The most democratic medium?


General Culture, General Photography

I like photography so much that I’ve spent a considerable fraction of the past ten years looking at it, and thinking and writing about it. I can’t get enough of it. I could - and actually do on most days - look at photographs all day long. That said, there are some things that I’d like to see a bit less. Let me give you an example. These days, it is hard not to come across the idea that photography is ” the great democratic medium” (Susie Linfield), if not “the most democratic medium” (Google it, the terms pops up left and right). I object to this idea for a variety of reason. First of all, it’s a lazy cliché. There might be some truth in clichés, but nevertheless one is well-advised to stay away from them. The main problem with this cliché is that it is a dangerous one: If you were to argue that it’s not true doesn’t that make you anti-democratic? In other words, the idea that photography is “the most democratic medium” is a rhetorical cudgel as well: A good way to shut down a debate before it’s even happening. (more)

In all kinds of ways photography actually is a less democratic medium than many others. For example, a pencil and a piece of paper will cost you much less money than even a cheap, low-quality camera. In terms of the economics, it’s much cheaper to try to sketch something than to photograph it. As a matter of fact, provided you are sufficiently creative, coming up with a little song - or poem - about something is even cheaper: All you need to use is your voice.

As a writer, I know that writing is a much more democratic medium than photography. We all know how to read and write because we were taught to do so. We might not be all good writers (or frequent readers), just as we’re also not all good photographers. But starting at a very young age we all spent years in school studying not just the rules of writing, but also studying some of the most important writing ever produced. In contrast, the vast majority of people never go to an art school or take a course in photography. As a consequence, the average person is a much better educated in reading and writing than in photography. In fact, an education (which includes being taught to read and write) is considered to be one of the very basic human rights in large parts of the world. Photography is not part of this set of rights. So which medium is supposed to be the most democratic one again?

There might be just one way left for someone to declare that photography is the most democratic medium: Most people, while being taught to do so, don’t read or write that much, while they appear to be taking photographs. But that’s a choice that doesn’t necessarily say all that much about photography. And claims that we’re all photographers now bother me as well: What about the people who don’t own digital cameras, simply because they’re not interested? What about the people who don’t own cell phones because, say, they are too poor? The idea that we’re all photographers now only makes sense if we talk about all the people who own cameras - all the other ones will not upload any photographs onto the internet because they don’t have any.

To say (claim) that photography is the most democratic medium is largely a feel-good exercise. We live in a democracy, and hyping that fact is part of the fabric of our lives (while we watch, somewhat helplessly, how the actual democracy is slowly, yet steadily, undermined these days - if you live in the US, there might be all kinds of voting restrictions [squarely aimed at mostly poor, mostly non-white people], and of course, there is the poisonous influence of big money on elections). But we don’t gain much, if anything, from this exercise.

What we need to be doing, instead, is to tackle the actual problem: Photography appears to be one of the most attractive media around - there are hundreds of millions of new photographs on Facebook every day. How can we increase the literacy with which these images are being viewed? In other words, how can we make the medium photography more democratic in a truly meaningful way? If people are being taught how to read and write maybe there is a way to teach people how to look at photographs? Wouldn’t that be a good idea? People might then be able to look at photographs in the news and get more out of them - they might question them, say, or see whether or not they make sense in whatever context they are used in. People might be able to see advertizing more easily. People might see through the manipulations through photography in the area of politics more easily.

This would entail not engaging in discussions about how Instagram, say, devalues photography, which is, for the record, an outright absurd assertion. This would entail not dismissing photographs on Facebook as essentially meaningless postcards. This would entail not talking about photography and Photography - the former being done by uneducated rubes, while the latter is done by people in the know.

But it would also entail not writing about how photography per se can change the world, simply because a lot of people are taking pictures. That’s not going to happen. Photographs have not changed the world, and they will not change the world. People might change the world, but only if they make a decision to do so. Photographs might help them make a decision. That’s as good as it gets. Picking up a camera - or taking a photograph with a cell phone - is not such a decision. There needs to be more.

All that hype about how the “most democratic medium” will change the world is just that: Hype. Instead, we need to work on making photography truly more democratic, in the sense of first, breaking down the many barriers that still exist between photography done by “the masses” and by that small elite we are so familiar with, that small elite we are all part of. It’s time to be more honest: This entails mostly breaking down mental barriers that exist within that small elite.

Second, we also need to realize that that small elite is in fact engaged in some things that “the masses” are not engaged in. Just like your baker knows how to bake a good bread (you wouldn’t expect her or him to produce the same lousy bread you would be able to make), professional photographers should avoid trying to mimic popular trends: In the best case, it’s like parents suddenly wearing cool clothes, trying to impress their kids. In the worst case, it’s just condescending. People expect professionals to be just that: Professionals who know something very well. If you went to your garage to get your car fixed and the mechanic acted like your ignorant self - how much trust would you put into her or him?

Third, and this is the biggest challenge, we need to raise the general level of visual literacy. We have the most amazing tool to do just that, the internet, and all we talk about is “social networking,” all we talk about is how we can promote our own photographs better. Really? Much to their credit there are sites like BagNews or No Caption Needed, where photographs are dissected. But don’t expect to find any such debates on the corporate media blogs - where they belong. For the corporate media to truly arrive in the 21st Century, there has to be a change in mindsets, a change away from the ideas of “eyeballs” (aka how to make money) and “we deliver, you consume” to an idea of the media being engaged in a back and forth.

Seen in this light, the idea that photography is the most democratic medium just feels way too self-congratulatory. And honestly, who cares whether photography is the most democratic medium or just the second-most democratic one? What really matters is not how great photography is. What matters is what we all can do to make it better than it is right now - and “better” here includes more democratic in a true sense.