Writing on photography

Pixels to the People: Photography and Democracy

It’s common to hear photography characterised as an innately democratic technology, often in counter-point to traditional ‘skilled’ art forms which are seen as being more exclusive and difficult to access. It’s an interesting claim but not one that should be allowed to pass unchallenged, particularly in light of a recent post where I talked about the problems of attributing an inherent characteristic to a technology. So is photography in any sense democratic, by which I suppose I mean how are easy is it to make, disseminate and understand photography, and are things improving, or getting worse?

To contextualise, photography didn’t show much sign of being democratic to start with. Early photographic pioneers were invariably cash and time wealthy men. With a small number of exceptions they were not from the lower classes, they were not non-European and they were not women. Inversely the perceived exclusivity of the fine art world is a relatively new thing. Fine art has offered a ladder up from humble origins to prosperity and social standing for countless people, just in terms of two recent English examples, JMW Turner was the son of a lowly barber, while William Hogarth’s father was imprisoned for debt for five years.

Also at the risk of getting side tracked from a micro to macro definition of ‘democracy’, photography has an evident, and well exercised anti-democratic potential. It has been deployed the world over to categorise, identify and represent people according to the requirements of others. From its use in nineteenth century Europe to document and classify criminals and the mentally ill (see for example Charcot’s photographs of hysterics), to its vital part in the apparatus of mass murder in countries as diverse as Germany, Russia and Cambodia. As I’ve noted before the camera very much sides with whoever is pulling the trigger, in both senses of that phrase.

In spite of its exclusive start, the maturing of photographic technology over the last 120 years has vastly increased the democracy of image making. Kodak’s Brownie cameras are a good example of this, marketed on the basis of great simplicity and low cost, of accessibility in other words. This camera and the many derivatives and equivalents that followed vastly expanded the number of people who were financially and technically able to photograph. However geographically production remained swayed towards Europe and North America, and here in respects of distribution photographers were still limited in what they could do with their photographs, faced by numerous gatekeepers of publishing and display.

Subsequent technologies have expanded the democracy of shooting further, and made huge inroads into the democratisation of distribution. In terms of shooting, devices like camera phones appear to be having an effect in parts of the developing world comparable to that of the Box Brownie in nineteenth century Europe. With mobile phone ownership exploding in Africa and Asia, the democracy of mass camera ownership is at least one area in which photography’s democratic portents are showing signs of being realised. As image making devices proliferate the possibilities grow, for one example as a way to gather evidence and hold authorities to account as this case shows (its video, but I think my point still stands).

Professional photographers operating in places and documenting subjects that were in the past perhaps primarily photographed by European and North American photographers are also becoming increasingly visible. For more on this there’s an interesting series of short films about African photographers on Al-Jazeera at the moment which I came across via Asim Rafiqui’s blog (which also comes highly recommended, and often explores some of the issues I’m discussing here). One looks at the Nigerian photographer George Osodi, who’s work includes a series of photographs of Nigerian kings aimed at emphasising the positives of Nigeria’s diverse ethnic make up, and countering some of the negative stereotypes about African tribalism.

In terms of distribution, innovations like social media have somewhat helped to side-line traditional photographic gatekeepers. Pictures can now be distributed directly to large audiences without the involvement of these people, however ‘can’ is the key word. Social media requires huge investments in time and no great certainty about the payoffs in terms of visibility or actual profit. Perhaps also in some respects old gatekeepers (gallerists, picture editors) have just been replaced by new ones (influential bloggers, tweeters, online curators) who sometimes wield comparable power on the online world.

And promising as these advances in technology seem they have to be taken on balance. Phone ownership is at 84% in South Africa, but it’s only 18% in Niger, and distribution between genders, ages and socio-economic groups is predictably unequal. Equally phone ownership doesn’t automatically equal camera ownership and there are no particularly useful estimates of how camera ownership is growing outside the traditional markets of Europe, Asia and North America.

Equally in terms of new channels of distribution, in 2011 only 35% of the world’s population had access to the internet. The proliferation of camera phones and other devices into new places is in itself of questionable value without the means to then disseminate the resulting photographs. Then again maybe this lack of connectivity will eventually foster innovations that challenge familiar practices. I recently read this fascinating article on the surge in the popularity of mobile currency transfers in Somalia, not somewhere you typically associate with the embracing of new technologies.

Lastly an issue which affects photo democracy in all countries, the ability to understand images, to be photographically literate. This might not seem like a necessary consideration. People aren’t expected to understand democratic politics or their electoral system before voting (what a change there would be if they were). But I think that any really significant sense of photo democracy is going to require a greater degree of photo literacy, whether it’s passively acquired or actively taught. I think it’s troubling that there is often a view that people innately understand what a photograph is and how it works, and an unwillingness to recognise that widening use of photographs can be negative as well as positive.

To return for example to the possibility of the new availability of cameras being used to gather evidence of official wrong doing, this evidence can of course also be very easily faked. As cameras proliferate I think it will become increasingly important that audiences understand how photographs can be used to tell lies as well as show truths, particularly in places where the fault lines of political, ethnic or religious conflict are not far from the surface. Sontag’s account of how the same photograph of a dead child was passed around both Serb and Croat propaganda briefings during the Balkan conflict is perhaps a suitable example of this, and one that isn’t difficult to imagine being repeated.

So the original statement needs to be amended. Of course photography isn’t innately democratic, but it has democratic potential which is increasingly being realised by the proliferation of new technologies that put cameras in an ever larger number of hands and provide them with ways to distribute those images. Equally in professional terms we’re living in a world where it’s increasingly unnecessary for photographers to travel to far off lands to engage with issues, and where the idea of the uninformed stranger offering potentially reductive visual commentaries about the places they visit looks to be finally giving way to the informed resident, exploring important topics in more sophisticated and nuanced ways.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography