The Photo Vest is a metaphor for toxicity in the photo industry
When I got into the photo industry years ago, one thing really confused me almost as much as how much certain older photographers tend to treat the younger generation of us: photo vests. I’m positive you’ve all seen them: a photographer of a certain pedigree (or trying to show off without having said pedigree) wearing vests that look a lot like safari vests. You know, almost as if they’re going to go out on an African safari at all times without being anywhere near something like a safari. Walking down the streets doing street photography? You’ll see a photo vest. In the studio? Photo vest! Hiking? Yup, a photo vest!
This piece is partially a rant and partially a groan at a culture more or less gone these days but in many ways still persists. I imagine lots of these photo vest wearers hang out on DPReview’s forums sitting there with a photo vest on, freely stating their opinions on how paltry they feel the sample images are, and how terrible one lens is over another. They find something to simply complain about for the reason that they like complaining. And to that end, the photo vest is a proud standard and banner to show off exactly who these photographers are; a very old school idea that hasn’t modernized beyond realizing that not a single manufacturer these days has a product manager that goes to their boss saying, “I’ve got an idea for a crappy camera that is going to make us a lot of money.” But instead, lots of these photo vest wearers still believe this.
Photo vests were popular among many working photographers back when film was king and in some ways they made a lot of sense at a certain spot in the timeline. Needed to get a filter? Or what about changing from one roll of film to another? Or do you need your flash? Well, your trusty photo vest could easily hold all of that. But these days we shoot digital (yes, I shoot film still) and manufacturers have put such a big emphasis on not carrying a whole lot of gear. Digital photography doesn’t require a whole lot of SD cards, changing rolls of film, and in most instances, a flash. If you shoot with a flash these days, chances are you’re doing parties or specifically finding a way to create something in a photo.
Now, for the modern film photographer, many of us completely understand that we can do a whole lot with no more than three lenses. We don’t need to carry all this stuff in big photo vests. Instead we put them into specific compartments in camera bags that keep them organized. We also shoot film in a much different way than those did before us. Instead of machine gun shooting a roll of Superia 800, we’ll take very careful photos when we can. Essentially, we find ways to make a single roll of film go even further.
To that end, we’ve gone towards the trend of using backpacks, messenger bags, etc. Vests, with all their canvas pockets and stains leftover from the burger you had for lunch, just don’t fit into the idea of the modern photographer in the same way that the modern photographer doesn’t tote around a handheld light meter a majority of the time unless they have a good reason for needing it. So why then would a photographer want to wear these vests? What’s the problem with the photo vest? What’s my beef with it? In most cases, it represents ideals that aren’t practical anymore. Instead of making you look like a serious photographer of some sort, you end up looking like something of a cliche that spends more time on the internet than actually shooting and creating.
The vest represents a photographer who:
- Hasn’t modernized.
- Uses that position and age to make it seem like they’re better than the younger generation of photographers.
- Barely knows how to use Instagram.
- Refuses to keep up and refresh their network to survive as photographers.
- Tends to spew negativity towards other photographers out there.
How do I come to this conclusion? I’ve seen lots of it all over the industry. If you think about some of the photographers who wear photo vests often, you’ll probably think about National Geographic and Magnum photographers. But see, those guys have actually done something with their career and continue to do something. The ones that troll? Well, they hide behind an avatar online in order to expunge negativity from their system that simply won’t go away.
The photo vest to me represents the photography troll. And essentially, we’d like you to stop and step into the modern world with the rest of us.