Social photography: Bitter equality lolz


The rise of the amateurs

My thoughts about photography have started with a sued street photographer, a case I’ve written about here and here, and strayed on here. The street photographer as one example of a special professional someone we needed for the documentation of our times might become – if not obsolete – just one in a crowd. What the flood of digital and social photography has done to the value of the single picture, the rise of the amateur photographers does to the photographer’s status. In the case I have written about one point that the plaintiff (who had sued Eichhöfer, a street photographer, because she didn’t want her picture to be publicy displayed) brought up against him was that his photos should not be considered art but luck because he had shot 1.600 photos and there were only 12 he found good enough for the exhibition.

So, what’s art, what’s luck? Of course quantity is a poor argument against art but it is quite common and shows the devaluation of professional photography since it has become a mass product. Chances are that a lot of people would get 12 artworthy pictures if they shot 1.600. If not: There’s always filters and Photoshop, technical skills getting replaced by technology. The photographer’s lament about this does not differ much from the vinyl dj who complains that the automatic beatsyncing of the laptop dj is nothing but cheating. For a person who enjoys looking at the photo or who is shaking their bootie on the dancefloor it is irrelevant.

Chances are that people who pay the photographer’s loan find 12 cheap photos among 16 million pictures that have been uploaded to social networks or photography platforms. Even the biggest media outlets sometimes use snaps that someone had posted on Twitter instead of using the expensive work of a professional photographer who wasn’t at the right place at the right time. “Eyewitness media can often be the best visual a news organisation has from the scene of a story.” With that reasoning a german news organisation, Deutsche Welle, introduced an app for geo-located push alerts for eyewitness media.

Photo blogs and networks like 500px or flickr also have narrowed the gap between the professional and the amateur artist. The maximization of idea-to-monetization speed has contributed to this too, just think of Tumblr’s Creatr Network that is built to close the gap between amateur artists who post on the network and brands who could be interested in buying their work for (in-platform) advertising or design. The old school street photographers might moan “but true quality and professional training”. Well, there might be a lot of uninspired photography on the web but there also is a lot of uninspired photography in galleries or newspapers and magazines that only makes it there because the photographer has the right connections.

Bitter equality lolz

The sheer mass of online photography and ever becoming better filter algorithms might change the game. Imagine a future of photography that no longer belongs to having the best connections in the industry network but to the possibilities of finding the most interesting or relevant fresh content with minimum effort and expense. A future that outsources decisions about whom to hire for what to algorithms. Algorithms that are not built to consider gender and race and education and background but that just pick the best product/picture. Algorithms, will the white men cry, they get sold to us as objective, neutral, while really they are built by humans to get rid of the final frontier: loyalty! Digitalised hypercapitalism might free us of old white boys networks. Imagine a capitalism that will hurt us all the same. Bitter equality lolz.

Today you can see people from a wide range of professions struggle against amateurs and minorities and machines for a privilege they feel slipping away . You can hear this fear between the lines of feuilleton conservatives ranting against women and queers coming for their family values, you can hear it in the overgeneralizing moans against internet mobs and shitstorms. If you look close you can see it jumping up and down behind all the “future of journalism” stories and you can hear it in the street photographers’ laments. Digitalisation is coming for your jobs and status. That is, as long as the networks and algorithms do not include the very same biases in their structure as the people who build them have had for far too long. It is important to consider with what on mind they get build because if profit is the major goal and social considerations are only considered as mechanisms that help binding people to it, they might multiply injustices in new ways that stay invisible and incomprehensible to most. We can’t celebrate it as democratization if platform owners make most of the money of content that gets shared on them. Take a photo platform like 500px and their slogans: “Find the perfect royalty-free photos on 500px Prime”, “Photography enthusiasts – Share your best photos and get exposure”. Or think of music streaming services that seem even more greedy in cashing in on artists than big record labels are.

How do we judge value?

The rise of amateurs raises the question: Whom do we consider an artist or a journalist when we all can do it? It is not just a question of jobs, it also is about artistical value and special rights, like freedom of art and press. To stick with the example that got me started: The picture of the street photographer as an artist who deserves a special status and protection has become a bit dusty. We freed us from a fixed definition of art, and we can no longer draw a clear line between a professional and amateur, or between commercial and artistic photography. In a text about the Eichhöfer-case Meike Laaff asks, what exactly is higher interest about art, and: Should judges be the ones to decide about the artistical value of a work of art? Who is to decide who deserves the special artistic freedom? Artists themselves? The people who have become objects of a picture and see their privacy threatened? Curators, critics, social media companies, judges? Or potentially everyone?

Is it just the context in which a picture gets displayed? As it has been written about Richard Prince putting up other people’s instagram pictures in an art gallery and selling them for $90.000 each? I think that case is a bit more complex as he has not just used the picture but displayed the instagram surface and comments with the picture, so you could argue that this is a kind of social media street photography: The screenshot of a digital public space as street photography. Basically with the same “public’s public” logic with which news sites make whole articles consisting of embedded tweets or social network pictures. I’d love to read an essay on copyright ethics and who’s got the right to profit, comparing these two examples, Prince and journalism that embeds public social media content. And to go even further: Self-representation on- and offline increasingly melt together – how long will will we make a difference anymore? If we demand copyright for our self-representation online, when will we start to argue for it for our offline self-representation?