The New Age of Photography

Published on 8 May 2016

With smartphone cameras and apps, it seems as if anyone can create beautiful photos. Has this impacted the art and craft of photography here?

BY PAMELA HO

On an average day, over 80 million photos and videos are shared on Instagram. This online mobile photo and video-sharing service has also become a global social media platform for people to connect through images. In many ways, Instagram has conditioned its users to go through their day looking out for ‘Instagrammable moments’ to create and share.

With increasingly smarter phones (we hear the next game-changer will be dual-lens cameras) and apps that allow you to edit and enhance photos, it seems anyone can be a photographer these days. How has this affected the photography world?

CANDID CAMERA

Aik Beng Chia, known for his iPhone street photography, started using the smartphone in 2008. Back then, he could not afford a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera, even though he was interested in photography, so a friend suggested he use the inbuilt camera on his smartphone instead. His works have since been published in a book, Tonight the Streets Are Ours (2013), featured in the Singkarpor photo exhibition, and more. Most recently, he did a whole fashion shoot with an iPhone!

Now an official Fujifilm X photographer, Chia uses mirrorless cameras (in addition to smartphones) to shoot, but admits he has not worked with a DSLR camera before. “Most of the stuff I shoot doesn’t require me to use one,” says Chia, who is best known for his raw and gritty approach to capturing everyday life. “Using a smartphone allows me to remain invisible. If I chance upon an interesting scene, I can use an earpiece attached to the smartphone to take the photo. This allows me to capture the candid moments I want, unobtrusively.”

Chia believes that just as a good photographer can make great photographs with any camera, a bad one will still make bad photographs, regardless of how good the tool. It’s more about the craft. “To me, a photographer has to begin with a message, an idea in mind, and encode meaning into his or her images — that’s essential,” he says. “Many people have ideas, and many people can produce photographs, but only those who can bring these together produce memorable images.”

PHOTO Lee Chee Kean & AikBeng Chia

PLIGHT OF PLENTY

Bryan van der Beek, an award-winning commercial and editorial photographer, acknowledges that photography is more accessible now than ever before. For this former executive photojournalist with The Straits Times (who pegs himself to a generation of photographers who worked in darkrooms, processing film and making prints), the transition from darkroom to digital is exciting.

“We, as a generation, are definitely the most image-savvy,” he states. “I think it’s a good thing that people are more exposed to photography as it raises the bar for photography overall, and forces professionals to up their game to stand out.”

Having said that, he expresses his concern that the barrage of images can cause people to become desensitised, and to stop looking for great ones. “This is partly because people are sharing many striking images that don’t necessarily say anything. Eye candy is becoming commonplace,” observes Van der Beek, who conducts photography workshops at Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film.

In many ways, he feels that digital photography has also made photographers lazy. “Film never afforded one the luxury of checking to see how one’s pictures looked; hence photographers were more invested in the craft of photography. Basics like exposure, focus and waiting for the right moment — which were so crucial to the way photographers worked 15 years ago — have been replaced with, ‘Oh, don’t worry, I can fix that in Photoshop.’ ”

FOCUS ON FUNDAMENTALS Photographer Bryan van der Beek teaches the basics of photography during a workshop organised by Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film.  PHOTO Objectifs

THE EVOLUTION REVOLUTION

Technology has not only affected the way we produce images, but also the way we consume them. “These days, we view, click ‘Like’ and promptly forget about them,” observes Emmeline Yong, co-founder and director of Objectifs. This is vastly different from just a few decades ago.

In the days of bulky large-format cameras, taking a photograph was an elaborate affair. “Because each image made was so precious, you thought it through,” explains Yong. Even when the single-lens reflex (SLR) camera became popular in the 1960s, shooting with a limited roll of film made photographers plan their shots more conscientiously.

When the SLR camera went digital, the transition was relatively smooth in that the DSLR basically mimicked the SLR. But shooting digital altered not just the way photos were processed, but how they were taken. With the luxury of being able to shoot hundreds of images, people planned less.

But it was probably the arrival of the user-friendly digital compact camera that drew hordes of amateurs into the field. This gave rise to the need to share these digital images. A plethora of photo-sharing sites like Flickr, Photobucket and Shutterfly arose from this need.

By the time Facebook arrived in 2004, people just wanted to snap photos and share them quickly. So while the technological shift wasn’t in photography, social media affected the way people took photos because the publication and dissemination of images became instant.

Instagram’s arrival in 2010 shaped image-making in an even more bizarre way. “For a few years, Instagram forced us to shoot in squares!” Yong muses. “Even if you didn’t shoot in a square format, if you had an image you wanted to upload via Instagram, it had to be a square. So everyone was forced to think that way, which is quite crazy because you don’t see the world in a 1:1 ratio.”

While photography has always been impacted by technology, the breathing space between each evolution used to be longer in the past. “But time frames are shortening, sometimes two or three years,” Yong notes. “So the ‘New Age of Photography’ is happening all the time — things will shift and we will have to find new ways to deal with it.”

STAYING POWER

Today, images shared via social media number in the billions. “As such, it takes so much more for a photographer to rise above all that noise; to make an image that actually sticks,” reflects Yong. “If you think about the images you remember this past week, chances are they tend to be those with more thought put into them.”

For Sim Chi Yin, a Beijing-based Singaporean photojournalist and one of just 18 photographers in the world represented by New York-based VII Photo Agency, the lower barrier to entry is accompanied by the danger that the overall trade and craft is devalued because everyone thinks they can take pictures professionally. “One only hopes that with greater exposure comes higher visual literacy. But the thinking that 10,000 ‘Likes’ equates to good art is a troubling trend.”

GIVING VOICE Singaporean photojournalist Sim Chi Yin, who sits on the World Press Photo competition judging panel, says having a strong vision or purpose is what makes photographers stand out.  PHOTO Sim Chi Yin

She reveals that in the workshops she has taught over the past few years, aspiring photographers confess they look to Instagram, rather than the classics of photo books, to learn about photography.

Yong agrees, adding, “When we ask them who are the photographers they like, we hear things like, ‘Oh, do you know that Instagrammer?’ There is nothing wrong with liking Instagrammers’ photos, but your sole point of reference cannot be an Instagrammer.

“Maybe I’m a bit old-fashioned but I think learning photography is like learning kung fu, you must hold the bowls first and learn the basics,” she says with a chuckle. “At Objectifs, we still teach our basics on a DSLR. I guess at the core of it, there are certain beliefs, certain things that must go into the mix; so you must understand composition rules, know the history of photography and who has done what, so that when you’re doing your work, you can make your points of reference.”

CAREER CRUNCH

So in such volatile times, what sets a professional photographer apart from a good casual shooter? According to Yong, the main difference is one’s vision and intent. “Not so much the intent to create art but the intent to help understand, to tell stories, and to give voice to something,” she elaborates. “The difference is between one who is thinking through the process from an artistic sort of flow and one who is just snapping a photo because it looks very nice, but there isn’t that intent to make a deeper cultural or artistic statement.”

“It’s a very noisy world, and the field is always competitive,” adds Sim. “Yes, it’s harder to stand out but I think people who have a strong vision or purpose, and who stick to it, eventually get their work seen — and more importantly — felt.”

RAISING THE BAR Arts organisations and galleries need to curate quality exhibitions to raise awareness of good photography and to educate the public on the value and purpose of this visual art form.  PHOTO Objectifs

However, the problem lies in the fact that the public — even clients — often can’t tell the difference. As such, it’s challenging for professional photographers to monetise their work. If you’re a photojournalist, for example, you have to contend with all the eye-witness photographers using their smartphones. So how do you still get paid? “That, to me, is what’s making the industry in flux now,” says Yong. “How do professional photographers still make a living out of it?”

Sim, who has done commissions for TIME, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic and The New Yorker, says that being a photographer has become increasingly untenable as a career, no matter how strong your sense of vocation, as more and more people ask to publish pictures for free or ‘for exposure’. “Exposure and publicity don’t pay the bills, unfortunately.”

Another concern is that budgets have been slashed. Clients now question how a photographer can value-add to them, when they can get an Instagrammer with 70,000 followers to reach their base directly. Photographers are also often expected to write or film — added value at half the cost.

THE WAY FORWARD

In order to uphold the standards and integrity of photography as a profession, there is a need to educate; and van der Beek, who mentors youths under Noise Singapore (a National Arts Council initiative to nurture young creative talents) thinks this is sorely lacking in Singapore. “Educating young photographers on ethics, craftsmanship and ownership is something that’s greatly needed. Also needed are mentors who still subscribe to the old-school philosophies. This is not to say
they are ‘old-fashioned’ in thinking, but rather that they bother to think at all.”

As an arts centre, Objectifs recognises its role in raising appreciation for good, impactful and meaningful imagery. They consciously do this through curating quality exhibitions; organising artist talks and panel discussions to explore the intent and processes behind artists’ works; and educating new audiences by sharing in schools or even reaching out to potential clients.

“It’s important for us to push for that kind of appreciation,” asserts Yong. “We educate clients as to why they might want to hire a professional photographer, the process of working with one, the demands they can make on him or her, and the results they will get.”

While professional photographers are grappling with a future in flux, amateur photographers are thriving, with communities mushrooming all across the island. At Objectifs too, more people are signing up for workshops: not just to learn how to use a DSLR camera, but to immerse themselves in an environment where there are active discussions, exchange of ideas and expert guidance.

“Our responsibility is to get them to rise above the noise, to slow down, to craft, and to create things with meaning,” says Yong. “Just as the invention of the computer has not changed the value of a good piece of writing, I believe the shifts in technology has not changed what makes a good photo. Ultimately, it’s about creating something that transcends time.”

HIGH STANDARDS Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film is building a strong community of photographers and film-makers trained in the basics of the art forms to uphold standards in Singapore. PHOTOS  Objectifs

Calling The Shots

Amateurs learn how to shoot smart. 

In 2012, theatre practitioner/photographer Ric Liu started a series of photography workshops targeted at beginners of mobile photography. Named Pocketgraphy, these workshops introduced participants to the basic concepts of photography, as well as to phone apps for taking, editing and publishing images. “The advancement of phone apps is definitely changing the way people approach photography,” says Liu, who sees photography as a means of empowerment and self-expression.

In collaboration with the National Arts Council, he brought Pocketgraphy to grassroots communities, via community centres and libraries, and to corporations. He has also introduced it to theatre practitioners as a tool for creative expression. “Like music, I hope photography can be a common language to bridge different cultures and people. I’d rather see people shooting from a camera than from a gun.”

Interested to attend or organise a Pocketgraphy workshop? Email Ric Liu at [email protected].

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