What follows are some extended notes from a lecture I gave entitled: “Everyone is a Photographer.” It attempts to ask questions about what we should be thinking about on a photography degree. It should be stressed, these are notes which are used as a start point for discussion in a live lecture scenario.
Here are some statistics: current averages of per day of 300 million photographs (Source: Gizmodo) are uploaded to Facebook, 95 million photographs (Source: Instagram) are uploaded to Instagram and 2 million photographs (Source: Flickr) are uploaded to Flickr. There can be little doubt we are producing and sharing a lot of photographs. The statistics for social media use in 2016 are similarly excessive. These include: 500 million Tweets sent every day via Twitter, 300 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, more than 40 billion photographs shared on Instagram so far. (Source: Brandwatch). So, what does it mean to be a photographer today? How do we differentiate ourselves against this noise of photographs?
Another question we might consider is concerned with what we understand as ‘the craft of photography.’ Before we had cameras built into our phones photography was defined broadly by four types of people – the professional (who earned money from taking photographs), the amateur (who didn’t earn money but would usually, at least, process their own film or have access to a darkroom), the artist (perhaps not to be confused with the professional, someone who used photography to express themselves creatively), mum & dad and everyone else who took photographs on their holiday. Usually 36 frames, usually with a fully automatic camera. The craft of photography can be generally understood in terms of a skill set – a particular set of skills. Most notably the ability to process and print b/w photographs. But what might be that craft today? What skills do you possess or hope to possess by the time you finish your degree? You may also ask, when does technology become a craft? Is the mastery over technology something we can align with an understanding of a craft? It may not feel as though it is, but I would argue they have very similar attributes.
Is it not possible that ‘skills’ can simply be learned from YouTube or on a short course? What else then will be useful to differentiate you, as undergraduates, from “everyone who is a photographer?”
Here are some possible differentiators: critical thinking skills; transferable skills; interdisciplinary skills; project and time management skills; presentation and social skills. A photography degree, like the one at BCU, is all about gaining the skills to think about photography as a way of understanding and structuring the world. Knowledge appears invested in the visual systems that we understand and truth appears to be directly connected to our notions of seeing – wherein ‘seeing is believing.’ The logic of photography is therefore implicitly linked to our logic of truth, reason and knowledge. Don’t be fooled by the argument that photographs lie – of course they do, but what is central to this statement is that we can ‘see that they are lying to us.’ What we need to ask is, what is the form of this lie?
Beyond our notions of truth and reason there are other non-universal and non-absolute experiences. These may even be more prevalent than we are led to believe. Thus, it our attention to visual surfaces obscures comprehension of that ‘which sits outside.’ Photography has largely been understood and taught as a subject area that deals with things like ‘capturing memories’ or ‘recording an experience’ or ‘documenting an event.’ In fact, in digital culture, photography has a more complex relationship with the world through its production, distribution and storage. Photography is not simply the presenter of pictures, it also organises and structures experience (Elo and Miika 2014:07). In this sense, perception is connected to the operations of computers, smartphones, applications and the network.
What is photography’s role in our ability to think about ourselves, when it is the principal visual regime of modernity? Can we understand photography as determining a relationship between humans and the world? “It is possible to argue, as Claire Colebrook has done (2014: 13), that by outsourcing memory to the recording apparatus we forget what it is like to be human” (Rubinstein 2017: 05). Photography is complicit in creating a modern subjectivity in which the world is made distant, in which things are mediated, where the screen interfaces between a here and there, between a subject and an object. “The subject has no “proper” signifier which would “fully” represent it, every signifying representation is a misrepresentation which, however imperceptibly, always-already displaces, distorts, the subject” (Žižek, 1991: 24)
Every signifier misrepresents the subject – which is why we continue to represent. But the impossibility of its representational goal is reflected in the representation itself. In Lacanian terms, it is the “signifier of the lack of the signifier.”