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Open Minds and Changing Roles

Finding New Opportunities for Photographers

Photo by: Mingwei Li via Unsplash

The world is an increasingly visual place. As we all know by now, the rise of mobile phones and social media has moved us into an era where imagery is everywhere and everyone is a photographer, sometimes making it harder for professional image-makers to break through the noise. Many people have dedicated their lives to the craft of image making and now find themselves asking, “what next?”. As photography professionals, we have to understand that our role within the industry is changing, and, to me, it’s a more exciting time for imagery than ever before.

I spend quite a bit of time throughout the year attending conferences about photography, and since working at Google have expanded my conference circuit from conferences about image production to conferences about image understanding and impact (LDV Summit, Venturebeat AI Summit). These conferences focus on such issues as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and how it can benefit various industries. The conferences also regularly discuss and showcase the advances we’re making in a variety of job areas as a result of image intelligence. Timnit Gebru, a postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft Research, in the FATE (Fairness Transparency Accountability and Ethics in AI) group, has analyzed Google Street View photos to predict the demographic of any given area. And Ramzi Rizk, EyeEm’s CTO has helped advance their products image technology to produce search results specifically geared towards a brand’s image guidelines. Technology is being used to help identify and explain the world around us in new and exciting ways.

We have to be more flexible, adaptive and open-minded to the opportunities before us

So, what does this mean for photography professionals? It means that there are several areas in which imagery is being utilized where it’s never been utilized before. We have to be more flexible, adaptive and open-minded to the opportunities before us, and that may mean that some of what you do as an image-maker is to help others understand the impact of imagery.

No matter what industry is utilizing images, and regardless of how they’re utilizing them, one thing rings true: images tell a story. In the case of Gebru, who stripped Google Street View photos to try to determine the demographics of a neighborhood, it turned out the parked cars held the answers to that story. (Parked cars can tell you a lot about a place. Most are there for an extended period and are a good representation of demographic.) If you look at enough of these images over an extended period of time, you can see neighborhoods change and evolve into wealthier or poorer areas.

Another interesting area of image impact is a team that is exploring photos of people who have skin conditions. With enough images and information about a diagnosis and treatment, computers can learn to detect extremely subtle details in the skin which will determine a diagnosis more quickly than a patient who is asked to try various medications.
These concepts might seem too abstract for photography professionals to explore in terms of career paths, but they are just examples of the ways people are thinking about utilizing imagery. Whether it’s a story of a place, an event, a person, a time or a concept, images speak to us. And as image professionals, it’s important that we help to tell these stories and help audiences understand them.

As image professionals, it’s important that we help to tell these stories and help audiences understand them.

In The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens, author and director Stephen Apkon discusses the increased importance of visual literacy. He mentions that as children, the only form we have of communication, up until we’re taught to speak and then to read, is essentially through visual cues. We’re then taught to deemphasize visuals in favor of written text, and spend the next several years of our lives working on understanding meaning behind text rather than meaning behind visuals. But in a world where everyone is connected all the time, regardless of where you are, images alone can transcend language. And the ability to understand those images becomes more important than ever before.

There are no hard and fast rules as to what’s going on in the photography industry right now. You may notice that throughout this piece I’ve used the term ‘imagery’ much more (possibly too much) than photography. This is part of keeping an open mind about what imagery means; how, where and why we produce it, and who we are as image-makers. We’re in a society that is going through a major change in the way we communicate with each other, and our industry is at the center of that change in many ways.

Imagery can be utilized in many different ways, depending on need, aim or context of use. Let’s say you have photos of the Eiffel Tower. Depending on the use you wish to put them to, you may need a different photo. A travel product may want an aesthetically pleasing image that compels the reader to visit. A navigation or informational product may care more about what the surrounding area looks like, showing an image of the place so you know what it looks like when you arrive, or the experience, so you know what to expect when you get there. A friend may prefer a selfie or a social post that shows the view of or from the Eiffel Tower. None of these are wrong ways to use images, they’re just different styles of communication. It’s almost as if the social post or quick image text is slang, the navigation is daily communication, and the travel image is proper English. Of course, not everyone speaks English and similarly with imagery, not every use translates across every dialect: image relevance can be regional or localized. A photo of breakfast in the United States doesn’t look the same as a photo of breakfast in parts of Asia. We are constantly connected to each other, but there’s a need for visuals to speak to people on both a global and local level.

In a world where we’re constantly online, visuals help bridge gaps in global communities. We have a choice as image professionals: to dig in our heels and expect the photo industry to function as it always has, or to become leaders in various industries, figuring out how our skills in visual communication can benefit others to help tell their stories. There are so many avenues along which we can take our skills, whether it be working with machine-learning teams to understand how to define quality imagery, working with global companies on strategies for image localization, helping to expand the basis of image recognition into conceptual content, and so much more.
Listing off every opportunity for every image maker isn’t realistic. There is a world of options available as long as you think outside the box, expand your network to new areas and get curious.

By Anna Dickson