Photography as a second language

With graduation season upon us, thousands of photographers-in-the making will soon be graduating from institutions across the country. The commencement speakers those students would be listening to will be loath to admit it, but getting paid to be a photographer is dying as a career option and it is clearly time for a new paradigm in the business of photography.

I know this first hand because, in the forty four years I have been serious about photography, and the thirty three years I have been doing what I call “pushing buttons for money,” I have seen the viability of my profession spiral downward. CareerCast.com recently posted its 25th annual “Jobs Rated report” which comes from looking at four core criteria of any job, the environment, income, employment outlook and job stress. Sadly, my line of work, “photographer” keeps moving down their list. In 2010, out of 200 professions, “photographer” ranked 126th. Things have only become worse and the profession now ranks 172nd. The question those same graduation speakers should be raising is why is getting paid to be a photographer the only definition of accomplishment and what can photographers do for our society today?

Photographers much smarter than I have been giving us hints about this question for decades. In 1936, the Hungarian-born artist László Moholy-Nagy, (who went on to establish Chicago’s influential Institute of Design,) said “The illiterate of the future will be the person ignorant of the use of the camera as well as the pen.” While I doubt he was predicting the digital imaging revolution, he did see photography expanding throughout all of human culture.

Yes, photography is now “everywhere.” The ease of use of the ever more sophisticated cameras, the explosion in smart phone cameras and the onslaught of social media photo sharing sites have all helped to destroy the old business model. That was where I (and thousands like me) would be paid for our expertise as photographers.

Yet, that expertise, is a terrible thing to waste…. and it can be put to good use, in this country and around the globe, if we start formally teaching “photography as a second language.”

Photography is clearly a language, though not a conventional one. It is arguably the most universal and most beloved one on the planet. We already express emotions and ideas as well as sort out abstractions through language, be that conventional or photographic. Photography, like any language, has “displacement,” the ability to communicate about things that are not present. Photography also has organizational rules as well as infinite “generativity,” the ability to produce an infinite number of narratives using a limited set of rules.

Widespread mastery of photography as a second language would go a long way in bettering our collective culture. What makes so much of today’s photography so bad is that the authors do not understand the language of photography.

In writing we are told to simplify, pare back, etc. In photography it is no different. Yes, the tools are different, such as using limited depth of field as a way to get only one thing in focus. But those techniques parallel the way writers narrate from a single perspective to keep their narrative together.

Students around the world routinely learn a second language to expand their understanding of other cultures (and to improve their job prospects.) In the job interview of the near future, who is more likely to get the job: candidate A, who is fluent in three languages or candidate B, who is fluent in the same languages but is also equally fluent in the language of photography. While many students learn a second language for job related reasons, as they might with photography, just as many could learn photography, for the love of it or for interpersonal communication or to experience another culture but not necessarily just to make money.

The key, in the case of fluency in a foreign language is that currently, language expertise is relatively clearly defined and can be measured/standardized. At the moment, such fluency has not been defined or standardized in photography. We still think of photography as a complex set of technical skills, but if you take away the technical issues, in the way that digital imaging technology is already doing, then photography can become a language that future generations will speak fluently from their infancy.

Just like with any language, we would need to agree upon and then teach photography’s grammar, rules of composition, structure, rules to follow, rules to break, ways to convey emotion, etc., etc., etc. Like with any language, we also need to teach those who aspire to be fluent in the language (of photography) how to understand the cultural context of the language. We teach students to analyze speech, be it public or private, and how to deconstruct it when it is being manipulated for political or economic purposes. Why are we not giving students the same skills in understanding the imaging language used in motion pictures, still image and the visually overwhelming world of the Internet?

To a large degree, I do this in my photography workshops but, to be honest, I reach a very narrow range of people who want to improve their photographic literacy. There is an ever-growing corps of photographers, veterans like me and newcomers like this year’s graduates, who can be the ones to teach “photography as a second language.”

The model already exists, where Americans go almost anywhere they want around the globe, teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) in places as varied as Japan, Mexico, and Egypt. We also have plenty of E.S.L. classes in this country.

Photographers around the world already look to the U.S. to learn about photography (witness my classes in Finland, Bangladesh, Singapore, etc.) They know that teachers like me come from the most visually driven culture on the planet, so we already are as close to fluent as one can be in photography as a second language.

To make this work, that idea of fluency needs to be carefully defined, structured and made measurable. It also needs to made teachable in ways that focus (pun intended) less on the technical complexities and more on the language needed to control the image aesthetics. This is something that could be done with some imagination, technology and entrepreneurship.

Yes, I am throwing this out there with the hope that some entrepreneur sees this, borrows the idea and builds a wildly successful enterprise. Maybe it will be a few of those new graduates from photography schools who see an ever grimmer future trying to make a career out of “pushing buttons for money.” I do hope whoever builds on my idea also uses the old school model of attributing the inspiration to me, rather than passing it off as their own.

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