Since the advent of the internet, smartphones and social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram, today’s photography market is undoubtedly saturated. Every pocket contains a camera and everyone accesses platforms that reach hundreds, thousands and sometimes millions.

All it takes is a few taps to take a photo and share it instantly. Every photographer’s purpose, time spent and audience varies. Critics contend that the ease of accessibility undermines professionals and devalues the art regardless of use. Others say that notion is a cockamamy rationalization for not staying on top of the game.

The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. However, the proliferation of photography does raise troubling questions about the role of ordinary people in visual media and their effect on public discourse.

Everyone is a photographer

A blond-haired man in a brown shirt holds an iPhone to take a selfie.
Photo by Benjamin Pecka

Selfies taken in the mirror or with a mobile device held away from the face is typically the most common use of camera technology. In combination with instant sharing on social media, this led to the proliferation of self-expression in photographs. It is also an entry to more-involved projects, with many people claiming that getting into photography is a life-saver.

However, critics are right to voice concern over its proliferation in the digital age. According to Susan Sontag, in “On Photography,” the notion that the camera does not lie is problematic. Photographs are automatically given authority and many do not question what they see. They are proof that something happened. For example, selfies and family photos prove that we went on that vacation or did something amazing. In reality, images are still  interpretations because of the person behind the camera chooses what to include, which subjects photos to bias and misrepresentation.

Semiotics — “the science of the signs” — are symbols contained within images that denote specific meaning. No two people understand signs in the exact same way, but objects carry cultural significance and guides the audience’s interpretation of the creator’s message. Including (or excluding) symbols sometimes manipulates viewers without the need to make digital alterations in Photoshop.

In other words, that Instagram celebrity you follow probably does not live a life of luxury. Carefully crafted images cultivate an intentional image that may or may not represent real life.

Everyone has a platform

A crowd is gathered in front of a speaker at the Minnesota State Capitol plaza.
St. Paul, MN. Photo by Benjamin Pecka

Platforms like Instagram and Twitter make it easy for anyone to potentially reach millions with their photographs. While most sharing is innocent self-expression, the speed at which information spreads on the internet has serious implications. False information proliferates faster than it is possible for independent sources to verify and rebuke bogus claims.

These roots did not just start growing, of course. Imagery has a long history of deception, most notably in the realm of advertising. Sut Jhally, in “Image-Based Culture: Advertising and Popular Culture,” explains that advertising “talks to us as individuals and addresses us about how we can become happy.” Essentially, marketers commodify identity to say that happiness does not come from within; happiness comes from buying something.

That simple and effective deception uses imagery to promote consumerism. However, along with the proliferation of camera came the advancement of digital manipulation tools like Photoshop. These tools are increasingly user-friendly, which increases the likelihood of deception.

Elitist photographers complain about untrained amateur photographers disregarding visual theories and compositional techniques like depth cues and framing. However, it is the manipulation of images through advertising, memes created to disinform and digital alterations that truly threatens to devalue the art of photography.

Everyone is a [photo]journalist

Members of the media - professional, freelance and citizen journalists - surround a confrontation with the mayor of Minneapolis at a press conference.
Minneapolis, MN. Photo by J.D. Duggan

Visual literacy is also important because ordinary citizens increasingly contribute to the news-gathering process. First-hand coverage of events lends for more intimate and detailed coverage; it also helps hold traditional media outlets accountable for their reporting. These are excellent benefits but it also allows detractors to spread false information during unfolding events.

Jhally states that while the public can read images quite well, actual visual literacy levels are low because we largely do not know how to create images. To counter this problem, he suggests that “basic coursework in photography and video production should be required education” in schools.

It is not a coincidence that this website focuses on building visual literacy and media skills.

Do saturated markets devalue photography?

In short, the answer is “that’s not the right question.” There are matters of higher concern that threaten photography’s credibility. 

In our estimation, more casual photographers should become amateurs should become enthusiasts should become professionals. New technology demands responsible and informed content producers who remain vigilant and well-versed in the latest forms of technology. A visually and technologically literate populace is necessary to healthy-functioning democracies and resolving social and political woes.

Professionals who claim advancing technology in the hands of the untrained devalues photography are self-interested; they are protecting their business. The Information Age demands everyone be [photo]journalists and everyone needs to start somewhere.

Amateurs siphoning business from professionals is the least of our worries.

JD Duggan contributed to this article.

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