Thoughts on International Diversity in Contemporary Photography

“To celebrate new ideas in photography, we are asking people to nominate up to five photographers who have demonstrated an openness to use new ideas in photography, who have taken chances with their photography and have shown an unwillingness to play it safe."
Towards The 21st Century
Joerg Colberg, Conscientious

This was an open call to photo bloggers initiated by Joerg Colberg and Colin Pantall. Initially, a small group of bloggers were asked directly to participate, but the request for nominations was open any blogger that wanted to participate. Those who participated were asked to post their choices on their own blogs and help to spread the word to others. At some point Pete Brook, on his Prison Photography blog, renamed the initiative “The Best Photographers of the First 1/8th of the 21st Century”.  Suddenly a compilation of names suggested by a group of bloggers that was only meant to represent individual examples of artists who were working with new ideas morphed into what many took to be the blog world’s presentation of the Best Photographers of the 21st Century.  And within a day or two it was being called “The Best White North American and European Photographers (with Minor Exceptions) of the First 1/8th of the 21st Century That We Happen to Be Familiar With.”  

I can’t speak for Colberg or Pantall, but I’m highly confident that they were not asking bloggers to nominate the BEST photographers of the 21st Century.  In a nutshell, they were looking for the current Avant-Garde, and I think it is important to distinguish the Avant-Garde from The Best.

Have we become so accustomed to “best of...” lists that any list we see is automatically assumed to insinuate some sort of ranking by favorability or popularity?  Best is a dangerous term in considering something as subjective as art photography. Colberg and Pantall were pretty specific in their parameters; openness to new ideas, taking chances, and avoiding artistic safety. These are things that can be cited without getting into aesthetic subjectivity.  One can point out a photographer who demonstrates those characteristics in their work without claiming they are among the best contemporary photographers.  

“The Best” is easiest to determine with hindsight. We can look back at a past decade or century and compile a list of who was the best at something based on things like popularity or financial success, and it is those things that best quantify pop culture. Box office success in movies or downloads for recording artists. It is harder to quantify photography success, but with so many photographers obsessed with numbers such as follower counts and website hits there is no denying that mass appeal is extremely important to the current generation of New Media artists. It is digital media, and not digital photography, that is to blame for the current epidemic of low brow art. Media that provides every artist with instantaneous ratings feedback in the form of likes and comments results in trends of very conservative and safe art. Art produced under the thumb of ratings is nothing more than Television. We can have fun producing and consuming it, but let’s not pretend it isn't kitsch. Colberg and Pantall’s initiative was a search for photographers producing work outside of the synthetic and artificially created pop photo culture.

People get very upset when a “best of” list does not include their own favorite choice, or lacks the perfect ratio of diversity.  I saw this list described as ‘a travesty’ in a comment on Facebook. The participating bloggers were accused of being myopic and racially biased . I found that extremely disappointing. A positive and optimistic initiative of searching for new directions in photography was twisted around to become something so negative and ugly. I won’t spend even five seconds defending my contributions to the list, or the history of international diversity on PHOTO/arts Magazine.  The only energy I want to expend is on moving the conversation forward.

Tom Griggs has written a brilliant two part essay on his Fototazo website entitled Diversity in Photography and Contemporary Image Distribution Problems in which he skillfully investigates many underlying reasons behind the lack of diversity on mainstream photography internet sites.  If this subject interests you at all, I strongly recommend reading Grigg’s essays.

We are ALL photographers now” isn't globally accurate. The reality is...“We are all photographers now, in the Industrial World”. For better or worse, photography is a consumer driven art. It is a product of Capitalism. It has always been a hobby of the wealthy. Global industrialization has enabled a wider and wider consumer base, and millions of people are now “wealthy” enough to afford digital cameras, smart phones, web access, etc.  But billions of other people around the globe are not part of this picture. Photography remains the artistic medium of the global elite. Equipment cost is a huge investment for any photographer, so imagine what it would be like for someone living in a developing country. Major contemporary photography competitions and portfolio submissions that charge upwards of seventy five dollars per entry are not an option for most emerging photographers across the globe, if they even know about them at all. It might be grossly naive to ask... “Where is all the innovative photography from Africa?” (or India, South America, etc etc.)

This is obviously a very complex problem involving economic and political issues beyond my knowledge base. I can only speak to this issue as a casual observer of contemporary photography. But I am very interested in this topic, I had a chance to meet with Tom Griggs when he was recently traveling through Philadelphia. These were the issues we discussed and made a commitment to continue the conversation.

In the meantime I extend an open invitation to anyone who wants to submit the work of artists from developing areas of the world to feature on PHOTO/arts Magazine.  This site remains an open venue for emerging artists across the globe.

As a final note.... One small thing you can do to help is to donate some money to one of these Micro Grants for South American photographers. This is a fantastic project started by Tom Griggs and something I fully support. I would love to know about other projects similar to this around the world. If you know of any, please let me know.