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What Am I? Photography in a Changing World

One need only look on Facebook to see that the world of photography is in disarray, if not utter anarchy. We are living in an era where there are no more pictures to take.

Prometheus, in the form of tech-giants such as Apple, Samsung, and Sony have bestowed upon the masses the gift of the gods, a sacrosanct object that can instantaneously capture and share any and every moment and place. Mankind, reveling in their newfound power, has taken it upon themselves to photograph everything, not once but multiple times. The effect of this process is that anything worth capturing has already been photographed and is available to be viewed instantly, via google images. Why take a picture of the New York City skyline or a sunset over the Palisades if there are innumerable better pictures already? How will your picture be different?

The photographer, thus confronted with the Ecclesiastian dilemma of there being nothing new under the sun, must now set out in search of new territories and techniques if she or he is to be deemed an ‘’artist’’ in pursuit of depth and meaning.

There are three basic solutions to the photographer’s dilemma. The first new school of photography is the surrealist school in which a scene, often a city or natural landscape, is photographed and edited in a certain way that over-saturates color and equalizes highlights and shadows to give the photographs an other-wordly, fantasy-like look. As these pictures are easy to produce, most professionals have deemed them tacky and garish; woe unto any self-respecting photographer who would display such an awful image. The hallmark of this school is its adoption of cutting-edge technology to produce a photograph that looks perfect, almost utopian. Essentially, the images created by this school try to display what “ought’’ to be, how the world should look.

The second new school of photography, and perhaps the one that the reader is most familiar with, is the ‘’instagram-vintage filter-throwback’’ school. You know what I’m talking about, those weird pictures that are artificially faded, discolored, and have the characteristic darkening of the corners photographers refer to as vignette, indicating a low-quality lens. This new school aims to inject a synthetic nostalgia of the past into the present day image. We want to flee the dull, meaningless present in pursuit of a glorified, idealized, and known past. We want a return to the proverbial good ol’ days, best recreated by overlaying a yellow filter, with a splash of over-exposure. This school’s goal is to re-inhabit a flawed, yet comfortable and familiar past.

However, the problem with these two schools is their blatant artificiality; the images are photoshopped and manipulated. They do not try and capture the fleeting beauty of life. Instead they try to synthesize it in a “lab.”

Yet, the third school is entirely different. This third—and more intriguing—school is best epitomized by the project What I Be (and Humans of New York as well).  For those who live under a rock or don’t have Facebook, What I Be is a project by photographer Steve Rosenfield where subjects artfully pose for the camera with their insecurities written on their skin. Each portrait is accompanied by the caption ‘’I am not my _______’’, thus showing that the subject’s struggle with their respective insecurity does not define their identity. A 500 word blurb, written by the subject, accompanies each portrait.

Humans of New York is a blog/Facebook page (and a book) by photographer Brandon Stanton who posts portraits of random New Yorkers alongside a short quotation or story given by the subject, in an attempt to provide a small glimpse into the lives of strangers.

Both projects are part of the third school, the Humanist-Photo-Essay movement, which seeks to create a larger picture out of mini-narratives of individuals, combining portraits of humans and the written word. The phoniness (à la Holden Caulfield) of the first two schools has been roundly rejected, supplanted by a desire for authenticity, meaning, and humanism. Yet, can these works truly be considered ‘’photography’’? Shouldn’t a photograph stand by itself without needing words to explain its subject matter, like Dorothea Lange’s ground-breaking work on the Great Depression? Aren’t these projects photographically unorthodox, as they rely on words as a crutch to tell the story?

The simple answer is yes and no.  This new movement of combining picture and text (Snapchat being its most basic form) downplays the significance of the photograph itself. In What I Be in particular, the words displayed in the image and the words surrounding the image are the primary drivers of the message. They serve as a lens to view the image in a particular way. Without any words, the entire project is nothing special, just a bunch of people (conspicuously missing glasses) staring intently at the camera. This project needs the written word because the insecurities displayed in What I Be are internal problems that cannot be easily displayed through an image. Classical photo-documentaries focused on issues that can be clearly expressed through photography alone, such as poverty. Yet, the subject matter of What I Be, namely the narrative of a human’s complex and multi-faceted inner struggle, is difficult to capture even once on film, let alone for hundreds of different people. The pen, or black sharpie in this case, is necessary to help get the message across.

Yet, perhaps it is entirely wrong to categorize What I Be within photography at all. Photography is fundamentally a subjective, ambiguous art, leaving thoughts, emotions, and ideas intentionally unspoken and unwritten. A photograph retains its power precisely because of its reticence, leaving the viewer with only hints. However, there is no mystery or ambiguity in What I Be; the insecurity and struggle of each person is made abundantly clear through the written word. And that’s exactly the point and the power of the project: to be upfront and honest about the inner demons that haunt us, yet to refuse to be defined by them. More than anything, What I Be is a profile of exceptional individuals brave enough to seek out a forum for expressing their deepest fears. Their eyes ask us to embrace them for who they are. They ask us to be sensitive and understanding of their struggles, and more importantly, about the struggles of others that remain unwritten. Since, at the end of the day, aren’t we all (even institutions) a bit insecure?

The human perspective of Earth and its inhabitants was forever changed in 1968, after seeing a picture taken on the moon of our half-illuminated planet, alone amongst the cold abyss of space. That one photograph redefined our perception of mankind, revealing both its majesty and frailty. That grainy snapshot demonstrates the power of images to change the way we look at the world. No words are used. None are needed. Images are perfect the way they are.