One size does not fit all: Context matters greatly



Last week, a flurry of articles and commentaries about Instagram/Hipstamatic was published, many of them bemoaning the apps’ popularity, arguing, in some way or another, that the apps were bad for photography. Two articles appeared to be breaking out of the circles most of the other ones seem(ed) to be running in. Jon Anderson wrote about ‘democratization’ and what that might really mean. And David Campbell asked for the conversation to move forward, instead of incessantly focusing on aesthetics. For that to happen, I think we need to realize that context matters. (more)

As it turns out, people talk about very different problems with they write about InstaHip (I’m going to use InstaHip instead of Instagram/Hipstamatic in the following; it’s not necessarily more elegant, but a bit less clunky). Talking about “amateurs” using InstaHip millions of times a day is a very different kind of context than talking about photojournalists using the tool. Context makes a huge difference here, because we’re dealing with very different problems. Lest anyone thinks that context here means non-professional photographers versus professional ones, that’s not what I mean. Bear with me.

I personally have no problems with people using InstaHip filters in most types of contexts. If using those apps is what makes more people interested in photography, what makes more people take photographs - I’m all for it! The more, the merrier! Maybe some of those people will then start looking around, to see what else photography might have to offer. Maybe someone will be curious and see a photography exhibition or buy a photobook. If InstaHip is what gets people excited about photography that’s great (and good for all of us)!

Of course, you might complain about the nostalgia that’s inherent in all of that. But that’s mostly a cultural issue. Let’s face it, we’re not going to solve the problem that so many people wish for a better future by creating a nostalgic-looking present by berating them over their use of InstaHip. There’s a lot more we’d have to add here to really address the issue. Or you might argue that Instagram is debasing real photography, in which case we already need to think about context. I don’t know what “real photography” is, and I’m especially worried that some of the artists whose work I admire won’t fall under “real photography” (Thomas Ruff, for example).

In photography, labels such as “real” or “fine-art” are actually way less clear and obvious (at least for me) than is widely assumed. “Fine art” is actually more of a context than anything else: The moment you hang a photograph in a gallery space, it becomes “fine art.” In a follow-up piece by Edward Rozzo, the author states

“Culturally, in our technologically specialized world, it would seem that the ‘serious’ fine-art photographer is probably better equipped both culturally and technically to create images of ‘value.’ This appears to be at the basis of Colberg’s argument.”
Well, this actually has nothing to do with my own thinking at all. For example, technical proficiency is no guarantee that your photographs will come out fine. They might be fine in a technical sense, but that doesn’t mean the photo has artistic value at all. I’m actually pretty tired of the debate of what is “fine art” or who is a “fine artist” simply because trying to define it in some way mostly leads nowhere. If everybody is a photographer now, we might as well say that everybody is a “fine-art” photographer now, because you can now see any kind of photography in a “fine-art” context - and that’s pretty exciting.

Thus, while it might strike some people not as a particularly creative expression to use InstaHip, I personally would be very careful with the claim that it is not and that the use of these apps is “debasing” photography. I don’t see why messing around with Lightroom is any more creative than using InstaHip. Either way, we got ourselves a bit of context here, because most InstaHip photographs seem to be taken in social contexts, where the purpose of the photograph is not necessarily the same as in some sort of fine-art context. To apply the criteria from the latter to the former, in a broad sweep, is not a good idea.

When thinking about context, the most important thing to realize is that not all contexts are equal (in the sense of being easily comparable). In fact, most of them are very different. Let’s take an example. If you read Campbell’s article, there are various references to InstaHip being used in a photojournalistic (news) context. Is that a good idea? The answer seems pretty obvious to me: No, it’s not at all. And the reason why I’m having problems with InstaHip here is provided by the context (this might in fact be the only context where I find the use of InstaHip problematic).

We all know that all photography is fiction: as a photographer you make choices, which influence the photograph enough for it to be more of a fiction than a fact. That’s photography for you. That’s just the way it is. But the photojournalist’s task, no actually the photojournalist’s duty is to minimize the amount of fiction that enters her/his photography. We are quite aware of the problem in the news context - this is, after all, the context where the problems with image manipulation come up regularly - so we expect photographs in this context to be as truthful as they can be. The problem with InstaHip in this particular context is it adds a huge amount of fiction to photography, simply by its aesthetic.

As much as I like the idea of separating aesthetic from content, in some contexts it’s not quite so simple, and photojournalism is one of those. So even when talking about an aesthetic, context matters.

I do understand the idea of using InstaHip’s inherent social-media properties for photojournalistic purposes. That seems like a very good idea. Reaching a larger number of people, getting a larger number of people interested in Libya or other places is a fantastic idea. But if this comes at the price of trivializing your message you’re in deep trouble. And I think that using InstaHip trivializes the message when used in a photojournalistic context. The crucial aspect here is that vast numbers of people use InstaHip every day for the most, well, banal or trivial purposes. As I said earlier that’s perfectly fine. I don’t have a problem with that at all.

But once you change the context, most people will not be able to make the mental leap from seeing a nostalgic-looking image of your breakfast, say, and seeing a nostalgic-looking image of some guy in Libya with a bullhorn. You might get more people interested in your images, but your images are then being treated and discussed not like photojournalistic images, but just like everybody else’s InstaHip photographs. People might now care a little more about Libya, but they care about it as much as they care about their breakfast. War shown in Afghanistan literally stops looking like war and starts looking like a bunch of armed cool guys walking around, doing something awesome.1

This is why context is so important. The dominant context for InstaHip photographs is well established. Using the apps in a different context makes people react to them in just the way they know so well already. Since in the dominant context, people’s social lives, InstaHip photographs are usually not seen as particularly relevant2, once you use InstaHip as a photojournalist you’re applying that same kind of thinking to your images. You’re trivializing your message. Now if this is what you think a good Libya or Afghanistan coverage should be, then you’ve done your job. But I don’t think it’s the role of our media to trivialize the news.

Needless to say, this is not something that only applies to InstaHip. It applies to every type/kind of photography. Ignoring context, ignoring how people react to certain types/kinds of images, how people treat certain types/kinds of images is a big mistake. That’s why, for example, presidential candidates try to make sure that only certain kinds of photographs are produced about them. That’s why the White House has a staff photographer who makes sure things look a certain way. That’s why advertizing agencies rely on certain types of images. That’s why most “casual” party photographs on people’s Facebook pages all look a certain way. I’m sure you’re getting the point.

In other words, context is much more specific than one might think. When we look at photographs, we process them according to the context we find them in, the context they’re used in. Different contexts work with very different rules. This is also why there still are so many debates about aesthetics: The same aesthetic can have very different meanings in two different contexts. Crucially, for certain contexts we are trained to see certain types of aesthetics.

We can talk about photography as much as we want, but it’s not one monolithic entity, where one size fits all, where every discussion automatically makes sense for every context. Thus when we talk about photography, we have to make sure we establish the context. We can then figure out to what extent the aesthetic might matter, we can figure out how meaningful comparisons to other contexts are3. That way, we can get a little bit closer to talking about what’s really going on, to, in Campbell’s words, “move the conversation forward.”

One last thing: If we want to move conversations forward we really need to stop making overly simplistic statements about technology. Those who have a problem with the application of new technologies are not all Luddites, afraid of change. Those who happily apply new technologies are not all glorious trailblazers, moving things forward. In reality, the former often are concerned about the very things the latter ignore, while the latter often find new uses that the former can’t think of.

photo: kindly provided by Andrew Hetherington - thank you!

1 Just as an aside, the system of embedding has somehow led to the situation where a lot of photojournalism produced around the US military is oddly deferential, to the point of being little better than the PR photography the military produces itself (photo editors: You can download those for free). We need to remember that the original role of our media is not to produce PR pieces for the military.

2By “relevant” here I mean one’s personal relevance, not something bigger or something decided by someone else. If you take dozens of InstaHip photos every day, chances are you won’t look at them more than once or twice. So they’re less relevant for you personally than a photograph that you’d frame and hang on the wall.

3 Does it matter what people said about Walker Evans’ Polaroids when we talk about photojournalists’ InstaHip photos? No, it doesn’t, because of the vastly different contexts.

Update (24 July 2012): Here’s a little addendum, reconciling photography as fiction with the fact that we still trust it very much.

More from Joerg Colberg

Joerg Colberg is the founder and editor of Conscientious.