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Content vs Technology

Defining the Contemporary Photographer

“Salvatore Vitale is a Swiss-based photographer, born and raised in Palermo, Italy.” This is what we read in the very first line of my biography. I still find it quite funny to think that these few lines are out and about in the world: a few lines that should explain who I am and what I do, yet which—apart from a few technical details—don’t really encapsulate the complexity of what’s behind them. Particularly when it comes to the word ‘photographer’. I didn’t study photography. The thought didn’t even cross my mind. I never found any old camera in the cellar, and I grew up with that very Italian mentality of ‘study and find a job that allows you to live comfortably’. And that word ‘study’ didn’t include artistic disciplines. Those fell into the sphere (a necessary one, don’t get me wrong) of ‘hobbies’. Many of you probably know what I mean. Being a photographer wasn’t considered a real job. But here is my question: is it today?

I’m not trying to generate a discussion of any kind of absolute truth, nor do I think one exists, but it is interesting how this question is becoming increasingly urgent, present, important. Although I’m more than happy to share my views and my very personal experience as part of the so-called ‘new breed’ of photographers, who find themselves faced with a market at the exact moment when the old order is about to end and a new era is ready to begin, actually, I don’t think this new era has really begun yet. We are in the midst of change and, as many of you have already found, it is all very complex.

Let’s start with a working definition of a photographer: ‘The photographer is a person who produces photographs, for professional reasons or for pleasure, using a camera.’

If we analyze this, we quickly realize how the idea one has of the photographer, even though it seems to be based on a solid foundation, can easily be called into question, and encounters a number of problems. Take the idea of ‘producing photographs using a camera’, for example. These days, it is quite incontestable that production occurs primarily and purely using a camera. In the digital age (with manipulation software, rendering, Google Street View, and smartphones) we are surrounded by devices capable of producing images that are not necessarily based on the physical principle of capturing and imprinting light. Photography continues to mean writing with light, but even that is no longer so obvious. We live at a moment in history when we are questioning the cornerstones of photography. We talk of post-photography, of the digital revolution; we discuss definitions and labels, and the increasingly blurred line between art and photography, and even between art photography and photojournalism—but we are still struggling to understand where all this will lead to.

To a large extent, the issue focuses on the technological means of photography, and one thing is for sure: we now truly realize that photography has always depended on technology. It is precisely to throw off this dependence that I think it best to avoid the hyper-conservative approach that has often characterized photographic production, and to embrace new languages that focus on spreading the message, and not only on technology. As Alec Soth suggested when I interviewed him not so long ago: “I’m more interested in the content and the expression than in the technology.” In this new era of mass-production, perhaps even more than in the past, the balance between research, language and storytelling—the supporting elements in the construction of the message—is what enables the work to stand out. Telling stories—in a more or less complex way, more or less journalistically or artistically— has always been an integral part of the work of the photographer, and so an extension of our working definition.

But let’s move forward with our analysis. “Both for the profession and for pleasure.” There is no doubt that photography has become a social activity, not only (as in the past) at the moment of use or sharing (such as a family gathering around a photo album), but now also in production: just think of group selfies (some become true icons), or sharing through various online channels. The democratization of photography has been—and continues to be on its second wave, from smartphones to social media—steady and fast. This has drastically changed the craft of the photographer, who has somehow to be able to co-exist with a vast array of nonprofessional photographers, who constantly produce images and who, in many cases, becomes an actual resource for the market (such as citizen journalists).

I believe it is necessary to take a step back and deal with the issue from a different angle. The photographer is increasingly becoming more of an artist and less of an artisan; not merely an executor, but an author. The photographer explores and interprets reality, searches deep into stories and offers them back in a way that will always contain an underlying subjective reading. This can’t be limited to the simple act of framing, pressing a button and developing a photograph (I like to be romantic at times), but extends to a more complex form of understanding the world around us. Being a photographer means being a professional, being able to make complete research, handle different languages, to analyze and dissect, to go deep. If we want to live from photography today, we can’t accept any kind of dogma; we have to throw ourselves out there, figure out which way to take, follow it, and learn everything we need in order to be able to convey and circulate our message. Choosing digital or analogue, producing photographs or realizing images through screenshots or rendering software doesn’t matter in my opinion, those are personal choices. Who tells you otherwise is probably all about theory. It is clear that we are headed in a completely different direction.

Let’s keep in mind, however, that the market is far from rosy, that competition is fierce
and that space (both in print and in museums, galleries and festivals) is growing smaller and smaller. Many ambitious photographers are conservative when it comes to presenting their projects, offering their work–often free of charge–to newspapers, magazines, or book publishers. “They put their fate in the hands of others and wait,” says Rob Hornstra on his website. “That’s unnecessary.” Today, like never before, the philosophy of ‘creating your own destiny’ is very pertinent. Sometimes we have to be creative in order to find alternative livelihoods: there are many successful examples that bode well. What’s more, photography is one of the few disciplines in which a whole structure of prizes, competitions, calls for projects, grants etc. gives an opportunity for economic support, for the production of personal and long-term projects as well as the promotion of a body of work. However, what counts to me, is to focus on the work and have absolutely no hurry to come up with a product. Haste—often linked to the speed of the social media world—doesn’t bring anything good.

It is stimulating to think that we are more frequently discussing new ways of conceiving installations, exhibitions and publications; new ways of using the tools we have available just to deal with these new problems and/or needs. And that will certainly continue to be interesting for the near future. We are facing an historic transition for a medium that has surely changed the history of humankind and the way each of us perceives the world. So let me end this analysis in a fun way, by offering you my very personal definition of photographer 2.0/3.0/10.0 ….

‘The photographer is a person, especially a professional*, who creates images (interpreting reality) through the use of several languages and tools.’

*Where ‘professional’ implies a certain amount of awareness in those who analyze, explore and interpret in order to articulate a particular view on the world.

by Salvatore Vitale, edited by Rodney Bolt