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Thursday, 21 May 2009

All Photography looks alike: Stephen Mayes and Self-replicating Pictures

Paul Lowe quotes a fascinating speech by Stephen Mayes, director of VII and recently retired as secretary of World Press Photo. Mayes questions why people photograph in a way that replicates - why do photojournalists photograph like 'photojournalists', why does 90% of their work come from 10% of the world.

By the same token you could ask why do art or documentary photographers photograph like 'art' (with a small a) or 'documentary' photographers? Why does everyone copy each other in other words? As Mayes puts it, photography (he said photojournalism but so what.) "...investigates a very limited series of tropes in a very limited series of visual approaches, becoming a self replicating machine that churns of copies of itself in perpetual motion."

Mayes solution is that people should photograph what intrigues them, what fascinates them, what is personal to them, a point echoed in the piece by Nan Goldin who says, "I think you can only photograph your own tribe."

Which begs the question why do people photograph something that doesn't interest them? What is the point of making a name for yourself from something that holds no interest to you, of doing something just because some German or American or Japanese or British obsessive did it first but in a better way? What's the point of that?

If we do that, we might as well go and work in a call centre or flip burgers because there is more passion and feeling and depth in that than replicating someone else's work and vision, than doing something we have no real involvement with.

The replication is the thing though. Why do we all replicate other people's work? Perhaps one of the reasons is this is what we are told we should do - by newspapers, magazines, our professors and lecturers (they have to do something to keep their students minds of the fact that 90% of them aren't going to make a penny from what they have studied for 3 years), the blogosphere and things like portfolio reviews.

Ah, portfolio reviews. These are expensive things and I can't afford them and don't know if I would want to even if a had that massive bag of £50 pound notes that I still dream of finding some day soon. But if I was loaded and did want to, which I don't, I would make my way to Birmingham at the end of July for the annual Rhubarb-Rhubarb Festival. The reviews costs £460 for 3 days of reviews (that's about 800 of your Canadian dollars). The reviewers come from a variety of sources - magazines, newspapers, museums, galleries, agencies and so on - and are very good, with years of experience and so on.

But at the same time, you do get the feeling the whole reviewing thing is a bit of a Ponzi scheme, a low-key pyramid industry which is part of the self-replicating mass Mayes refers to. And you do wonder about the reviewers and how this reflects back on them, whether at some point the charging for access to opinion will start seeming more of a money grubbing scam for something that once was, and perhaps still should be, provided for free. Perhaps it is less about providing a leg-up for people that can afford it than about closing off access to people who can't afford.

The other interesting thing about the festival is who is booked up - all the gallery/fine-art people are filling their buckets with reviewees with the one of two photojournalistic people, the reviewers with the widest and most profound experience ( Stephen Mayes) surprising free of booking. Mysteries abound!

Anyway, from Paul Lowe's story on the Foto8 blog.

Stephen Mayes gave a valedictory speech as his retirement gift to WPP, beautifully presented and illustrated with over 200 of his own intimate behind the scenes images of the judging process over the last few years. With a wry smile, he offered 3 golden rules on how to win an award at WPP:

Rule 1 Is to enter! Don’t try to anticipate the jury and how they will think, just put in your best pictures.

Rule 2 Bad pictures don’t win. The discussions about winning pictures are always between good pictures

Rule 3 Get published the jury will pull out unrecognised unknown pictures but being a little familiar does sensitise the jury

But of course, he did note that statistically your best chance of winning is if you are American, male and shoot in black and white.

Stephen laid down the gauntlet to the Awards, however, and by extension to the profession, in analysing the trends he has observed over his time as secretary. Quoting one juror as commentating that 90% of the pictures submitted were about 10% of the world, he questioned why most photojournalism investigates a very limited series of tropes in a very limited series of visual approaches, becoming a self replicating machine that churns of copies of itself in perpetual motion, which he described as a ‘feeling that photojournalism, rather than trying to reinvent itself its trying to copy itself ‘, and that the industry is in essence reactionary and unrealistic in its understanding of the changes in global media and society. Too many photographers are ‘reflecting the media not as it is but as we wish it was’ and assuming that it is the world that must come to them, not they that must go to the world. Bemoaning the surfeit of stories about the ‘Dispossessed and powerless, the exotic and anywhere but home’ he encouraged photographers to ‘photograph what really, really intrigues you’, commenting that ‘In general what is really missing in photojournalism is work that is really intimate and personal’.


Stan B. said...

Photo reviews are best when you're first starting out and don't have a clue- and like going to art school, who can afford either?

Rob Hann said...

....... and of course when a photographer is working on commission they're at the mercy of the commissioning editor so the subject matter is largely dictated.

Anonymous said...

I thought the most fascinating point that Stephen Mayes laid down in his WPP 'Jury Chair Departure' speech was one of the items listed in his subjects that rarely, if ever, are covered by photographers and journalists.

He noted that affluent drug users are never the subject of documentary or photo essay. Mayes describes this sub-group as one which has no outward signs of problem; they hold down jobs, they may break the law but do it quietly.

They often have the affluence to protect and/or separate themselves from the source (dealers). Likewise, they have the affluence to manipulate their physical environment, social networks and effectively hide drug activity from those who could or would damage their reputations.

So many photographers use 'making the unseen, seen' as their artists statement and yet here's an area that remains unseen.

Does this mean that it is easier to photograph other subjects, such as war or domestic abuse for example? Or, does it mean (as Mayes suggests) that photographers aren't inventive enough?

This is now of course a challenge for photographers. Do we expect to see white-collar drug use as a pervasive theme for WPP 2010?

Will said...


I normally restrain myself from the "Great post!" variety of comments. But blame this awful month of May (for me), because I'm about to do it.

Between this post and the "How not to photograph" series, thank you so much. And here goes,

"Great post!"

Rob Hann said...

It seems my first post on this subject vanished into the blogosphere. The question of self-replicating pictures is an interesting one. Of course it's extremely rare that someone comes up with something original. I find that I'm influenced by stuff that I like and I can often see that influence in my pictures. I do photograph things that fascinate me and every now and then make a picture that doesn't remind me of anything I've seen before. That's when I feel I've got something that is mine. I'm actually planning a little project that on the face of it will be of little interest to anyone but me. The challenge is to make it beautiful and to make it interesting enough that other people will get it. I'll find out if I can do that. Your blog is always thought-provoking Colin and is consistently one of the most interesting things I come across.

colin pantall said...

Stan - indeed, who can afford either - that's why people get into debt. Photography has always been a rich man and woman's game with a little nod here and there to the impoverished photographer - the ones who do all the poor drug user pictures. Why no affluent drug user stories, Pete - with the poor 'bad-drug' users is it really the drug use that is being photographed or something else? There's always the question, which we so often don't get to, of what we say is being photographed is not what is really being photographed - dishonesty lives amongst us.

Thanks Will and Rob - I think the point might be to photograph exactly as you are doing, Rob - what interests you, what fascinates you, what you love, and that way originality and insight might come. And if it doesn't, well at least you have an emotional involvement in your work which is better than trying to mine the same old tropes some more.

Anonymous said...

"Rule 2 Bad pictures don’t win. The discussions about winning pictures are always between good pictures."

Wow - far from the truth for the '09 competition!