UK Distance Learning & Publishing have, for a long time, run a very successful Distance Learning Photography Course. It’s always been popular with those who see photography as a serious art form — a view encouraged by our principal course tutor, a professional photographer in his own right who’s had his work displayed in a number of galleries and exhibitions. Indeed, the wider cultural expectation for many years was that photography should be, if not always artistic, at least something that was mostly reserved for capturing ‘special’ moments (weddings, birthdays, christenings).
However, with the rise of the smart phone, a strange shift has taken place in our shared cultural assumptions about photography. Now everyone has a camera with them at all times. It fits snugly in their pocket, and they have an unlimited capacity to share their images across social media. In the first stages of this seismic development in the world of photography, many hoped that it might lead to a widespread democratisation of art. People would be empowered to create art all the time, and at every level of society. The hand that wielded the camera would no longer be that of the expert, but of the everyman.
This was, notionally, the kind of idea that appealed to distance learning and online course providers. Our whole philosophy hinges on the idea that opportunities should be extended to as many people as possible, regardless of their financial position, age, disability, or any other factor that may impinge on their access to the things that others take for granted. So the idea that everyone, not just the ‘experts’ and professional artists would have the chance to make art from their mobile phones seemed fantastic.
However, the problem with this grand vision is that, unfortunately, it never really happened. Instead, the smart phone had become largely associated with one thing: the selfie. Now, self-portraits are of course a vital part of art history — Van Gough in his straw hat and so forth — but they were always just one part of a larger artistic landscape, and they were done with the intention of conveying something deeper than the mere appearance of the artist. Van Gough didn’t just want us to see what he looked like in a funny hat, he wanted to project something of his inner self to us.
Selfies, for the most part, do not do this. They simply show us the face of the photographer, often as a way of demonstrating their participation in a significant event, accompanied by a series of hashtags: #festival, #distancelearningconvention, though I’m not sure why one would admit to attending the latter. The difficulty of this is that it is not art. No matter how many Instagram filters one lays over a photograph of your face, it does not automatically imbue it with any artistic merit – it is simply a picture of your face. A mirror is not art, in and of itself.
That photography, and in particular digital photography, has now become so closely associated with the narcissism of selfie culture is deeply troubling for those who still wish to pursue it as an art form. Courses like the one UK Distance Learning & Publishing run can teach people how to produce photographs that are works of art, but they cannot change the wider public perception of photography’s worthiness as an art form. If it becomes an assumption that photography is only about capturing the surface of events, merely recording our presence, or demonstrating the shade of a new lipstick, or the length of a beard, then it discourages a serious engagement with the form.
My hope is that this is simply an extended fad that will recede with time, and that the focus of those wielding their smartphones at events will turn to the event itself. To capture a band in mid-performance, or a plane in the sky, is of a lot more merit than your own face, no matter how good looking you are (your friends already know what you look like). And beyond this, I dearly hope that we might all then begin to consider the deeper implications behind the images we’re capturing, to begin thinking about them as more than a frozen image of the world, but as something that has the power to tell us something about that world – something new and different.
UK Distance Learning & Publishing will continue to run our Digital Photography course come what may, in as many formats as we can, both online and via paper-based materials, because we still believe this grand democratisation of photographic art is possible.