At the Gates of Photography

Liberty_Bond,_World_War_One,_New_York_Times

A U.S. Army soldier hangs up a Liberty Bond poster on a sentry box
during the Occupation of the Rhineland, c. 1919 (NY Times archive)

It’s notoriously difficult to ever speak of a ‘photography industry’ because when we do so we are lumping together so many disparate professions and practices within that broad phrase. Even breaking it down to the many industries within an industry, when we speak of a practice like photojournalism we are still talking about a very distributed, diffused and international activity, in the very opposite of many other professions which even today remain top down in organisation and much more clearly regulated by specific bodies like unions and guilds. Instead photography has a much more nodal, networked structure, with a great number of different organisations all presiding over their own fiefdoms, sometimes intersecting like venn diagrams, butwith the interactions between them often disjointed and scattered.

A diffused industry has some clear benefits, this plurality is a large part of what makes photography an exciting and diverse field, but it also has some very significant disadvantages. In photojournalism for example talk of ‘industry standards’ with respect to issues like ethics or photo manipulation is hollow precisely because there is no single body which defines what these standards might be and which can speak with any authority for the entire industry. Part of the mounting frustration aimed at World Press Photo prior to it’s recent rule changes stemmed I suspect from the feeling that the organisation was starting to look like exactly that sort of industry arbiter, and photographers didn’t much like it (even as much as many of the same photographers dislike the wide ranging inconsistencies over manipulation and the disputes which can result). At the same time recent scandals over sexual harassment in photography highlight the fact that without any overarching body which moderates and speaks for photographers and photography professionals it is difficult to adequately judge or bring action against people suspected of breaking rules or laws, informal or otherwise. Once the online storm dies down they potentially remain free to practice and in such a large and disconnected industry I fear there will always remain corners where they can continue to exploit their profile and ply their trade to people who might be unaware of their past transgressions.

The latter example is important because I believe this diffusion of power throughout the photography industry contributes to an environment where people can more readily abuse their power and get away with it, whether in ways which are subtle or extreme. In contrast to a traditional hierarchical industry where those who hold power are very clearly defined and often subject to codified rules and systems whereby that power can be moderated, censured or removed, the highly networked and distributed nature of the photography industry leads to a diffuse and informal distribution of power without oversight. The result is a system dotted with a great many gatekeepers who are often unmoderated and self-appointed. The maddening thing is that many of these gatekeepers refuse or fail to recognise their own power or to acknowledge the influence they can bring to bear on their corner of the industry. I sometimes wonder if this is a product of wishful thinking as much as anything. By and large the photography world tends to be left leaning, and the natural inclination of those in it is often to associate with those they see as being at the bottom of the heap rather than those at the top. That may partly explain the lack of willingness by many of the industry’s gatekeepers to acknowledge the power they hold because to do so involves recognising that they are part of the same groups that they might have spent much of their career imagining themselves arrayed against. I can say from my own experience that this dissonance is a challenging one to process.

A related issue which I identified in a recent piece on anti-intellectual undercurrents in photography, is the reality that not all gatekeepers are the same. They come in all shapes and sizes, as do the gates they guard and the rewards which await on the other side for those granted passage. While writing, it occurred to me that while I am still very much a new arrival in this field, I have already come to stand guard over numerous gates, whether as a writer about photography deciding which work to discuss and promote (or savage) next, or as someone selecting prospective students for any one of the courses I teach on. Hence why as I have become more and more involved in photography the more important it has become for me to find my own mechanisms for being accountable, whether those be the small critical disclaimers I often include at the end of reviews on this blog to reveal any connections I might have with work I am writing about, or in declining or donating payment for participating in things like portfolio reviews which I have serious professional objections to. From what I’ve seen these minor mechanisms of mine are fairly novel in the industry and to my knowledge are rarely employed by peers at the same level as me or higher. I’d like to see them instead become the norm.

I’ve argued before that privilege and power are less of a problem than what you choose to do with these things, and I would say much the same is true here. Gatekeepers are a problem but they are also a reality of a diffuse ‘industry’ like photography, and I think that in practice few of us would prefer the alternative of an industry which is highly hierarchical and has more formalised power brokers. At the same time, I really believe it is important to find ways to moderate and scrutinise gatekeepers of whatever size, and to my mind the most effective way to do this is to call on them very directly to self-moderate and practice accountability and transparency in their actions. Many of course will decline, but that should tell you plenty about these people. The role of the press has been said to be to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ and I think we could do with practicing some of that within our industry, calling these gatekeepers out when they engage in dubious practices or when they refuse to be transparent about their motivations for promoting or demoting work they encounter. This has long been the role of the informal photography press, primarily blogs and websites including this one, but photographers themselves need to actively participate in this process if the voices that call these figures to account are to have any real weight and are to really push for greater openess.

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