> The Fascinating World of Multimedia
> A new conceptual landscape
> A joint proposal for understanding the issues
> Being prepared to engage
> Experiences and responsibility
> No definitions here: a footnote to Nietzsche
> Ambitions for the findings
> Abundance v front page: accessing better quality information
> New commentaries and critical thinking
> Open systems and audiences
David Campbell is a writer, researcher, lecturer and producer who analyses visual storytelling and creates new visual stories. He holds a PhD in International Relations and for twenty years taught visual culture, geography and politics at universities in the US, Australia and the UK. The author of six books and more than 60 articles, he has produced three visual projects: ‘Atrocity, Memory, Photography: Imaging the Concentration Camps of Bosnia‘, ‘Imaging Famine’, and ‘The Visual Economy of HIV-AIDS’.
In 2010 Campbell went freelance, and is concerned with documentary photography and photojournalism, the disruption in the media economy, its impact on visual journalism, in addition to his long-term commitment to understanding international politics.
In 2012-13 Campbell directed the World Press Photo Multimedia Research Project, and wrote and presented its report ‘Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism’.
He is the current Secretary to the World Press Photo contest jury.
The Fascinating World of Multimedia
NFS: I think it was around 2009, when I first came across your writings. Then, you published under three categories; photography, multimedia and politics. Where do you see those areas now? Because now you’re using the term visual storytelling instead, so what’s changed for you in that respect?
DC: I was coming out of a full-time academic career in international politics and political geography where I researched things that were visual for a decade or more. Particularly photojournalism. So, those three signifiers of photography, multimedia and politics were kind of my locus points in the academic world.
They were the things that also made me engage with the world of practice. Because once I started thinking about photojournalism, I wanted to think about all the structures of production, circulation, distribution and consumption, and how this meant that an image got made, sent, published, consumed. That meant talking to individuals who did that, but it meant talking to editors, talking to media companies, talking to agencies and so on. In the process of doing that, two things happened. One was I encountered “Multimedia”, which is not a term anyone really likes, and I don’t like, but within photojournalism it had its moment from 2003 onwards.
I was fascinated by this idea of multimedia. Because the frustration in looking at photography and photojournalism was always, while the single image was powerful, it always lacked context.
A pivotal research project of mine was the one I did on atrocity, memory and photography about images from the Bosnian concentration camps in the early 1990s. That was published in 2002, I think. I spent two years working on research for that project, and I really wanted it up online for more people to access, because I thought it was a politically significant piece of research. That, for me, was kind of like my crossover point, when I encountered these later technologies. But of course I’d had to rely on other people. I didn’t have all the skills to actually build Flash sites and do all the coding. So when I discovered WordPress some time later and I was like, “Oh God, this is a website for dummies. I can do that.” But at that point I had absolutely no intention about blogging whatsoever.
NFS: It seems that photography and photojournalism are always on catch-up.
DC: Yes, and I think they’ve barely caught up. This is going to sound a bit pejorative – I don’t mean it. There’s kind of a lot of remedial work to be done, in the sense that there’s still a lot of stuff to say to people, “Look, this is what’s happening to the structures of information. This is what’s happening to the media economy. This is how you can fit it in. This is why you’re being challenged, and here are some possible responses to that.” People are still really grappling with those ideas.
A new conceptual landscape
NFS: I remember our first conversation back in 2009 talking about the Web as a new ecosystem that breaks the link between the mode of information and the mode of distribution.
DC: Yes, which I think remains the pivotal way of understanding what’s happening.
NFS: But we’re four years on from that. Are you finding photographers who’ve been able to truly capitalise upon that kind of notion?
DC: Again, I think there are some, for sure. But I still think that’s a minority.
NFS: Is that just in photojournalism, or photography more generally?
DC: I think it’s even more general than that. I think there are these enormous changes, and everything people think is coming in the future is probably present now. But what is also present now are established practices, entrenched institutions, habits. And enough legacies from the past that it is still possible to function in a more traditional way, and kind of get by. So that if you’re a photojournalist, and you’re a good one, you can get just enough commissions from major magazines, newspapers to do some work – ads and commercial work – and get by. You can still hold onto the idea like, “Okay, I just make pictures and then I sell that as content to a media platform who commissions me.”
NFS: Do you think that’s a desire to stay in a comfort zone? Because as soon as you go outside of that, there aren’t the rules that you have to abide by?
DC: I think in large part it’s a comfort thing, it’s a habit thing, it’s a necessity thing, because they perceive that you have to pay the bills and here’s a way that you can still do it. Large media organisations that used to commission them are themselves in the same position; they’re struggling with the notion of being what I like to call “the organisations formally known as newspapers.” Because paper is now a much smaller part of them. The papers still provide a lot of their advertising revenue and they’re struggling with how to be digital first. What does that really mean for a completely different workflow? Then you realise that a print workflow really conditions the structure of information, about having a deadline, about getting something fixed by then, letting it go out, and then letting it go. Rather than putting it up, updating and having further iterations of it. That’s a whole different mind-set.
Kath Viner, who’s the Deputy Editor of the Guardian, who’s now running the Guardian Australia operation, gave this great lecture in Melbourne a week or two ago which summarised the changes. She said, “Understand the digital not as a set of technological developments, but an entirely new conceptual landscape.” That’s the hard part. That’s understandably the hard part for individuals or institutions.
NFS: Your approach seems to mirror her critical yet positive vision, especially when I consider the well-regarded multimedia landscape posts you wrote?
DC: Well, that whole thing is funny for me, coming out of my academic background, because I was indebted to a lot of French poststructuralist philosophy – and I still am, actually. A couple of times on my website I’ve posted these key quotes from Michel Foucault’s essay on practicing criticism. Which to me really encapsulates just how you approach these things, about understanding that everything comes from somewhere. It comes with a set of assumptions. Why I say that’s funny is of course that in my own academic context, that sort of approach was always opposed to a traditional line of thought called realism. But for me, that critical ethos is realism. That’s the thing about being positive; it’s not just having some sort of Panglossian attitude that this is the best of all possible worlds or something. It’s about saying “this is the world now.”
So if you’re a photojournalist lamenting the fact that you’re no longer commissioned by Life magazine or Time magazine or whatever, and you can’t do the stories you want, then I’m sorry, you’re caught up in nostalgia. You need to know what the information economy is like now.
The point about nostalgia is it usually refers to a time or a condition that actually never existed. Rodger and Capa and those others at Magnum disliked Life magazine very quickly in the 1940s and the early 1950s. Why? They had no control over their assignments; they had no copyright on their images; they had no say in the stories; they didn’t know how their pictures were being used; they weren’t paid very well. They started off being paid okay for individual stories, but then it got worse.
They were asked to do a whole lot of social reporting that we would now regard as the equivalent of trivia on Facebook and BuzzFeed. Then you think, “Okay, so this golden age of photojournalism that everyone looks back to, actually had all the same sorts of logics and conditions that people are now complaining about.” Don’t get caught up in nostalgia for something that never existed. Think about what’s happening now.
NFS: They become myths in themselves.
NFS: The photography education community is full of myths. I think the danger for photography at this moment, is that it becomes this insular subject that keeps churning and talking about itself, rather than looking outwards for inspiration.
DC: But this occurs in lots of fields. Take the recent debate where Thom Yorke of Radiohead and David Byrne go after Spotify for not paying enough for musicians to live on. Byrne said, “The Internet is sucking all creativity out of the world.” I’m sorry, that’s just complete nonsense. That’s just factually not true, whatever the challenges are for musicians. Okay, you might want to have this rant against the Internet and creative practice, but I’m sorry, that is the structure of the information economy. You’ve got to work out how you’re going to make that work for you.
A joint proposal for understanding the issues
NFS: You could say it encourages following, rather understanding which is perhaps where your academic background supports your ability to analyse and break ideas down into their component parts. Which leads us nicely onto your directorship of the ‘Multimedia Research Project’ for World Press Photo, how did that come about?
DC: Well, I’ve had some contact with World Press Photo over the years. I did a workshop for them in 2004 and the ‘Sem Presser’ lecture for them in 2005, which understandably got a mixed reception. Because when you do those lectures on the awards days, people are there to celebrate prize-winning images. They don’t really want to have a substantive talk. Which maybe fair enough. After Fred Ritchin and Vicki Goldberg and I gave them three years of substantive talks at World Press Photo’s invitation, World Press Photo decided that actually it was probably better just to have celebrity photographers talking. That fitted in, I think, much better with the day. But it was a good encounter for me, because it got me into that community, and I’ve retained contacts with them. Particularly through people like Stephen Mayes, who was Secretary to the Jury. I think he’s a very interesting thinker and very open, so we would correspond and talk regularly. I think it was the five blog posts that you referred to earlier on the revolutions in the media economy, which I updated with another series in 2011. Then I got this call about 18 months ago from World Press Photo saying, “the Dutch Photographers Federation are really interested in trying to work out some of these issues. They’re prepared to help fund a project and so on. Do you want to write the proposal for it and be involved?”
So I drafted the proposal on what we should look at, and that’s what got taken forward. That was interesting for me, because as I said originally, I had no intention of blogging when I set up my website. It was to be an archive and a public face of my work, really. But I understood that WordPress was blogging software and fortuitously I was on research leave for a semester. So instead of writing the book I was supposed to write, I decided to think about blogging. I was very influenced by two colleagues, Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites. They wrote this excellent book called ‘No Caption Needed’, about iconic photos. Robert came to the Institute of Advanced Study at Durham when I was there and he gave us a presentation on what it meant to blog. I was just really taken by that, because I thought, “Well, here we are. We’ve got the academic apparatus, but now we have the platform to actually not wait 12, 18 or 24 months for a journal article to come out, which, of course, is one of the intensely frustrating things in academia. Now I can post on my website and give you a link to a PDF. I could have that up in five minutes,” why am I waiting two years? I realised that my whole practice was changing. That I just wanted to write publicly. When I realised I could be my own publisher, I wanted to be my own publisher.
Being prepared to engage
NFS: One of the impressive things about your website is the level of interaction that you get. It seems as though that each time you publish a post, you receive a good consistency of comments but more importantly perhaps you also respond?
DC: I actually think that’s a responsibility of people who are publishing on the Web; you have to go with the ethos of the Web, too. You have to have comments. Therefore, when you’re writing on the Web, you must have links. The Web is all about linking. I do think everyone should have comments and be prepared to engage.
NFS: In light of the ease to publish online, how do you balance the public exposure and the responsibility this brings? In this terrain there is no one acting as your buffer or shelter?
DC: Well, you are exposed; you are out there. You will be misinterpreted and misread. But I was kind of used to that, because even if you write in an academic context, you get misinterpreted and misread by other academics regularly (Laughter).
NFS: But the audience becomes very different, though, doesn’t it?
DC: Oh, it’s a very different audience, but you have to believe in the ethos of what you’re doing. Which is, “Okay, I’m putting it out there; I’m making it as reasoned as I can; I’m giving it a link so you can see where it’s coming from, you can see where I’m coming from.” Yes, I end up with a clear position or an opinion or conclusion or whatever. But then I’m open to that being challenged. Some things can really irritate. But I just make that commitment to actually take a breath before responding.
Experiences and responsibility
NFS: The new landscape enables the photographer the freedom to control the whole process from conception to production, marketing and distribution. But photography has become such a loaded term, how do we unleash it from its baggage?
DC: Yes, I agree. That was why at the beginning of the World Press Photo report I wrote about the relationship of the still and the moving image. Because I didn’t want to talk about photography versus video, really. I want us to understand, first of all, that even when photography first emerged in the late 19th century, still images were presented in theatrical ways as performances in slide shows to audiences. It was a whole experience. I’m not saying that what we’re doing now is a complete descendent of that and exactly the same, but the relationship between the still and the moving was actually much more complex, even at photography’s emergence in the 19th century, as to how people consumed images. Because before they could be printed on paper, which is around 1880 onwards, they were shown in theatres.
NFS: So from day one we actually had moving image experiences.
DC: Exactly. The flipside is how often does cinema actually slow things down and use slow imagery? So once we start appreciating this we realise these things are blurred. For professional reasons, these communities have diverged into photographic practitioners who work with the still camera, and cinematic practitioners similarly with video. But that’s why we didn’t want to define it. We want to say, “Let’s bring some of these things back together again, or intersect together again, and see how they’re contributing to each other.”
NFS: It is really exciting to see these two fields merge once more. We perhaps also see a historical convergence of intention between the Eastman Kodak quote, “you press the button and we do the rest,” and the highly popular Instagram platform today. As you know Stephen Mayes advocates the cell phone as a game changer; unique because of its combined set of attributes. This in turn then enables us to think about power, responsibility, and that it is public, and how that influences and changes it.
DC: This ties in with, say, Fred Ritchin’s notion of meta-photographers in his book ‘Bending the Frame’, which I think is a very good way of putting it. We have to consider the role of those people who put these images together, locate them as stories, link them to other things and so on. I was always very struck with many of Ritchin’s ideas. The first time I did a workshop for World Press Photo in 2004 Fred Ritchin gave his ‘Sem Presser Lecture’. He was advocating photojournalists using the Internet and saying, “Look, why don’t we think about a still image that’s on the Web and you roll over the four corners and you’ve got embedded information in the four corners?” I was always puzzled that so few seemed interested in the contextual and storytelling possibilities the Web made possible. Now of course there are these various new start-ups and platforms that can easily do what Ritchin proposed. So something like Stipple, Luminate, Thinglink, and others, give you the capacity to embed information in still images on the Web. But we’re yet to see consistently documentary storytellers take some of these things and use them. I really want someone to do a classic photo essay for the Web. Use something like Stipple and then start to embed information into the images, and present it differently on the Web to us.
No definitions here: a footnote to Nietzsche
NFS: Was there an expectation that you would define a new genre for photojournalists within the report for World Press Photo?
DC: We made clear at the beginning that we were not defining multimedia; we use it in inverted commas. What’s happening, I think is the creation of a space where things are intersecting. So I think there’s photography, photojournalism, video journalism, cinema, documentary, integrated storytelling, web documentary. These things all have overlaps and intersections. I don’t want to define any of those things.
NFS: Reading the final report it felt like you had applied your academic framework and contextual sensibility to the world of professional photojournalism?
DC: Definitely. I think I even snuck in a footnote to Nietzsche at the beginning of the report on definitions.
NFS: Yes, I remember.
DC: Which is just a little nod to say… because I love that Nietzsche quote about how the attempt to define something gives it no history. It’s exactly history that I’m interested in, because I want to know where we’ve come from.
NFS: Absolutely. So were there things that you were hoping to find and things that surprised you?
DC: I think the thing that probably surprised me most is how much of the work that we would consider to be multimedia is produced in-house by large media companies, by people they’ve taken on. Very little of it is produced by independents and freelancers producing their own things, and then being able to license or sell to media companies.
NFS: You mean the power is still held by the institutions, did you manage to uncover the reasons for this?
DC: It’s a combination of things. We wrote a series of practical recommendations at the end of the report. One of the recommendations was to say that actually everyone needs to know how to use some video editing software. That doesn’t mean everyone needs to be able to produce films. I always give the example that if I was someone whose practice was actually to make just limited edition books, I’d still want to know how to use video editing software. Because as part of my practice, I’d want to be making a short film about me making a book, and putting it up on YouTube. Because YouTube is becoming the world’s second biggest search engine.
People are going to find you there, then follow your links back and hopefully buy your book.
Ambitions for the findings
NFS: World Press Photo and yourself must have had ambitions that would branch off from the report? Did you hope to influence policy or change ways of understanding on an international scale?
DC: We hosted three international seminars, so we got good European perspectives, good North American perspectives and good Chinese perspectives. But even that’s scratching the surface, because there are some fantastic things happening in South East Asia and South Asia. So I won’t pretend it was global, but at least we made some moves in that direction. Influencing policy was definitely one of the premises. That was the reason why the Dutch Photographers Federation wanted it to happen. They were the driving force to partner with World Press Photo and make it happen. They’ve a very good director, Lars Boering, who wanted his constituency to understand that they’re challenged on a lot of fronts. But there are ways to think this through and approach new things.
There are a lot of interesting Dutch photographers. There’s quite a sizeable minority who are doing creative and interesting things. I’m thinking of one in particular who does a lot of stories with public radio in Holland. This is when you realise the whole media space has changed completely. It’s like, “Really? Public radio is becoming a publisher of photo stories? That’s not radio.” Lars wanted his constituency to see some of the examples and understand some of the trends that were going on.
We did the big public launch in Amsterdam in April 2013, and he’d read the report. He said one of the most striking things to him out of the report was to understand that good critical journalism had always been cross subsidised and no-one had ever paid for it directly. Because that released a lot of anxiety, actually.
Because of course there’s so much debate about, “How do we get people to pay for stories?” It’s like, yes, it would be lovely if everyone coughed up a dollar every time they wanted to read something and we all got rich on the back of it. But that’s not how information works currently; that’s not how people consume information.
Practically speaking, there are plans for follow-up workshops and so on, so that people can talk more about some of the implications. World Press Photo and the Dutch Photographers Federation have a definite desire to use this as a learning resource and build on it.
NFS: I imagine producing the report for the multiple stakeholders must have been rather challenging?
DC: The people who were involved in commissioning the report, and then the people we were able to invite to the seminars and then interview and so on, were all very open and positive. But the biggest challenge in that whole exercise was trying to write about these macro changes in a way that could be accessible.
So many times you hear people say that language is too academic and that they just turn off. We can all cite particularly egregious examples of obtuse academic language. But when you’ve come from the academy, you appreciate that the vast majority of people are struggling with difficult ideas and want to communicate them in various ways.
If it comes across as a little difficult, it’s because that’s a struggle and the ideas are difficult. You’re asking your reader and viewer and listener to go with you and do a little bit of work as well. Because you can’t simplify everything into extremely basic language when you’re talking about some hard concepts.
Of course knowing what the constituency was for that report, that was one of the biggest efforts. How to write this as clearly as possible whilst still being true to the depth of the information and the complexity of the issues was a challenge.
NFS: The decision does demonstrate bravery and trust on behalf of World Press Photo and the Dutch Photographers Federation to join forces between the commercial and academic worlds in an attempt to explore and understand this challenging landscape.
DC: Yes. I think that was a good move. But they wouldn’t have asked me if I hadn’t written those things on the blog, particularly that 2009 series on revolutions in the media economy. That did get picked up by a number of people in the photojournalism industry. If I’d just been in the university writing about these things, I’m sure they wouldn’t have known or come asking.
Abundance v front page: accessing better quality information
NFS: In Fred Ritchin’s latest book, “Bending the Frame”, there is this crunch point where he seems to be lamenting the loss of the front page. How do you understand this perspective?
DC: Yes. Well, I’ve written a review of Fred’s book for Source, the Irish photography magazine, and published that on my blog. I’ve talked about this quite a bit. I was part of those ‘what matters’ discussions that Fred curated at Aperture in 2011. I was part of Stephen Mayes’ group for that, because of some similarity in thought, I think. The front page idea is the one that I am most critical of in that book. Because I do think it’s a slightly conservative lament. I also don’t think that the front page has disappeared in the way that Fred thinks it has. We can think of any number of issues domestically and internationally which come to dominate at certain points because media organisations put resources into the story. It’s just that the front page is not a single printed page anymore. It is subject to flux and change across the networks on the Web. I think the benefits of todays more open ecosystem far outweigh any potential losses.
So, sure, we can say that Facebook’s full of stuff that’s not very important or BuzzFeed has a number of cat videos at any one time, etc. But there’s so much more stuff out there circulating. As a researcher and a consumer, I have access to higher volumes of better quality information than ever before.
NFS: Absolutely. I think the idea around the front page also returns to the debate about gatekeepers. It is noticeable through the NEWFOTOSCAPES conversations that often the word ‘image’ is used to replace ‘photograph’ when seeking to create a distance from analogue references. ‘Image’ can perhaps be perceived towards the now, the image as a continual experience, in motion, viral with its context unlocked via a simple gesture. Acceptance of this view seems to raise anxiety within the professional photographic world, how do you deal with the notion of abundance in this new landscape?
DC: Yes, I thought this was probably the time to discuss that. Because the lament for a front page is something that always occurs within the context of an anxiety about abundance. I think this anxiety is way overstated. I think we confuse the numbers about the global production of imagery from the current 2.5 billion smartphones with cameras with the numbers can do or do see. There’s no question that more images are being made by individuals; they’re uploading them to various networks and platforms. But they don’t all wash over us.
What happens is these images fill up global reservoirs. These are the reservoirs comprised of Facebook accounts or Snapchat messages. Facebook now has – off the top of my head – some 200 billion images on their servers that people have uploaded. They’re being uploaded at more than 300 million a day. But the point is, actually, most of those are hidden from me, because I’m not friends with all those individuals who’ve uploaded them. So they can’t wash over me, so they can’t be a flood, so I can’t be a victim of this visual tsunami of 200 billion images on Facebook.
So I think there’s just a fundamental error there. Facebook is a reservoir of images, but it’s not something that floods over me. We can say that about a whole host of sites.
I don’t see Instagram images unless I make a decision to have an Instagram account, have an app on my phone and then decide to follow a series of individuals. So if I feel flooded, it’s because I’ve turned on the tap. We forget that series of conscious decisions.
This is why I think that front page debate is interesting. Because it suggests that we’re completely out of control, overloaded, overrun by imagery and we what need is someone or something saying, “Please, plant the flag one more time and fix something in this total environment of fluidity.” But if you don’t think that actually things are that fluid, or as fluid as that picture paints out, then the desire for the front page is actually not quite so strong.
So for me, the landscape looks different to this anxiety about the flood and then the lament for the front page. It’s more open; there’s more information. But there’s actually a lot more solidity to some of these networks than those analogies would suggest. Information is still aggregated for communities to see, hear and read.
NFS: What that scale of numbers does offer, is actually more indicative of people’s engagement with the visual and maybe visual language. It is very easy for professionals, or educators within photography, to offer the tsunami argument as a way of demeaning its value as a defense mechanism. But the reality of what’s taking place has more to do with visual literacy which surely we should see as a great sign for photography.
DC: Absolutely. This is one of those things where I think if you understand these ‘-scapes’ and this landscape a bit differently, then as a professional practitioner you understand your position probably a little bit more positively. Because if you think that what’s happening is we’re all victims of this flood, then what you’re saying is, “I can’t get my important story above the waterline for people to see. Therefore this issue is lost.” I don’t think that’s the case at all. If you think that what this demonstrates is that people love images, and the visual is really inherent in the social, so that being social now is about being visual. Then you’ve got a massive potential audience.
NFS: But through these networks we have more opportunities to motivate and as an audience we can also become more active in our engagement.
DC: Absolutely. So here the important thing is a distinction between potential and actuality. The potential is what’s huge. Whether you realise that potential is up to a whole series of decisions and things, some of which you control, some of which you don’t control. The actuality will always be smaller than the potential. But that doesn’t mean that the potential is not enormous. That potential is something that you didn’t have to that extent previously, before digital technologies and new platforms.
NFS: Fred Ritchin also suggests that serious imagery tends to get lost in the ever-changing internet environment. Which would seem to be at odds with the achievements of photographers such as Tim Hetherington? In your post on his legacy, you referred to the following quote in Michael Kamber’s article, “If they have a desire to be professional in the sense of they make a living through what they do, you have to navigate through the business side of things. But if we see ourselves merely as photographers, we’re failing our duty. It isn’t good enough anymore just to be a witness.”
DC: Yes, definitely. There are so many tragedies associated with Hetherington’s untimely death. But one of the big ones that I feel is that we lost a major practitioner voice who was amongst the most creative for thinking about these things differently. I’m not sure they’re too many that have stepped up to take that place. So many people actually misunderstood that statement he made that we’re now in a post-photographic world. They thought he was dismissing still photography. It missed the point entirely about the image, communication and storytelling. But that is why – we touched on this point earlier – in the World Press Photo report we moved to the idea of visual storytelling as kind of a rubric. We wanted to locate things into that much larger space and zone.
New commentaries and critical thinking
NFS: In a recent twitter conversation, with Joerg Colberg, John Edwin Mason and myself, on the context of whether or not with smartphones we were now seeing a democratisation of the image you proposed that we are still in the 20th century. What did you mean by that?
DC: I don’t think there’s much value in saying it’s definitely the 20th century or definitely the 21st or the 19th or whatever. But it is much more interesting to think about those particular moments, like that Kodak moment, as doing it in a particular way. A book I want to go back and read is Bourdieu’s book on photography as a “middle brow art.” There’s surprisingly little attention to that book, actually. Maybe when I read it again I’ll discover why. But certainly in the context of what we’re thinking about now in terms of smartphones, I’m surprised we haven’t gone back to that one a little bit more. Because I think, as I understand it, it is talking about those vernacular practices and the more everyday prosaic use of photography.
So yes, I don’t want to be invested in saying democratisation occurred at a particular time. But nonetheless, there are some moments that I think are significant in that. The Kodak moment is definitely a significant one, and the smartphone one is another one.
But there are these lines, aren’t there, that crop up in articles or conversations? It’s like, “We’re all flooded by images.” Then that’s always usually accompanied by, “We’re all photographers now”? I like the Francis Hodgson line, which is actually, “No, we’re all camera operators, but not everyone’s a photographer.”
I think that it is still important to understand that professional practice or people who are really skilled at creative practice have different skills to anyone who’s just pushing a button on a smartphone. I love that line about “We’re all photographers now,” because I look at the pictures I take, which are absolute rubbish, and think, “Well, actually, you know what? It’s not easy to take a good photograph, no matter how good a DSLR you’ve got.”
NFS: But it is also about its use within a particular critical framework. Anyone does have the ability to make a visually and aesthetically pleasing image. Which does takes us back to the importance of purpose.
DC: Yes, I think you’re right. People are very good at being camera operators. From time to time, they take absolutely brilliant images while being camera operators.
But to me, the photographer, and then the photojournalist in particular, is one who will do that over a sustained period of time, with a particular purpose, and has the capacity to construct those images into a narrative to tell a story. That, for me, is actually why a lot of professionals should see this as a moment of even greater potential than they do.
The interesting questions focus on, “What’s the purpose and function of that image and what does it do?” Not “What ontological status or philosophical status does this two sided thing have?”
NFS: I get the sense that you feel the commentary and criticism needs to change? Are you saying that a new text needs to be written?
DC: I wouldn’t say we need a singular text to be written. I’d be happy if lots of people wrote their own singular texts and we brought them into conversation.
NFS: But do you agree, it would be important to make that conversation accessible?
DC: Absolutely. As much as I said earlier sometimes that criticism of academic language is misplaced and we need to struggle with it, you do also have to get it to be as accessible as possible. Some of that stuff isn’t as accessible as possible. You’ve seen a lot of the Twitter exchanges that Joerg Colberg and John Edwin Mason and I have had about Sontag, for example. We are all very tired of the seemingly requisite Sontag quote at the beginning of a photographic review or critique. We shouldn’t regard ‘On Photography’ as this timeless text that’s going to give us guidelines, particularly as a 1977 text, in the contemporary period.
So I’ve started asking people, has someone really written a sustained critique of Sontag on this? Not to bash Sontag, but to actually ask why was she interested in photography? Because she was a writer. Did that give her a particular view on photography that comes out in the book ‘On Photography’? Which I suspect is the case. So I think the critical canon, as it were, does need to be revised. I think new texts need to be written. But I don’t think anyone’s going to write a singular new text that’s going to give us the way forward by itself.
The Sontag one’s a classic case in the way that it constantly gets cited by people who are probably writing about photography for the first time. I don’t want to write Sontag out of the canon. I just don’t want Sontag to be the canon.
Open systems and audiences
NFS: The last question is thinking around this idea of loyalty and community. Because there has been a shift over the past few years, since we first met, – early on there was a sense of social media was the new solution for mass communication, global scalability and commercial success. More recently people such as Richard Stacy suggest that this isn’t really the case, rather social media is more about the personal.
DC: Yes. I think social media’s a bit of a combination of the two. This links back to the idea of the potential and the actuality. What you’ve got with social media is the potential to reach a large audience. The notion of the mass audience is something that I think probably even psychologically constrains practitioners too much. Because they think, “Unless I’ve got a YouTube video with 2 million views, I’m nobody.”
Let’s think back to how many people read newspapers. Then let’s think back to the point that we didn’t know when people read newspapers whether they actually read your particular story in the newspaper. We just assumed that, but that might not be a safe assumption. So what we’re finding out through web analytics now is that there are small audiences for some things and big audiences for others within a site or “publication.” But I suspect that was probably always the case; we just didn’t have the capacity to measure it to the same extent. That’s why I think it is so important to remember the audience for hard news, difficult documentary stories, has always been small, relative to a mass audience interested in other cultural phenomenon. That’s always been the case. But we do have the potential to reach either that specific audience now or make that audience a little bit larger through these social media networks and technologies.
For me, this is where the dynamic of the Internet is so important and why it collapses a number of these positions, one of them being, for example, free versus paid. The Internet does remain a structurally open system, because the Internet – as opposed to the Web – is about connecting computers together. The Web is about a graphic interface that sits on that and organises certain parts of those networks and information in particular ways. So Facebook is a particular graphic way of organising a social community on top of a series of network connections. As long as those network connections remain possible and we have the ability to connect, you or I can go buy a bit of web space and become a publisher, a broadcaster and distributor.
No matter how big Google gets, no matter how big Facebook gets, no matter how much the NSA and everyone else starts surveilling us and so on. If we have that capacity to buy that web space and be a publisher and distributer then we are in the same starting position as Zuckerberg at the beginning of Facebook. I’m not saying everyone ends up with Facebook’s 1 billion users, but that’s one potential. The actuality is what you do to find the audience for the story that you’re telling and you build that particular community around that story and practice. If you do it right and engage them right, you will expand that. But you can only do that if you have a structurally open system which has some capacity for reach.
So it’s not a question of the mass audience versus the niche audience. The niche audience is something that is an aggregation of people in the mass audience. So again, we don’t want to see those two things as opposites. One depends on the other. The potential for a mass audience is the precondition for you actually having a niche audience.