I was recently asked to propose a blogging workshop for photography students. It pushed me to think why blogs should be written and why they should be read.
Blogging tools have developed concurrently with the social media platforms that have permitted our shared glut of imagery. Writers in general have provided context to images for a long time, but I reason bloggers are a new front line in the expanded process.
Here are my thoughts.
The flow of images through our daily lives increases at exponential speeds. Social media, photo-sharing sites with essentially unlimited storage and mobile hardware have created this sprawling (and it could be said, suffocating) visual superstructure.
At 60 billion photos, Facebook has a larger photo collection than any other site on the web. By comparison, Photobucket hosts 8 billion, Picasa 7 billion and Flickr 5 billion. Facebook’s photo data as an infographic.
VIEWING PHOTOGRAPHY IN A POLITICALLY MINDFUL MANNER
What to make of this slew of imagery is something both Fred Ritchin and Joerg Colberg have addressed in the evergreen debate about ‘What’s Next? (for photography)’ now being pressed by FOAM Magazine.
Colberg asks us to think about the meaning of our own digital archives and impress upon them a meaning, perhaps even a strategy. Ritchin urges us to think about making sense of the world through all the images available to us. Both are concerned with us being actors in the real world, and knowing that the photograph plays a part in social/political action and decision.
Will all this media help us understand what we have done to our planet and what we should do about it? Will we want to help? Or will we remain increasingly oblivious, as if we don’t live here but in some virtual spaces? (This is the new immortality – avoiding not only who but where we are.)
So photographs are less useful for evidence, and as a result we are less sure of what is going on in the world. This can be a welcome change – without the photograph’s certainties we are invited to interrogate issues and events, to understand for ourselves.
Photographs, which used to sometimes prod us into action, even revelation, are now the domain of spaces like Facebook for which we repetitively (obsessively?) photograph ourselves so that we look as ‘good’ as we can possibly make ourselves look. The world and we are one, refracted together in a self-portrait.
But the problem is that few are engaged in such reflection, so the world is allowed to evolve without much effective oversight (moral as well as practical). By killing the messenger – the photograph – we no longer have to worry very much about what it has to say to us. In the information age, we are allowed to – even encouraged to – know very little, because knowing without ever doing anything about what one knows is hardly worth the effort.
Instead of becoming a photographer, figure out what to do with the enormous numbers of images – how to find the relevant ones, present them, contextualize them, link them, meld them with other media, use them effectively. This too is ‘writing with light.’
Interestingly enough, these questions tie in with the way the photograph has come under intense pressure, especially in a news-related context, where news organisations, in particular newspapers, have managed to blame photographs and photographers for the loss of credibility brought on by shoddy and superficial reporting. Photographs are not to be manipulated, we are told. Meanwhile the images we see on a daily basis are becoming ever more artificial.
Beyond our status as subjects within – and/or impulsive producers and passive consumers of – imagery, we are also to a very modest extent curators and distributors. In these last two roles, we can add most meaning and most weight. And it can be done through thoughtful and engaged blogging.
I have gone on record as saying the best bloggers writing about photography are those who can be relied upon to filter content meaningfully.
A good blog has a clearly stated goal and delivers accordingly. That’s how I judge success. Some blogs may cast a wide net, others focus on a niche, but in either case a consistent voice will secure the interest of readers. One hundred committed readers are more valuable than hundreds of thousands of browsers and “stumble-upons.” People need to be told why they should look at a picture just as much as they should be told in a lede why they should read a story past the first paragraph.
THE IMPORTANCE OF TEXT
The iconic photograph – that is to say the stand alone image which communicates and resonates – is a rare and, for most photographers, an unattainable thing.
Understood within this context, writing about photography can be of paramount importance. And it can be an act of conscience.
Fine art photographers may argue explanatory text demeans a photograph; Robert Adams insisted that auxiliary captioning proved the image had failed in describing all it need to. But Adams’ is an out-dated philosophy. In current times, when photographs have diminished reliability, they require justification for looking.
During their role as World Press Photo jurors, Broomberg and Chanarin considered a photo of drawing of a battle plan from Darfur sketched into the sand on the floor of a hut, and noted:
Without a caption it is a meaningless squiggle. But together with the explanation the image is suddenly transformed into something truly menacing; a real insight into the low-tech horror of the genocide.
Blog posts can be considered extended captions, highlighting the meaning and purpose of photographs. As such, bloggers’ choices on their subject matter are significant. And political.