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.
16 thoughts on “This is the Future of Photography – Chapter 1”
A thoughtful and meaningful article full of insight regarding not only the current state of photography but also the world. Having recently read a couple of viewpoints similar to this has ultimately led me to be less and less involved with social media. Amazingly enough that has led to an almost overnight increase in my satisfaction with the personal work I am doing. Time spent paging through facebook is now time spent digging into my personal motives and what I want to express through the view of my lens during this short miracle of life we are all granted. My chasing of the best technology has been replaced by my passionate need to create the most meaningful image I can……whether strictly for myself or to be shared with others. Thanks for making, and taking, the opportunity to put all of this into words. I look forward to reading more from you during my short interludes on the internet.
Another great post, Olaf. I do indeed have some comments. Reading between the lines of your post, I would interpret your comments to mean that at some stage in the evolution of our individual photographic selves, we should (must?) move beyond merely seeking validation and embrace building a legacy of our work. One of the best ways to do this is as you state – ignore social media and concentrate on “projects” rather than “shoots.” In other words, we should look at the “shoot” as being part of the larger “project.” To give you a simple example from my own experience – and I will say that most of my photography now is just that, almost completely project-oriented. Last year I published a book of pinups that I had been creating over the course of about 8 years. While I don’t expect to sell many – if any – of the books, the project for those 8 years was extremely engaging and satisfying for me, and I hope will leave at least a small legacy of what my personal photographic journey was all about in that long lost era of the early 21st century.
You have touched on some important topics there! Of course there are no simple answers!
Personally (I am 66) and call myself a hobbyist (we used to call ourselves amateurs) photographer. I tend now to shoot street photography (aiming to follow in the styles of Winogrand, Maier, Meyerowitz, Leiter et al) in my own clumsy way.
I post on IG and FB as well as producing my own photobooks.
I unfortunately go through periods of chasing “likes” or confirmation that my work is “good” whatever that means. Sometimes, fortunately not often, I get miserable and depressed at the apparent lack of appreciation or attention.
My over riding feeling is that the work I am doing – yes I do shoot far too many images – will be of interest/use in some documentary way when I’m gone. I am recording the times now. I am capturing history. That means something to me.
But the over reliance on digital media does concern me..hence the photobooks and a note to self to physically get more of my images printed.
A thought provoking article. Thank you for it.
What an incredibly inspiring commentary on the direction of photography. It gives enthusiasts like myself directional value instead of the quick hit fix we derive from single photographs. There is definite value in each genre but ultimately the value and power in photography is to convey emotions and feeling, and ultimately to tell a story. This reminds me of Susan Sontag’s quote from 1977 that “today everything exists to end up in a photograph.” Thanks for always bringing value to the photography community Olaf!
Inspiring, refreshing, thought provoking, and for me personally, incredibly timely. Thank you, Olaf
Thank you so much Patricia! It means a lot. I would love to hear more from you about your journey.
This piece of writing was thoughtful and provocative. I’m left feeling anxious and excited. Have I been starving myself photographically for year with the junk food of social media? My was yes! But now I know why I’m so hungry and I want to eat better.
I’m anxious and excited because change is scary and starting a long term project requires commitment. Do I have what it takes? How will I find a meaningful project? What if I fail? But more importantly, what if I succeed?
Olaf, you’ve given me too much to think about and now I feel overwhelmed. But I know your thinking resonates with me?
Thank you so much for your honest and clever note. I really enjoyed reading it. I know what you mean by feeling “anxious.” It is normal as large and difficult project usually create some tension. Having said that, once you start it rolling, you will feel much better. The problem (at least for me) is to continue and work on the project on a constant basis. Sometimes it gets hard. Despite all those problems and obstacles it is so worth it.
Thank you again for participating in this conversation.
Indeed I’m moving from individual pictures on a screen to series of pictures in printed form too, because I feel fed up with the overflow of the digital outlets. I find creating these series is actually much, much harder to do than I ever thought it would be.
It is the future for your photography my photography probably too.
But as Andrew said above: that’s a photographer’s view. The viewer may have a different opinion entirely.
I would be hard pressed to name anyone I know now with an attention span long enough to digest a visual narrative of more than three or four pictures.
There is an interesting video on Youtube by Daniel Milnor (working for Blurb) where he talks about printed photo books (naturally when working for Blurb).
In it he cites a study by museums on how much time visitors spend with a single picture (painting or photograph). It was something like ten seconds max. That’s people who intentionally invested money and time to go to that museum and watch these pictures.
More than five of these ten seconds were spent reading the caption.
He goes on how people “read” photobooks typically nowadays. It’s rarely from front to back.
I guess what I want to say is, if we as photographers go the route you suggest here, we should prepare ourselves to say goodbye to the quick dopamine fix of facebook likes (or whatever your equivalent drug is it today).
Feedback will be much more scarce. I just hope, when we will get feedback, it might be more valuable. By the few people who took the time to form an opinion on our work.
But mostly we will work for your own feedback only.
Looking at Kage Collective. They do something similar for years now. I admire those photographers there for continuing working the site as they do, as they rarely get feedback at all. A handful of comments by mostly the same people on some stories. None on most.
A that is not necessarily a bad thing. It just shouldn’t come as a surprise.
You are absolutely right in your observations and I agree with you about that such projects would be difficult to present on social media. Having said that, I strongly believe this is something that could be corrected to a certain extend. I just think nobody build a platform just yet, which would display such projects in an attractive and interactive form. After all, it is FB, Instagram and YouTube dictating the way of presentation. I believe that there is a tremendous opportunity to build a platform for projects (a sort of 500px) which would have tools to interact with your audience on regular basis. In addition, I think there are ways to engage the audience directly by involving them into the project itself. Of course, it is much easier to say than done but we should definitely try. I will. Thank you so much for your thoughtful and honest comment. I really appreciate it.
“The future of photography belongs to long-term photographic projects, not single images.”
I don’t disagree (on a personal level). Have we considered what importance our viewers would place on this approach?
Great point Andrew! On your note, let’s remember that FB and YouTube are dictating the way we interact and share our work but I am convinced there are other ways as well. Honestly, I truly believe that if you create something great and meaningful the audience will listen. I used to be a landscape photographer, then travel…. it was a long journey. Each time I lost some audience but I had to do that. I am ok with it. I think as photographers we should be ready to lose some viewers (and gain others) if we want to move forward. Great conversation! Thank you for participating.
Sorry for the delayed response Olaf, I thought I had turned on notifications…but obviously not. I clearly need to spend more time learning the intricacies of WordPress and other social platforms, and less time behind the lens 🙂
But on a more serious note, I do agree somewhat that we (as consumers) are being led, pushed and whipped by some of the large social media platforms into thinking and behaving in ways conducive to their KPIs. The thing is, they cater to our base nature – that primal, chemical response to dopamine. It is an extremely difficult web for us to escape – and for us to still expect to:
a) maintain an audience
b) earn a livable wage
I too look forward to the day that a platform emerges that supports these more altruistic aspirations, but the cynic in me says that this is unlikely. I feel it is far more likely that we will, by necessity, need to maintain a presence on these platforms, if only to then divert our audience to our preferred platform – whatever they may look like.
On the upside (commercially anyway) our potential audience is always growing, and so the ‘pie’ from which we all sup also grows, with greater scope for niche audiences such as the one you describe.
As an aside, I too started as a landscape photographer before moving into street as I became increasingly frustrated with the missing human element. Now? I find myself alternating back and forth – placating both my analytical and humanistic needs as they ebb and flow 🙂
I agree completely. Story can sometimes be captured in a single image but not in depth and detail that people crave. Great thoughts. I happen to think video is the future of photography along a similar vane. Displayed on 8K super resolution TVs.
Thank you so much Ian for your thoughts. As much as I am not a big fan of video I think you are absolutely right. Video is the future. I am well aware than a written word will eventually be quite a niche. What can i do?! I love writing. Thank you for commenting Ian! Great conversation for sure.