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Meaningful photography has contributed to society since the late 1800s. The camera (and more importantly, those who use it) record important events throughout history. In modern times topics like climate change, inequality, and oppression are documented by our leading photojournalists and documentary photographers. The problem is, however, that the masses don’t care. They’re much more attracted to less meaningful types of photography. If that sounds like you, I’m going to explain why you’re devaluing the role photography, and why, fundamentally, you don’t care about the craft.
What do I mean when I use the term meaningful photography? I should start by acknowledging that, to some degree, all photography carries a level of meaning. But there’s a spectrum. Some work holds a lot of value, and other work – not so much.
So, what types of photography hold more value and tend to be more meaningful? In my opinion the answer is work that pushes for social change, educates, and gives a voice to those often not heard.
To give you some examples, I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to work with some fantastic people that have created meaningful photography.
Mario Cruz’s Living Among What’s Left Behind was part of our Visual Momentum Series. It focuses on the terrible living conditions for those living by the Pasig River in Manila, Philippines. In 2019, we published Deafening Sound, a powerful project by Annie Flanagan, in which women were documented overcoming domestic abuse. And in a more positive story, Katerina Gregoriou highlighted the incredible strength of women in her series, Shattered Glass. She focused on women working in roles traditionally reserved for men.
Those are just three examples of the valuable photography we’ve published on The Phoblographer. The only problem is, you don’t care about it.
Meaningful Photography vs. What You Care About
Before the above photographers call me in anger, I’m not saying nobody cared about their work (and the similar work like it). The Phoblographer has a global reach, so anything we publish will gain plenty of traffic. But when I compare features that focus on causes to features of a more lighthearted nature, it’s the latter that always does the best in terms of traffic.
By far, my most-read article in 2020 was this. It’s a piece that explores my experience of doing a lingerie shoot and some of the concerns I had about publishing the photos. It’s a good article. I wouldn’t write it if I didn’t think it held value. But when history speaks, it won’t do much in terms of shaping society, unlike the work by the photojournalists I’ve featured over the years.
And that’s just one example. Over my five years writing about photography, it’s been the case that quirky, fun stories will gain more traffic than features I’ve done on powerful and educational photography.
Why Don’t People Care?
Why is that? What makes a person click on something that in 20 years will have little significance, rather than something that could really drive change and open up people’s eyes? Here’s my theory.
Firstly, digesting meaningful photography requires a strong level of attention. The images won’t give you an instant hit. As most photography today is consumed on the internet, where concentration is limited to fast scrolling, it’s difficult for topics that are not instantly obvious to stand out from the pack. That’s why a photo of a female model (instant gratification) is more likely to grab a person’s attention than a photo of an abandoned home in a town experiencing wildfires.
Secondly, it’s the impact of the 24/7 news cycle. Now, more than ever, we’re constantly hit with a cycle of tabloid news stories that are filling our brains with pain and torment. People need an escape, and photography has always been a useful method of soothing the mind. So, when people jump online, they’re more likely going to want to consume some lighthearted photography rather than an in-depth piece that may challenge their values and views on the world.
The second point isn’t giving people a pass. We all still have a responsibility to society to know what’s happening in the world. But with mainstream media dominating the news market, it’s not surprising why people may need to switch off.
Our Responsibility to Powerful Photography
I know some people reading this will be shouting at their screens, “Who is this person to tell us what we should and shouldn’t care about?” And you’re right. I shouldn’t be telling you what you should find important in the world of photography. But I can use this platform to tell you why I feel you should care.
Imagine a world in which photographers didn’t take it upon themselves to document stories that show the world’s troubles and injustice. Think of a time where the only stories we consume are those given to us by the mainstream. If fewer people invest time in consuming meaningful, educational photography, photographers will have less inspiration to do the work.
So I encourage you to continue to spend time mindlessly digesting less meaningful photography on the internet. But I also ask that you mindfully set time each week to look at photography that drives change. We publish plenty of articles of this variety. And we will continue to do this as long as we’re up and running.
If you still choose to ignore important work, then it’s my evaluation that you don’t care about photography. It’s one of our most powerful tools. And if people stop using it to show the truth, then we’ll begin living a lie, and that’s historically never a good thing for society.