When everybody is a 'photographer'

May 27, 2012, 10:22 IST | Dhvani Solani

With every second person owning a digital SLR, the hitherto elite art of photography has today become an easily accessible form of communication and sharing. But does this democracy � even promiscuity � and shared language make the medium better, or dumb it down?

A couple of months ago, our little travel group found itself outside the famed Mysore Palace. The stars were beginning to twinkle down on us, the weather was gorgeous and just a little after dusk, 97,000 electric bulbs that dot the palace, lit up.

Amateur photographer Chintan Bhayani enjoys shooting nature and wildlife. Pic/ Mahesh Chafe

Hundreds of people around us, lounging on the garden lawns and awaiting the spectacle, suddenly sat up wide-eyed. They were stunned for merely a second before they quickly got to the task at hand, fishing out their digital cameras — pocket-sized point-and-shoots or fancier DSLRs — hoping to capture the palace that looked like it was on fire. They saw, but they saw only through their camera lenses. They admired, not the palace but their photographs.

They went home happy. They had a memory safely tucked away in their cameras, their computers, and very soon, on their Facebook page, thoroughly unperturbed that they were ‘there’ for only that fraction of a second before their cameras went on overdrive. They were all photographers, after all, they had a job to do.

Photography enthusiasts purchase cameras at JJ Mehta & Sons in Dadar. Pic/ Santosh Nagwekar

We’re all photographers
Today, photography is more alive than it has ever been. We are going clickity-click all over the place. The cheap availability of cameras, the shift to digital, having one on our mobile phones, free photo-editing software and tutorials on the web combined with a narcissistic desire to share nuggets of information of where we’ve been and what we’ve done through social networking websites mean that there are very few sacred spaces where the phallic camera lens hasn’t penetrated. And everyone, it seems, is calling themselves a photographer.

“These days, people are self-congratulatory just because their pictures are turning out sharper or more in focus,” says Aparna Jayakumar, a city-based photographer who is ‘interested in documenting the lives of different kinds of people’ as the bio on her website reads. “What exasperates me is that people are so quick to call themselves photographers. It took me five to six years before I could call myself one. Label yourself a hobby photographer if you please, but be respectful of photography as an art form.”

Maybe this is where the discrepancy lies. While for professionals, photography remains an art form, for the camera-friendly masses, it seems that photography has transformed into a means to communicate. “I take pictures to document my life and let my world know what I am up to,” says Commerce student Shivani Joshi, whose weapon of choice is her Apple iPhone. “I couldn’t care less about the shutter speed, aperture or any of those technicalities. I shoot because I like to share my life, and because I can.”

We the people
Photography was once largely an elite hobby (or profession) of those who had the kind of family money that allowed them to not slave in a factory six days a week, and still bring food to the table. Equipment was expensive and each shot was composed and mulled over before being executed. Feedback was delayed and professional photographers were few in number. But what happens when participation goes from a select few who have mastered the technique to just about anyone with thumbs?

“Any kind of art is best left open in a public space for anyone to practise,” opines K Madhavan Pillai, editor of Better Photography, one of the leading photography magazines in the country. “The statistics are scary. The number of photographs on Facebook is 20 times the population of the world. All of a sudden, the way we are recording history is changing. At some time, we will have to sift through all that data and figure out what’s important. Having said that, democracy in an art form makes it only better.”

And just like anyone with a Montblanc pen or a typewriter can’t call himself/herself a writer, anyone with a camera is not a photographer, adds photography educationist and ‘anti-fashion, fashion photographer’ David de Souza. “You can call yourself a philosopher or a cricketer. It doesn’t mean anything. The wonderful thing about photography is that you need evidence.”

How original are you?
That seminal moment of the shift from the elite to the masses might have occurred when the prices of digital SLRs started dropping sharply or maybe when cameras were introduced in cellphones. But with that much supply pitted against only so much demand, are full-time photographers viewing the amateur entrants as threats? Because, let’s face it, it’s easier to make a good picture if not a great one, and buyers often need just good enough, not the best. “This will kill the smaller, mediocre photographers for sure,” says photographer, writer and consultant Aneesh Bhasin. “There are so many people out there willing to take up projects for free. But those who are really talented will remain unaffected.”

This ‘dumbing down’ of photography is quite a matter of concern, according to Jayakumar. “The profusion of photographers and the democratisation is a good thing because photographers now have to push their boundaries. However, we lack a discerning eye to separate the good from the amateurish.” Maybe that is why any Instagram-ed picture will catch your attention. “But even on Instagram, I can tell you what is clicked by a real photographer and what is taken by an iPhone user. A lot of people can have access to a medium, but only a few have talent.”

With visual literacy and education, we can change that perception of ‘koi bhi photo kheech sakta hai’, adds Pillai. “You can’t say you take great pictures because you have a great camera. There is a person behind the camera, after all. In fact, today when everybody is taking pictures, your own voice and uniqueness becomes even more important. This is where art really emerges. I can copy a master’s painting, but I am an artist only if I can create something original.”

Weekend revelry
Accessibility and ease of equipment mean that there are more number of people who are picking up the camera over the weekends or when they go travelling. For three years now, Chintan Bhayani, an investment banker during the week, has been nurturing his passion for photography by either walking around the city for some urban photography or carrying his trusty Nikon D5000 and a zoom lens on trips during which he enjoys clicking birds and wildlife.

Friends turn to him for suggestions on clicking and buying cameras. A lot of pointers come from his dad, Dilip, who used to be a professional photographer when he was younger, apart from camera guides and an avalanche of free information on the Internet. “The digital revolution is great for a non-photographer who always wondered how he/she can click better images without investing too much time, effort and money,” says Bhayani, whose interest in photography shot up after he saw images shot by professionals on social networking sites.

If you review his pictures you will find some exceptional shots, including candid ones of his friends or gorgeous landscapes captured over his recent honeymoon. “Even though it has become easier to bridge the gap between the professional and the amateur, there is always going to be a difference between someone who knows and practices his craft and a hobbyist,” he concludes. 

Up, up and away
The folks at JJ Mehta & Sons — where many a Mumbaiite has gone to buy his/ her their camera — tell us that the sale of DSLRs has gone up by a dramatic 70 to 75% over the last couple of years. “Cameras are cheaper, and people have a larger disposable income, hence the spike in sales figures,” says Kartik Mehta, partner at the shop which also has a strong web presence. “Peer pressure is also making people purchase DSLRs. People are buying them because someone they know has one, not necessarily because they understand photography.”

Mehta tells us that the Indian market sold about 3,50,000 cameras last year alone, and that’s just through official channels. The sale of lenses is growing at 80 to 100% too. “This proves that people have started looking at photography as a serious hobby that they can invest in. They combine their weekend hobbies like trekking, travelling or biking with photography now.”

JJ Mehta sells about 250-300 DSLRs a month, with 50% of the market share being that of Canon, and 40% of Nikon. “Even if we look at the worst economic situation, you can be assured of at least 50% growth in the sales of DSLRs in the next three years.” Imagine how many more shutterbugs are being added to the roster out there, as we speak.

Remember this?
The neighbourhood photo studio 
There was a time when all of us marched to the neighbourhood photo studio just before a major event in our lives — graduation, anniversaries or birthdays. We then trembled with excitement for two days before we got our precious pictures. “Today, everyone has at least one person in their family who takes sufficiently good pictures on their SLRs even as the event is going on,” says the owner of a surviving photo studio at King’s Circle. “Gone are the days when we would print vacation pictures. People store them on computers now. Photo studios don’t have photographers who take brilliant portraits. And with the need for such photographers diminishing, many are being forced to take up clerical jobs in offices or are unemployed.” While the sale of small digital cameras was an income-generating mechanism, the invasion of large retail chains selling the latest brands means that no one buys cameras from the photo studio anymore. “We sustain by taking and developing passport photographs, an occasional family album and printing photos on mugs and T-shirts. The family business is dying.”

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