Image copyright Eileen Rafferty and used with photographer’s permission
I’ve been thinking, recently, about an exhibition by Eric Kessels called 24 Hours in Photos. (Eileen has written about it, here). It’s a simple idea – Kessels printed out every photograph uploaded to Flickr in 24 hours and put them in a great big pile, in an even bigger room. I haven’t seen the exhibition, but just looking at the images of it is shocking – the sheer excess and superfluity quickly leads to a feeling that adding to the numbers of pictures already out there is a bit pointless. What’s it all for?
It started me thinking about the value, or lack of it, in the plethora of mediocre and sometimes downright terrible photographs that surround us online. The ability to take and share photographs easily and effortlessly has led to a situation where everyone is a photographer. This often gives rise to some disparagement, and even on occasion sneering, from those who think of themselves as ‘real’ photographers. There’s a sense that they’d prefer a situation where only those who’d taken time to acquire the requisite skills could produce photographic images.
It’s easy to feel that there’s just too much photography taking place – or perhaps more accurately, being ‘shared’ – and that we’re being so overwhelmed by images that it becomes harder and harder to sift through them to find something above the mediocre, something worth looking at. And there’s some truth in that, for sure. But actually I’m glad that photography has become something that just about everyone participates in, even if the result is too much sharing of too many poor photos.
Before the advent of largely passive entertainment in the form of TV, video, internet, and so on, people used to do stuff. They sang or played an instrument, they took part in sport, they danced, drew, wrote, crafted and made things. They did it because there wasn’t much ready-made entertainment to hand, but also because there’s a satisfaction to be found in the doing even if the result isn’t that great.
Things have changed. Now, if you’re heavily into music it most often means you listen to it rather than play an instrument or sing; many sports enthusiasts sit and watch rather than play; people who love art go and look at it in galleries but don’t produce any themselves; film buffs have never had a go at actually making a short film. People go shopping to buy hand-made crafts but don’t try learning a craft themselves. Entertainment has become something that’s done to us and for us and not something we create for ourselves.
If you ask a room full of adults if they can sing, dance, or draw, very few hands will go up – there’s an assumption that in order to qualify you have to be able to do these things well. Young children, on the other hand, know they can do all these things and they do do them with a total absence of self-censorship and no assumption that they have to be good at it. Somewhere along the line we absorb the idea that if we can’t do something well we shouldn’t be doing it at all, and the easy solution is to opt out and become a consumer rather than a producer.
When did it get to the point where we feel ashamed to sing or dance or paint unless we’re good at it? Some of my fondest memories of my dad were listening to him play the clarinet. He was a really poor player, but the pride and pleasure on his face when he was giving us his rendition of ‘Stranger on the Shore’ means that that particular song can still bring tears to my eyes. I loved to watch him play, not for the music, but for the joy it gave him to perform it. I’m glad he played anyway even if he played badly, and it was part of what made him the person he was.
My dad also painted. He never did anything original, just made very accurate copies of anything he liked the look of that was contained within a book-sized catalogue of art prints called The Homelover’s Companion. He was good at copying, and he enjoyed it, and many people got pleasure from the resulting pictures. I still have one of them – an oil painting copy of Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral. You could never say my dad was an accomplished artist, but I don’t think the time he spent painting was in any way wasted.
Photography is the one area where people haven’t yet lost their joy in participation, or given up because they’re ‘no good’. One of our removal men took ten minutes to show me every single photo of his two cats that he had on his phone. They were technically awful photos – blurred, focus in the wrong place, all of that and more – but I liked that he’d taken them himself and wanted to show them off. They really meant something to him and I was touched by that.
So when I find myself cringing a bit at some of the stuff I see on online photo sharing sites, I choose instead to be pleased that there’s still one art form that everyone takes part in without embarrassment. Yes, I get tired of the endless, dull, and usually meaningless (to me) photos that we’re surrounded by, and I do think there are too many of them – perhaps we don’t need to share quite as many photographs as we do. But I don’t want to hear someone say, someday, ‘oh no, I can’t take photos – I’m really bad at it – I’d rather just look at other people’s.’