Spring 2011 | Online Exclusives

An Abundance of Images: Is It Leading to a ‘Trivialization of Photography’?

Words and Photographs by Pablo Corral Vega
All photographs by Pablo Corral Vega, from the books “Andes” (National Geographic, 2001) and “25” (Latina Editorial, 2007).

As in the iconic scene from "The Wizard of Oz," the curtain obscuring the secrets of photography has been pulled back. The wizard, the alchemist, the powerful conjurer of images, the artist of light and shadow is shown to be just a man. His old tricks no longer amaze anyone.

This is an extraordinary moment for photography but a terrible moment for photographers. Photography is the undisputed language of the 21st century, but it is increasingly difficult to be a professional photographer, to make a living from photography. We lost our monopoly on the image, the secrets of its magic.

Este artículo está disponible en Español.Never before have so many people had access to a camera. There are now billions of cameras built into cell phones—a phenomenon that only began in 2000. This radical democratization of photography is not happening only in developed countries; there are large populations of people with limited means in India, Africa and Latin America using these cell phones.

According to Ramesh Raskar and his team of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in less than a decade only a few professionals and serious amateurs will use dedicated cameras because improved quality in cell phones will make almost all traditional cameras obsolete.

Prior to this proliferation of digital imagery, professional photography was the stronghold of a few who possessed expensive equipment that was difficult to handle. Only those who knew what sort of film to buy, how to expose it correctly, and which specialized laboratories would develop it properly could produce truly high-quality work. The floor has fallen out from under professional photographers; the zealously guarded advantage held by those with arcane know-how simply disappeared. Anyone can now buy the same reasonably priced camera professionals use, and without significant effort achieve technically similar results.

The most radical transformation isn't the way we capture images, but how we share them. Previously we had to print pictures on paper—an expensive process—and then we had to get the physical object to other people. This limited the uses and the potential viewership of the images. Now we can make endless digital copies of our files. We can send our photos via e-mail, put them on Flickr, add them to Facebook, or create exhibits with online gallery spaces like deviantART. Of course, now we can also make prints in sizes and on surfaces that were previously unimaginable.

This tumultuous change is reminiscent of what happened after the invention of the printing press in Europe. Before, only a few could read and write. Printing democratized the written word, pulling it out of the erudite confines of the monasteries. Writing came to be used for countless everyday purposes.

The language of the image, which was dominated by a few, will come to be used in unexpected places and to fulfill unexpected social functions. Its increasingly widespread use will bring more power and vitality to the image and to society.

But this process will necessarily lead to the trivialization of photography. We are already inundated with images, and it is difficult to recognize the few that evoke or transform, the pictures that have something to say, that are loaded with meaning. There are many such images, without question. But now it's easier to view and share photos. There are many more of us helping to create this visual heritage. But to find those extraordinary images, which have the capacity to become personal or collective symbols, a sort of quiet is needed. That quiet is, itself, becoming increasingly scarce. It is easier to save every photo, share every photo, even if we end up flooded, overwhelmed by the excess.

As professional photographers, we must use this crisis to regain our humility and ask ourselves a basic and urgent question: Why do we take photographs? Money or fame certainly will not be reasons to follow this path. I wonder how many professionals will be able to continue making a living with this work.

Most of us take pictures because we want to remember, affirm affections, and leave a record of our connections with others, visible proof that we were, we loved, we celebrated. Some take photos to show beauty, asking others to look with amazement at this complex world—at once painful and wonderful. We take photos because we want to share, because we want to tell others, "Look, pay attention, my eyes enrich yours."

My reasons for taking photographs are quite simple. I take pictures because it makes me happy. Photography has taught me the immense value of being present, being where I am, and paying attention to what happens around me. The camera is a bridge that connects me with everyone else, a passport that allows me to enter other cultures, other worlds.

The magic of photography is perhaps simpler than we thought. It requires no powerful equipment or secret alchemy. It is a language, like others, to talk about what it is to be human. It is a way to recognize one another, to remember the importance of seeing with kindness and poetry.

Pablo Corral Vega, a 2011 Nieman Fellow, is an Ecuadorian photojournalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine. He has published six books of photography, including "Andes," for which he traveled the length of the mountain range and took many of these photos. He is founder and director of Nuestra Mirada, a network of Latin American photojournalists, and organizer of Pictures of the Year Latin America Visual Journalism Contest. This essay was translated from Spanish by Ted O'Callahan, a freelance writer and translator as well as an editor for the Yale School of Management's Qn magazine.

9 Comments on An Abundance of Images: Is It Leading to a ‘Trivialization of Photography’?
Rena Silverman says:
June 17, 2011 at 11:19am
At the very least, professional photographers with exceptional talent will be recognized naturally amongst all of us amateurs. In some ways this is a chance for those talents to emerge. At the end of the day, it's about quality of image. Additionally I wonder if this will create a spike in abstract photography. Rena
leon dale says:
June 16, 2011 at 1:21pm
This article and the resulting comments were an interesting read. I'd just like to point out that conversation has hovered around the capture of images and moments. phone cameras do little to impact the world where we 'Create' the photo. getting the MUA, Hairstylist, wardrobe, concept, location, model together is part of a photographers skills and is not impacted from cell phones. Smaller effect is had on retail photography and even smaller effect in advertising where the quaility of the products presentation is of utmost importance. And even if you could use a phone to do the job, photography is more than taking a photo, it's setting it up, it's working a team, it's imparting style, message and branding into a photo. phones won't affect that. www.leondale.com
Sensel says:
June 15, 2011 at 3:17pm
Most people can drive a car and many people rebuild and collect cars. But far less can race a car and even less can design a car. Just because you have a car and can drive it, does not qualify you for the Indy 500 or a job at the BMW design center. The mind and ideas of the photographer are what matters. Not the gear.
Bogdan Radu says:
June 1, 2011 at 4:44pm
The more dreck is available out there the better my photos look to my clients. The abundance of image capture device has however the unbeatable advantage that ANYONE can break a story. Abu Ghraib would have remained a secret without those crappy, grainy pictures. Just my two cents...
David Campbell says:
June 1, 2011 at 9:12am
The professional anxieties expressed in this piece are real. The idea that it is the abundance of images which is behind them strikes me as nonsense. Without question the old ways that ensured some pros made a good living a falling away, but the drivers of that change are many and varied, with the failure of media companies to adapt to changing modes of distribution prominent amongst them. The proliferation of consumer-oriented camera phones wouldn't rank high in the causes for change in the media economy. I think this analysis collects too much under the single label of 'photography', eliding distinctions between professional and amateur, and the vast range of different functions that photographs perform. A person making a camera phone image of a social events is seeking something very different from an image than a documentarian constructing a story about social issues. It is striking that the importance of the story is absent from the reasons given for taking photographs. The author claims that "anyone can now buy the same reasonably priced camera professionals use, and without significant effort achieve technically similar results." Technically similar perhaps, but even that massively overstates the role of the camera in the production of an image, and undercuts the skill and experience required to produce a compelling visual narrative. While some Flickr streams might contain individually interesting images, the idea that they stand comparison to the archives of photo agencies when it comes to representing important issues is a stretch. Quality is no more difficult to recognise than it ever was. My view is the reverse of this argument - the abundance of images both enhances and promotes the role of professional photojournalists and documentarians. The heightened cultural significance of photography creates a space for those who want to present complex stories through visual representations. How that work gets funded and rewarded is undoubtedly a challenge. But its not a task compromised by the proliferation of camera phones.
Phil L says:
June 1, 2011 at 8:43am
"This is an extraordinary moment for photography but a terrible moment for photographers. Photography is the undisputed language of the 21st century, but it is increasingly difficult to be a professional photographer, to make a living from photography. We lost our monopoly on the image, the secrets of its magic. " Just because a person has a camera, does not make them a professional photographer in the same way that if someone has a pen or a word processor they are not automatically a novelist. The difference is that the professional photographer can use his/her view of the world, education, access, and technical know how to approach a subject. This is not something that anyone with a camera can do. In regards to the photographic market being saturated and "trivializing" photography, as always the role of the picture editor will be crucial in sorting from the "noise" the relevant images that communicate an important message.
Roger Coulam says:
March 18, 2011 at 1:04pm
I agree that this is potentially a terrible moment for professional photographers who will see their incomes continually eroded. There is a growing acceptance of technically poor images, in a marketplace already over saturated with them. Market greed also dictates that they want pictures for free, and there are plenty of people to give them exactly that. It is however a good time for amateurs who are less bound by technical constraints and the need for high levels of craft.
Dan Nguyen says:
March 16, 2011 at 2:07pm
Yes, but do most consumers care? Immediacy and "being there" counts most. So cameraphones will most likely always capture the first (and only) image of the incident, and if the subject -- regardless of the skill of which it was captured -- is compelling enough, that initial image may be the only one that readers see, and that online publications will use, in lieu of paying for another photographer to either capture a similar (but far better looking) image, or to even capture followup images. Double-ditto goes for videography.
Robin Croft says:
March 16, 2011 at 10:45am
The cameras in mobile devices actually pose very little threat to serious photography. The small lens size and apertures dictated by the device parameters mean that the cell phone camera is only really suitable for capturing a very limited number of shots - for example landscapes. Increasing the number of megapixels is irrelevant: a professional camera, in the hands of an artist, gives endless possibilities in terms of depth of field and framing, light and dark, sharp or soft focus, etc. Most of this is impossible with the mobile device. It is not as if technology can change this - the limitations are imposed by the laws of physics. What may happen, though, is that amateur photographers will start to realize the technical limits imposed by their mobile cameras and will then experiment with the real thing - discovering how to create pictures that engage with viewers through manipulating depth-of-field, shutter speed, focal length, and other choices. Using the camera on a mobile phone is like giving an artist a pencil and a piece of paper: it is perfectly possible to produce some great art with these, but the range of possibilities is limited. But having achieved impressive results with paper and pencil, the artist may be drawn to explore a wider range of materials.
Submit a Comment
Enter the words above: * Enter the numbers you hear: *
Switch to audio Switch to image
Thank you for your comment. It will be published after it is approved by an editor. Read our comments policy »