A Crisis of Purpose in the Age of Instagram
Photographing for likes. Has the world come to this? Everyone is a photographer, and photographs are manufactured voluntarily by the thousands per second, streamed instantaneously to handheld devices around the world. We've seen everything there is to be seen. We've seen beauty in abundance. We've seen torrents of cruelty. We've seen gross excesses. We've seen notoriety. And we've seen nothing of consequence. We've seen more than we need to see, and so we've become desensitized. Nothing moves us, and nothing shocks us. We've seen it all with the swipe of a thumb.
Technology truly is the champion of simplification, unlocking the black box of photographic ability to the unskilled masses. From the perspective of the common good, it is a positive development that photography has democratized. No longer are documentation worthy opportunities lost from a lack of someone capturing the instance. In the age of Instagram, anything worth documenting will be captured from multiple angles by multiple smart devices, and shared instantly to legions of voracious followers.
But you know what they say about democracy. It's the tyranny of the masses.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not an elitist. But I am troubled by how photography has evolved. Simply put, photography has been commoditized. What this means is that the status of photography has devalued, largely because there is an oversupply of it.
With technology making photography much less confusing, it is no longer difficult to take a decent photograph. Such inconveniences like learning the proper techniques for exposure, focusing, and even composition is no longer relevant, given the forgiving nature of digital capture. Where in the past, photographers had to rely on ability to take proper photographs without visual verification; in today's world, a person taking a picture can just click away, then double check on review to see if a redo was needed - should the selfie look bad.
Needless to say, photography became fun.
The masses embraced the new digital technology. They couldn't believe the ease in taking a decent photograph. All this fun packaged into a pocketable smartphone with a camera that would put yesterday's point-and-shoot to shame. With a smartphone, one is always at the ready to document. There is always something to capture and there is always something to share.
And thus, the sharing of pictures exploded.
However sharing didn't stay fun for long. With an oversupply of voluntarily manufactured images online, being seen became a difficult task. Before long, the objective for photographers shifted from documentation to popularization. The logic was simple. It didn't matter if your photographs were unique or meaningful. If no-one sees it, it doesn't matter.
The public's expectations have shifted. They only seem to care if the source derived from someone popular - if not already famous. It didn't matter if the image was ordinary or even substandard, given the photographic merits no longer became the metric of evaluation. What the world wanted to see was popularity. Those with more followers have more rights to have a say - given their following.
But you can't blame the world for this either, since they've already seen everything that could possibly be documented. How is the public to differentiate between two similar images? It may seem arbitrary, but the one that's photographed by the more popular person has more merits than the one photographed by someone unknown.
So, if this is what the world has become, what is an aspiring photographer to do? What purpose would make sense? The world does not want to see yet another manufactured image. The world wants to see something that they've never seen before. Something real. Something profound. Something that can go viral.
It almost seem as if unless the photographer is willing to go the distance, and be in harms way to capture a truly unique and authentic image, no one is going to care. So for all you street photographers trying to find meaning in documenting the pedestrian, the world has already seen it. To you fashion photographers seeking beauty, beautiful girls are a dime a dozen. And to you landscape photographers, if you've seen one sunset, you've seen it all.
So climb a mountain without safety ropes. Climb the highest building for a selfie at the top. Go deep into the jungle to be in the jaws of something lethal. But most importantly, make it something that will be shared hundreds and hundreds of times. Make it something that will make someone pause their thumb for a look and a double tap.
I know it seems wrong, but is it wrong? To be honest, there is nothing wrong with seeking popularity. It's not superficial. If anything, it's how a photographer is differentiated in a world where photography has become commoditized from oversupply. It's how value is added. A photographer may not necessarily have to risk life and limb to be noticed, but it does mean that a photographer shouldn't ignore the relevance of growing one's own popularity. It's how a photographer's work product reaches an audience.
The people have spoken. This is the democratization of photography in the age of Instagram. As for the crisis of purpose - there's no crisis if one has an audience. As long as there is an audience, a photographer can share just about anything within reason, and thus find purpose along the way. It's when the photographer is without an audience that purpose becomes elusive.