With persistence, talent and hard work you start producing satisfactory and sometimes even great images. The drill is well-known. You go out, shoot some images, edit and then share them with your friends on social forums or other mediums of your choice, then repeat!
Most of us limit our photographic life to single images which we like and others may also appreciate. Sometimes the images connect with lots of people or get an award or two. Some of us may be noticed by our peers and the industry in general, gaining a large following and respect. This is all very rewarding and, in many cases, well-deserved. There is no question that such a state of photographic life is quite fulfilling and comforting.
Such a state of affairs should be enough in itself, but is it? When I talk with my photographic friends, especially the unsettled ones who cannot stay still despite their success, and who feel they need to break another glass ceiling—they would say no, it is not enough. Deep inside they want to open another door of what’s next for them. Of course, such foraging into the unknown is highly personal and impossible to embody in a blog post.
But there is something that points many great photographers in one direction and this is where I believe the future of photography lies. Before I go into more detail, let’s take a look at today’s world of photography.
Just yesterday, one of my Facebook friends, Elliott Anderson, wrote a note below one of my images saying: “Been thinking about it lately. Just the sheer quantity. In the year 2000, 80 billion photos were taken. In 2017, 1.3 trillion!” He added: “At some point, more photos will be taken in a single year than in the entire 20th century. It creates an existential crisis for the photographer.” Yes, it does. Of course, there are many positive aspects of this visual engagement of people around the world. There is nothing wrong with it per se.
Most of the photos are individual pictures taken for the sake of a certain moment, a birthday or the Eiffel Tower. They will probably be lost after serving their purpose, whatever that might be, and I am sure that on an individual level those photos carry a priceless memory.
Of course, a small subset of those images involves the work you and I do—something we might call serious or committed photography (your reading this tells me that you are committed to the craft of seeing). We’re always trying to learn and create something more articulate and meaningful. We try to say something with our imagery and as our visual vocabulary expands, so does our creativity and proficiency. But even in this subset of the photos there is still an avalanche of individual images. Just open Facebook groups, 500px and see thousands if not millions of beautifully executed photographs, some really creative. Those of us who were privileged to participate in or even lead certain trends might produce great photographs on a regular basis. In short, I am not dismissing this process at all.
I enjoy this visual conversation. Over the years I’ve put a lot of effort and resources into producing the best work I can. I challenged myself and demanded the absolute best in terms of ideas and execution both for myself and my students. I am proud of my work.
But I wouldn’t be honest with you, my photographic friends, if I said, “This is it.” As one of my readers put it: “You made it.” I would certainly not describe it this way. Yes, I’ve gone quite far in my journey as a photographer but the further I go the more I am convinced that what I’ve being doing so far is only part of the story. Almost daily I start a conversation in one of my images I share with you but most of those images are visual tète-a-tètes. With a photo I am not able to convey more than a sentence-worth of meaning. But I want to convey an idea and engage the viewer on a deeper, more meaningful level. It is like writing random sentences without being able to put together one page, let alone a book.
In the last few weeks, I‘ve spent a lot of time going through my catalogue of images shot over the course of the last 10 years. They include lots of explorations and mistakes—of course kept safe and far away from my audience—as every good curator would do. Then I went to my best work. Yes, there was some great imagery but there is a problem. As much as they are fine images, these are still individual frames living their own individual lives, in most cases stripped of a larger narrative or wider meaning. They are like drugs which provide enough stimulant to satisfy in the moment but as soon as the ecstasy fades, another “pill” is needed. We photographers have flooded the internet, Instagram (pick any media here) with these pills. We swallow them daily, entertain ourselves, stimulate each other with them and may even cherish some. That’s all great but is it enough?
When you dive deep into the best work ever done in photography, you will quickly discover that it was built on a much broader idea and certainly not based on one single image. It wasn’t based on photographic operandi designed to feed the hungry world of social media photography. What am I talking about?
I am talking about the long-term (years, not days), well-defined, illuminating and, most importantly, personal project. This is where I believe the future of photography lies.
I don’t mean a one-photo-a-day sort of project. Even though I am personally not a fan of this type of project, I respect and understand their purpose. But this is not what I’m talking about.
The future of photography lies in a personal, well-researched, thoughtful and impactful visual narrative which portrays an idea or emotion. Such projects go well beyond a shallow photographic veneer. They involve personal commitment, knowledge of the subject matter, research (beyond an internet search), preparation, objectives, logistics, funding and then of course shooting, sequencing, curating and a variety forms of presentation and interaction. I am talking about taking on a project which would span years and which, in the words of Trent Parke, would “encompass” all of you.
I often wonder how Robert Frank’s project, “The Americans,” would look like in today’s world of social media photography. Would he be able to produce such a profound work being constantly interrupted and pressured by social media? Would he be able to concentrate and curate the huge body of work he shot over the years if he decided to get involved in Instagram on a daily basis? These are important questions we need to ask ourselves.
When Trent Parke was asked about “all the overflow and iPhones” in an interview, he answered, “To be honest I don’t really think about it too much. I am usually in my zone, working away. I don’t look at lot of other work these days. I used to when I was young. And once I’m working away at something it becomes all- encompassing. You could say that I don’t come up for air.” Let alone for a tap on a cell-phone screen.
This is a way of approaching photography that I feel is losing its voice. It is there but it is being trampled by loud, noisy, often shallow and quick photography grabbing people’s attention. Photography has become visual fast food—shoot, share, feel good, feel inspired, shoot, share. An injection of “joy” and “satisfaction” certainly feeds our hunger but deep inside many of us walk around hungry and confused.
Don’t get me wrong. The purpose of this piece is not to criticize the way we share our work but rather re-think the purpose of it all. Perhaps we should rethink the way we shoot, work and share.
In the last few years I’ve enjoyed numerous eye-opening conversations with photographers who work on such long-term, deeply immersive projects. Those exchanges made me realize that I have to alter my own approach to photography. There is no denying that I enjoy shooting the individual images on the streets of the world’s cities. With time, however, I realized this was not enough for me, not in an egoistical sense but rather in substance. I watched some artists which you will never find on top of Internet lists, Instagram rankings or YouTube lists, working in the quiet of their room or basement on massive and demanding photographic projects. Some of them skip the Internet entirely and focus on their own neighbourhood, community, country. Some of them showed me what they produced—their books, printed images, carefully sequenced—telling incredible stories and revealing ideas which challenged everything I knew about photography and sometimes the world. It hit me hard. No single image will ever reach such depth and coherence (don’t confuse that with impact).
What’s the way forward? I will repeat. The future of photography belongs to long-term photographic projects, not single images. As someone who deeply appreciates convention but embraces the new, I believe there are ways to commit to a vast project but still find a way to engage today’s social-media-savvy audience and do it well.
Instead of producing another “me-too” YouTube video, writing YYY vs. XXX or one more “Why I switched from Z to Y” piece, it is worth pursuing a new way of photographic interaction based on a personal project-based platform where you engage your audience so they are not just observers but active participants.
The key words here are personal, encompassing and engaging! Yes, such projects require huge commitment from us—maybe one fewer Netflix series to watch—but I believe such an effort is the future of photography. We can still enjoy our single images because there is value and enjoyment in them but at some point we must challenge ourselves to go beyond that. We have to move away from communicating with single words and work on crafting images around ideas, memories and experiences. This kind of photographic undertaking will not only enrich the world of photography but allow us to go deeper into ourselves. We should uncover the raw reality of our lives as imperfect and dull as they might be. There is beauty in it waiting to be discovered.
What’s your long-term project going to be?
Next time I will expand on some ideas presented in this lengthy article and try to share with you some actionable ideas. I am especially interested in incorporating social interaction and the media in a way that would enrich the project, not distract from it. Stay tuned. In the meantime, I would love to hear from you. What do you think? Would you like to share your experience?
Below please find some images from my Renatus Project, which I started a year ago but have been struggling with. I am happy to report that I am doubling down on it and I’m excited to continue on this challenging but highly rewarding journey. Many new stories are coming live in the next few months.