Democracy not necessarily the best thing that ever happened to photography

What does democracy have to do with photography? In the past, not much. Today, everything. Please let me explain…

Photography was an art that was not entirely reserved for the few, but due to the equipment, time, knowledge, care, patience, imagination, inspiration, …, that it required, essentially it was a fairly elitist hobby or endeavor. Back in those days, people “invested” in a camera and the output of their work came a few days later, either through their dark room or a photo shop that developed and printed. Then, they put their photographs in physical form albums and showed them to their friends and relatives and that was about it. Maybe, just maybe, they would go back to the shop for an enlargement that they could frame and put on a wall or give as a gift.

It was a costly and time consuming hobby, with a low yield (in terms of usable output) for most people; costly because after investing on gear, they had to buy film and either pay for development and printing or pay to get papers and chemicals to do it on their own; time consuming because it actually took time to see the results; finally, with the exception of a minority of photographers who knew exactly what they wanted and how to get it, the rest of the hobbyists had an unenviable hit/miss ratio…

Fast forward to today and from the few to the many… Photography experienced an unprecedented democratization in recent years that was founded on two pillars: (a) the advent and technological advancement of smartphones and (b) the proliferation of social media. The numbers tell this particular story, way better than words ever could:

  • Since 2010, digital camera sales fell by 87% – not to mention the massacre that preceded this, with the extinction of analog cameras.
  • In 2017, 1.2 trillion (that’s a mind boggling 1200 billion people!) were taken…
  • Over 85% of all these photos were shot with a smartphone.
  • There are about 3.5 billion smartphone users in the world, about one in two people globally.
  • The average European snaps about 600 selfies a year.
  • About 90% of people that have ever taken a photo, they have ONLY done so with a phone, not a camera. (Pause – think – continue reading…)
  • About 1.8 billion images were being posted on social media every day – and that was in 2014! That’s about 657 billion images for that year alone…
  • On instagram alone, people have posted over 40 billion images since its inception 10 years ago and continue to do so at a rate of about 95 million per day.

Democracy at work… Democracy put the tool in the hands of many. Democracy then let the many “share” the output of their work on social media. Democracy drove the cost of owning a smartphone down to the point that 50% of the global population could afford them. Democracy made taking digital pictures free! Finally, democracy made sharing those pictures on social media free as well!

“Well, is this bad?” one might ask and rightfully so. I don’t want to break it to you, but YES, it is a rather bad thing. “Oh, but why?” the good natured reader might ask again. Let’s take it from the top: Photography is an art form. Art is usually performed by artists. Photography’s output, the end image, can come about in one of two ways: through skill and vision, or through trial and (a lot of error). This latter approach is akin to the old saying that even a broken watch tells the right time twice a day… So, out of the countless billions of images that find their way from the users’ smartphones to their social media accounts, it stands to reason that the overwhelming majority are, well… sub par, right? The art has been reduced to a simple, momentary, free and almost mindless “click” and to make matters worse, its sister art of post processing has been reduced to filters and presets. Again it stands to reason that these reductions are detrimental to the quality of the image.

This is not to say that we should not be taking pictures with a smartphone or post them on social media. I do it too and I see nothing inherently wrong with it. I love image making and I have loved it before the advent of smartphones and social media and I will most likely love it in the distant future, however it shapes the taking and sharing of images! All I am suggesting is that we should have an understanding of what good looks like and be more discriminating in our “likes” in favor of images that have soul and mind in them and that is an extremely minuscule part of the total.

But please, do not take my word for it – do the test yourselves: google any of the masters of photography and browse their work. Invest some time to see a few thousand images and it will all start coming into place. You will see what a soulful and mindful image looks like; you will appreciate what a photographer with a vision can put in front of you; you will realize that much in the same way that a brush or a microphone in hand does not make one a painter or a singer, a smartphone and a social media account do not make one a photographer.