Power in Whose Palm? Day 1: From Memory to Experience

This was written for the online blog of Power in Whose Palm: The Digital Democratization of Photography for the Salzburg Global Seminar, you can read it on their website by following this link

How do we maintain a business when the ground is shifting beneath our feet?  What does that mean on a daily basis?  Looking at the volume of photography out there, most of it is not professional photography—it is mimicking photography using new tools. This raises the questions: where are we going and what do we need to do to get there? Opening the fireside discussion on the first night of the seminar "Power in Whose Palm? The Digital Democratization of Photography", Stephan Mayes, the managing director of VII Photo Agency, Brooklyn, New York, in coversation with Manuel Toscano, Principal at Zago, New York, spoke of the transformation from memory to experience.

With so many people taking pictures on their cell phones nowadays, there are a variety of factors that are already starkly different from traditional photography.  Portability; you are no longer separate from the people that you are photographing. You are physically much closer, but also there is the perception that you are closer.  You are a publisher, you are actively publishing.  You are freer as well; you can choose your tone of voice and your audience. 

One major difference of cell phone photography is time.  Photography is composed over a period of time.  It becomes just a moment that was referred to that day and you don’t go back to that picture to see that picture, you go back to see what is next.  Like a referencing and index point to events in a streaming environment.  A few days later and the image has disappeared completely.

David Hockney captured the time aspect in photography before the advent of cell phone capturing by splitting the image into a series of smaller images to be pieced together.  This enabled time to be a factor in the comprehension of the image. This time factor is ubiquitous with cell phone photography.  That is the fundamental shift.

Mayes spoke of a “quantum shift” in photography. The old fashioned photograph was a fixed document. The very structure of image, was a fixed object.  Now no point is fixed, now it is polysemic.  The image has moved from being a fixed record to being multiple and contradictory all at the same time. We are living in a streaming environment.  A photo essay in Life magazine had a beginning, middle and end.  In a streaming environment there is no beginning, middle and end. Photography is a medium that is deeply interwoven with the changes that happen around us.

With the phenomenal popularity of the social media photo platform, Instagram people have been talking about how wonderfully nostalgic the images are is whilst forging their way into digital age.  There is a process of layering what we understand from yesterday onto the contemporary process today.

Toscano steered the conversation to questions about authorship and value of the image itself  and democratization.  Mayes unraveled the different elements, saying that these issues are being defined by the users not the professionals.  There is an increased responsibility on the viewer to understand what they are seeing.  Examples can be seen from Syria and throughout the Arab world that images drive and greatly influence revolution—but on the other hand we are being manipulated by contradictory images.  Thus the viewing process becomes a process of education and is increasingly political.  What stance do professional photographers take in this environment? Whatever that stance is, actually starts to become political.

With break-out questions from the audience, concerns were raised regarding Photoshop and how it is used in an amateur manner and bringing about gross misrepresentation.  Mayes clarified that unfortunately misrepresentation cannot be stopped but we can respond and answer it.  With the increase of abuse of media imagery, so too comes the ability to respond to it or to question and reflect.

With an increasingly sharing landscape there is a rejection of authority.  The public becomes curators and authority is fractured, which is a good thing in the same way that cubism broke up the singular perspective.  There is a desire not to hear from Time Warner—users want to hear from someone that they know and trust.  This flows into the power of citizen journalism.

However, citizen journalists are not trained story tellers, whereas the professional photographers are. They are not about what they see, but more about ‘what does this mean?’.  Thus there is still a role for everyone to coexist in this visual rich landscape, where there are now more opportunities to receive multiple perspectives, but the ways in which these perspectives are consumed are different.  There is the streaming side, accenting a moment that is quickly looking round for what next, and there is the reflective element which is the realm of professional photographers. 

Often professional photographers find themselves caught up in the speedy streaming landscape and then there are questions that are raised, such as, “Can I trust this image?, because I haven’t got time to review it because if I don’t post it now the moment will be gone.”  However, this can only be a good thing, as it asks of professional photographers to be more of a reflective practitioner on every level.