I never carry a camera. I used to boast that I didn’t need to, because whenever I was somewhere a picture needed to be taken, there was always a competent photographer at my side to take it. I was married to a first-class amateur for seven years, and a lot of my sightseeing in the world’s picturesque and interesting places has been in professional association with the incomparable Dominic Sansoni. On wilderness outings in Sri Lanka, too, I have always been able to leave the photo-catching in the practised, unobtrusive hands of others. This has left me free to do what is incumbent on me as a writer: experience the moment with all five of my senses, not just one, recording it holistically and subjectively rather than objectively and in detail – later to write about it and perhaps, if the Muse wills, bring to it some perspective or insight that could never be caught on camera.
|Real photographers can't spell|
In those days, I was always happy to have a photographer by my side. To state the obvious, photographs are useful – for recording events of significance, briefly returning to life the revenants of fond or fervent emotion, acting as a spur or corrective to memory, or conclusively settling an argument. Such things are, or can be, important. But this, of course, was in the days before PhotoShop. Nowadays, photographs, and by extension photographers, cannot be trusted. It may be argued that this unreliability, never perfect in the days of film no matter how the retouchers laboured, may at last have brought the photographer’s art to maturity, for the mission of all artists is to tell the truth by lying. However, it isn’t the new untrustworthiness of photographs that has brought me to resent photography and abhor photographers in general (though there are a few, including the aforementioned, whom I still respect and admire). No, it was the thing which made the trompe l’oeil of PhotoShop possible in the first place, and turned the act of taking a photograph, formerly a considered action requiring time and thought, into a perverse reflex, a nervous tic, a pathological symptom. It was the replacement of film by digital image capture as a recording medium.
Yes, I know you can do wonderful things with digital cameras. The pictures they take are now almost as good as the ones taken by film cameras – better, for all I know, since technology marches on and I have had better things to do than pay attention. Moreover, these pictures, being recorded merely as bits of information, can be stored, transferred, processed, manipulated and reproduced in their millions with the greatest of ease. The revolution has been total. Hardly anyone, barring a few specialists, purists and fanatics, uses film nowadays. An entire industry – photo processing and printing – has crumbled to dust, and the shops (‘studios’ in Ceylon patois) that used to engage in it have vanished from the high streets of the world. Not that I miss them, particularly; I don’t suppose anyone does, apart from the poor saps who made a living out of them. It isn’t nostalgia that makes me mourn the disappearance of film, it’s the offensive ubiquity of photography and photographers that digital technology has made possible. When Sting made that comment about ‘too many cameras and not enough food’ thirty years ago in Driven to Tears, he was really complaining about something else; digital photography was in its infancy back then. But the remark acquired greater pungency after its advent: there are many, many more cameras today than there were in 1980, and as for the food – we’re it, and they’re fighting over us.
|Kalpitiya sunset by reformed former |
shutterbug. Yes, it's a great shot.
In the days of film, the chances of this kind of thing happening to you would have been low, unless you happened to be sharing some well-trodden beauty spot with a pack of Japanese tourists. Film cost money, you see, and you didn’t want to waste it. You took thought before you took a photograph. With the advent of digital image capture, this economic disincentive has vanished. It now costs as much to take a thousand photos as it does to take one, so people do. Everybody is doing it. And – let’s be fair – everybody is probably a slightly better photographer as a result, because practice always makes for improvement, even if it does not always make perfect. But this is of no consequence, because the high tide that lifts all boats also lifts the bar, so to speak, and no relative eminence is gained by anybody. Instead, what has occurred is a kind of creative inflation, in which the currency of the image has become devalued.
|A better photographer than he looks, |
not that he looks bad
In the years since that distressing event at Kalpitiya, everyone, it seems to me, has become a photographer. Nearly every young person with creative pretensions carries a camera these days, and many of them plan, sooner or later, to make a living out of the pictures it takes. The poor fools have forgotten the basic economic law of supply and demand. When taking pictures is as easy as raising a camera to your snout and pushing a button, pictures become as common as dirt, and about as valuable. This is something I can vouch for at first hand, because I work in a media-related business that uses both stock and commissioned photography. We simply aren’t willing to pay as much as we used to for good images, and sometimes we aren’t willing to pay at all, because there’s so much usable stuff available out there for nothing. The glut of photographs, of available photography, is putting the professional photographer out of business. Why bother with them and their inconvenient, expensive demands, when photography has become commoditized?
As for me, I remain a lover of good photographs, which I believe have nothing to do with the subject of the picture and everything to do with the person taking them. There will always be those who bring something unique and worth having to the art of photography. The present ubiquity of shutterbuggers will not significantly increase their number, however. Nature, or providence, or chance or what have you, doles out talent with a parsimonious hand. I know a handful of young photographers with genuine talent; one of them was among the posse who so annoyed me at Kalpitiya (and has since returned to that location with exquisite results), another is this guy. Both of them are currently engaged in discovering how hard it is to make any kind of living at photography nowadays, even when you have genuine ability – and neither of them seems to have yet mastered the essential trick of getting out of the way of their own pictures. Still, they’re well ahead of the pack. My advice to them is: go out and murder as many shutterbuggers as possible. In doing so you will revive the market for quality professional photography, and you will also make one cantankerous old scribbler very, very happy.