Photography is an ever-evolving medium. It is not static, doesn’t stagnate, and doesn’t limit itself to a single set of discipline, use, process, and belief. If you look at the history of photography, you will see how it was instrumental in the many changes in the history of modern visual communication, including visual arts. Its own development was so fast and the breadth of its influence and use was expansive.
Much of the world has also seen a significant change since the invention of photography, a product of the ongoing industrial revolution during that era. The 1800s was a very exciting time. Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands. Slavery was abolished in the British Empire as with the United States. The industrial revolution was well underway. In short, humanity was a witness to some great wonders and advancements in many fields. It was also during this time that the camera was invented and patented.
For me, the most important phenomenon that photography gave was how it helped the way people see things from a different perspective. The camera, through photographs, changed the way we see our world. It helped us transition from a European or colonialist-centric perspective to a broader view and see the world more objectively. We are now the populace that is slowly breaking free from the dictates and confines of religious beliefs and hegemonist culture. Thanks to the camera, people now think more critically than before.
The world of visual communications changed forever after its invention. Before, people travel to see visual arts, and then the camera made it possible for people to see everything without leaving their homes. People used to travel first before one can see visual art. Now the art travels for the people to see. The meaning of an image, which people used to interpret and appreciate in the context of the immediate surroundings, changed to the context of what it means to the beholder and his own experiences. Suddenly, an explosion of a multitude of thoughts and train of thoughts was realized.
Why am I saying all these? Why do I want to put this into the discussion instead of my work on Tuberculosis in jails? The answer is that there is another revolution happening and I do not want to waste the opportunity not to share this realization. And as photographers and visual communicators, we are at the forefront of that revolution.
Our civilization has only undergone three major communication revolutions. The first one that’s recorded in our history is the Cuneiform, the oldest form of writing system known which was first used around 3400 BC. Five thousand years after that came the Heidelberg, in the 15th century. It would later be known as the printing press revolution. This brought about tremendous change in the way we communicate and learn—from science to culture. Information spread like wildfire, paving the way to a more informed and critical human being.
The third one is where we are lucky to be in now. The digital revolution is without a doubt the most significant event since the printing press and arguably marks a much bigger shift in human communication. Unlike the gap between the Sumerian writing system and the printing press, Digital happened in just about 500 years.
The Digital Revolution and Images
Also known as the third industrial revolution, Digital Revolution paved the way for every aspect of our civilization to develop exponentially. This revolution gave us new tools such as the computer, and other electronic devices. On December 25, 1991, the internet went live. The rest was history, or should I say history that we are lucky to be living in.
The Digital Revolution was the greatest thing to happen to photography. Not only because of the invention of cheaper mass-produced digital cameras, but most importantly, it gave way to a multitude of possibilities for us to produce, disseminate, and consume images.
“The use of every type of media has increased over the past 10 years, with the exception of reading.” ~Kaiser Family Foundation
The digital revolution puts image media at the forefront of human communications. The world now sees a massive consumption of media to be informed. A Business Insider report, to date the world is now posting and exchanging a staggering 1.8 billion photos on average every day. It is quite obvious in social media and other social exchange platforms that photos, videos, and other image media are the more common currency compared to words.
The phenomenon was amplified when the world faced a global pandemic last year.
A survey last year by Global Web Index visualizes how we consume media as everyone lives under the current pandemic. They reported that due to the frenzy of Pandemic-induced quarantines, media consumption has seen a massive increase. Especially those who belong to the younger generations.
Online media, as a news platform is now becoming the dominant publishing platform. The big difference from the traditional print platform is that aside from getting more reach, readers can now respond in real-time.
The advent of digital also paved the way for the democratization of the craft. Almost everyone now can afford to have a camera, and at the same time learn photography from the internet. A phenomenon that led to the fall of elitism in photography. We were no longer an audience that used to only feel in awe of the mysticism of how an image was captured or created. We can now take part in the process.
Anyone who says photography or photojournalism is dead, is definitely, and obviously uninformed. Because of the internet, film photography, daguerreotype, and other old forms and photographic instruments used in the past are still alive and thriving.
Along with the explosion of numbers of practitioners and audiences, more people are now more adept at the language of the visual image. Human beings are visual creatures. A large percentage of the human brain dedicates itself to visual processing. With more and more platforms for visual images are now available, our visual language would surely adapt and quickly develop.
Publications must now realize that Visual literacy builds stronger readers, readers who are able to think about texts in numerous ways through a different lens, an important skill for critical readers and thinkers in the 21st century.
A visually literate person can read and write visual language. Just like how we learned to read and write words with the alphabet.
According to Brian Kennedy of the Hood Museum of Art in Darthmouth College, Visual literacy is the ability to construct meaning from images. It is not a skill. It uses skills as a toolbox. It’s a form of critical thinking that enhances your intellectual capacity.
I know this is going to be a bitter pill to take for some people. But in this time and age of our great communication revolution, everyone has to be visually literate. And it will be so, whether we like it or not. It will be a tool, rather than a proverbial “God-given talent.” Or something exclusive only to those who have artistic skills.
Visual literacy will enable us:
To interpret the content of visual images
To examine the social impact of visual images
To be able to discuss the purpose, audience, and ownership of an image
To be able to visualize internally
Being aware of making judgments, about the accuracy, validity, and worth of images
“With the emergence of fake news articles (and photos) and ‘deepfake’ videos on social media within the past 2 years, it is now imperative more than ever to incorporate techniques to teach students how to evaluate images into the classroom. By turning a critical eye toward these types of images and learning how to critically read digital images, students can increase their visual literacy skills and their critical thinking skills in tandem. “
~Dana Statton Thompson (2019) Teaching students to critically read digital images: a visual literacy approach using the DIG method, Journal of Visual Literacy,
Old Models Clinging
This Digital phenomenon is still at its tender stage. As we slowly realize the new better ideas and possibilities, it is still a fact that we are still in a world that is still very much clinging on “tried and tested,” yet old ways. The more the practice is evolving presently, the more we stumble upon realizations of old paradigms that are no longer applicable to our present practice. Especially if it’s in contradiction to current evolved values.
Access and ownership of a photographic camera which in the old days were quite expensive, and was very limited. Making the craft only viable for a few who can afford it. The issue of access was not just limited to camera equipment. But also to opportunities, and those who make it to an equally small number of publications, would naturally stand guard and protect their means of income and fame. I would surmise that this was the cause why this kind of practice rubbed on to many photographers and groups. The practice became a culture.
The industry has to realize that using a capitalist or free trade model in acquiring photographs would lead to its own poverty and demise. Giving photography jobs to the lowest bidder instead of using skill, integrity, proficiency, and professionalism as a bar for publishing photos would certainly lead to the demise of the quality and integrity of images. This would leave the readers and the audience at the losing end. These and many more are also the downsides that our industry still has to face and think of ways to overcome.
The Rise of Awareness, Activism, and Change
With people being more informed and critical, we saw a rise of individuals, groups, and movements who are now marching to ask for change. Naturally, as our technology and know-how advance, and as mindset evolves, we as humans demand better societies.
We now see a rise of more socially conscious photographers and groups. Photographers who are equally engaged in the issues that they are covering, as opposed to just being parachuters. We saw initiatives that turned into movements, like the everyday project that was started in Africa by Peter Di Ocampo.
The everyday project gave birth to dozens of other equally important initiatives around the globe—the everyday climate change, everyday social justice, everyday impunity, to name a few.
But before that, and equally important to note, is that these initiatives are no longer center or based on western white male ideas and efforts. In recent years, we saw photography initiatives that focus on Asian perspectives, like The Invisible Photographer project, perspectives of the female gender by Woman Photograph, and so on.
This revolution led us to realize that there is more to it in photography than just choosing what camera brand to buy and camera clubs to join.
In photojournalism, the present generations are now more intolerant to unethical behaviors and practices in the industry. More are now speaking up on issues especially those that directly affect them, as opposed to an instilled culture of silence and fear in some countries and newsrooms.
If you have come to grasp the value of the digital age, you’d appreciate how promising it is for visual communicators. It is a time of discovery and may lead us to another renaissance.
Coincidentally, I read this on Facebook from one of the commenters of an issue about misogyny in the photography industry which I think is very the very appropriate ending for this essay: Change or become obsolete.
Jes Aznar is a full-time photographer, both as a documentary and photojournalist, currently based in Manila, focusing on Asia and the Pacific. He has exhibited in China, Southeast Asia, Europe, and The U.S. and has won numerous awards including the prestigious SOPA award for best in photojournalism in his coverage of the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan for The New York Times. After working for Agence France-Presse, he dedicated years of his life to document Mindanao in the Philippines in which he was nearly killed in the wake of the Ampatuan Massacre where 58 people were assassinated, including 37 journalists, in one single day. Jes is currently contributing primarily to The New York Times and Getty Images. Nearly two years during the onslaught of the Philippine government’s brutal campaign against drugs, he started @everydayimpunity on Instagram as a platform where we can visually see the consequences of impunity in our society.