215016/
 Molly Guy, The Ten Wedding "Rules" to Break, Vogue, viewed March 18, 2016, http://www.vogue.com/13384689/wedding-rules-to-break/
 Christopher Sprigman, Richard Prince, Instagram, and Authorship in a Digital World, Bloomberg.com, viewed March 18, 2016, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-06-17/richard-prince-instagram-and-authorship-in-a-digital-world
Rebecca Skloot. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway Books, 2011
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Mike Johnston, The Online Photographer, viewed March 18, 2016, http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2012/04/all-the-photographs-from-the-19th-century.html
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, New York, London, W. W. Norton, 2005
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Prison, New York, Vintage Books, 1995
Jean Beaudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, University of Michigan Press, 1995
Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977
Kenneth Irby, John White on Sun-Times layoffs: 'It was as if they pushed a button and deleted a whole culture,' Poynter, viewed March 18, 2016, http://www.poynter.org/2013/john-white-on-sun-times-layoffs-it-was-as-if-they-pushed-a-button-and-deleted-a-whole-culture/215016/
Molly Guy, The Ten Wedding "Rules" to Break, Vogue, viewed March 18, 2016, http://www.vogue.com/13384689/wedding-rules-to-break/
Christopher Sprigman, Richard Prince, Instagram, and Authorship in a Digital World, Bloomberg.com, viewed March 18, 2016, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-06-17/richard-prince-instagram-and-authorship-in-a-digital-world