Photo London, which opens at Somerset House next week, is a kind of Glastonbury for photography, in attitude if not in scale. As well as a showcase for hundreds of photographers, it features talks and events looking at the deep impact the medium has had on our lives. One of those speaking is Annebella Pollen, an academic and expert on mass amateur photography (the kind any of us with a smart phone partakes in). She talked to us earlier this week about the stories that pictures tell, and why it’s so important when looking at people's photos to think about “the eye behind the viewfinder”.
People take a lot more pictures today than, say, 20 years ago. Has the content changed too?
It’s said that the average person will see more photographs before lunchtime than someone in the 19th century would have seen in their whole life. But a lot of amateur photographers are still prioritising the kinds of subjects that have always been popular, taking photos of the fleeting moments when you see something extraordinary and think you must capture it because it’s not going to last. People’s family films were always full of pets, children, sunsets and beautiful scenery. These continue to be the bread and butter of what we photograph.
There are new genres, such as photos of your dinner, and people taking pictures for really practical purposes like a bus timetable, using a camera like you might have used a notebook and pen. One significant change is using cameras for immediate communication, for sharing. Photography used to largely serve a memorial function. People would take photographs of what they might like to look back on in the future.
It’s said that the average person will see more photographs before lunchtime than someone in the 19th century would have seen in their whole life.
Can amateur photographs provide a record of people’s lives in the way letters and diaries used to?
They can certainly tell a story. Like diaries, photos are a performance of identity, especially the ones that are put in the public domain. You have to read them with that in mind. A few years ago I found some photo albums at a car boot sale and did some research into the person they belonged to. I found his albums told me one story about his life, a very happy, smiley story, but the information from other sources such as birth, death and marriage registers told me something else.
We tend to photograph happy times and people at their best. We don’t photograph funerals or people on their death beds. Only a partial story gets told. In a digital age, we can also delete pictures without it being some terrible emotional wrench. To destroy a print photo, to tear someone in half, is a violent act; pressing delete on your phone is not quite the same.
To destroy a print photo, to tear someone in half, is a violent act; pressing delete on your phone is not quite the same.
If you had to describe yourself in pictures – if you were creating a profile on 21Pictures, for example – how might you do it?
I think it could be really evocative of what someone’s personality is like. You’d have to demonstrate the kinds of things you might normally claim in writing. If you had a good sense of humour you’d want to show that with some witty photo. You’d want to show you were adventurous with photos of mountain ranges or whatever. I think it would be tricky to decide what those 21 would be.
If you were looking at someone’s else pictures, you’d have to apply different criteria to viewing them at an art gallery or judging a photo competition. It’s easy to think, there’s another photo of swans on a river or a sunset, I’ve seen that before. But you’d want to think, OK what is this telling me about the person who took it; to look at the eye behind the viewfinder. The motivation behind taking each photo is different and unique to each person, even though the end result might be very similar.
Does quality matter?
If you were looking at someone’s writing, you would tend to judge them on how they expressed themselves in words or on their grammar. As an academic, if I saw a wrongly placed apostrophe in somebody’s dating profile, that would be an absolute clanger to me, whereas if I met that person in real life their punctuation wouldn’t matter at all. Now that everyone is becoming much more visually literate, I wonder whether a similar set of judgements will start to apply to people’s photographic practices.
Dr Annebella Pollen is Principal Lecturer in the History of Art and Design at the University of Brighton. Her new book Mass Photography: Collective Histories of Everyday Life will be published in November by I. B. Tauris