Some personal thoughts about the state of art photography


Much of what this blog does is discuss how powerful people try to manipulate and control others through the use of images and propaganda.

So lets apply this to how the art photography world works.

There is a lot of noise out there these days about the current state of photography as a whole. It feels as if there is a huge weight pressing down on us. Anybody who cares passionately about the medium can sense it. Behind the bluster and self-promotional aggrandizement there is a palpable sense of malaise eating away at the heart of photography.

This crisis goes far deeper than stale, circular debates about visual culture, changing technology, an image-saturated world or the crisis of representation.
Right now the photography scene is rightly convulsed by a sexual harassment scandal. Various institutions and bodies that only a couple of weeks ago were fawning over a self-proclaimed guru are now scurrying around trying to distance themselves from him. The issue of sexual harassment within photography has been well and truly been put on the map.

Not before time.

The basic dynamic is this: a powerful individual preys on weaker and vulnerable people. He uses his position of power and influence to intimidate, silence and manipulate others for his own selfish ends. By associating himself with influential institutions and other individuals who are capable of making or breaking careers he produces an aura of being untouchable. They effectively enable him to continue his predatory activity.

According to Brian Martin there are 5 common tactics used by perpetrators to evade responsibility for their actions:

1. Cover up what has happened
2. Use official processes and channels to give the appearance of justice
3. Outright intimidation and bribery
4. Reinterpret events through lying, blaming others, and re-framing the incident
5. Devalue the person who speaks out by undermining their character or reputation using gossip or by labelling them as being unstable

The other common tactic that a perpetrator will use once they are cornered is the pity-play. Here, they try to turn the tables and make you feel sorry for them. Think about all the apparently heartfelt Oprah-style confessions and crocodile tears you’ve seen.


Stepping Back

But lets take a step back. Why did this individual wield so much power and influence? Is there something rotten within the structure of photography that allowed him to build a network of power and intimidation? I would argue that there is. And it has to do with the types of people that rise to the surface in an intensely competitive environment.

There has been an increased awareness about the prevalence of sociopathy in society. This is a term that many people have heard bandied about on cop-shows (interestingly, the term psychopath is the same thing as a sociopath – it has nothing to do with actual violence or chainsaws). But what does it actually mean? Well, it’s defined as an anti-social personality disorder in which a person has no inhibitions or conscience. They do not feel guilt or remorse for anything they do or the consequences that their actions may have upon others. This means that they feel that the normal rules don’t apply to them. They actually consider themselves to be superior than the rest of us. We are looked down upon as idiots; mere pawns to be used and manipulated by them for their amusement. All for kicks. And they feel no guilt about doing this. None whatsoever.

However, they are very, very good at emulating emotions and projecting charisma. This is very useful in manipulating others. They also tend to need constant stimulation and get bored easily. Manipulating others and game playing provides endless entertainment for the constantly bored psychopath who craves excitement and the rush that controlling others provides. Because of these traits they tend to rise to positions of power and responsibility. Politicians, lawyers, surgeons, bankers, CEO’s and heads of various institutions  can all be safely be regarded as exhibiting sociopathic traits insofar as many preside over, or conceal, predatory behaviour where the powerful abuse the weak.

Indeed, as Clive Boddy has argued, the current global economic recession can be attributed to the activities of  what he terms corporate sociopaths.

For simplicity’s sake, the common traits of sociopaths/psychopaths are:
• glib and superficial charm
• grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
• constant need for stimulation
• pathological lying
• cunning and manipulativeness
• lack of remorse or guilt
• shallow affect and superficial emotions
• callousness and lack of empathy
• poor behavioral controls
• sexual promiscuity
• lack of realistic long-term goals
• impulsivity
• irresponsibility
• failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Recognise anybody you know?

Obviously, some of these features can be more pronounced than others. But as a rough guideline, if somebody exhibits a number of these features then they may be a sociopath/psychopath.

What do they get out of it? Why do they behave this way?

No reason. Simply because they can.

That’s it.

There’s nothing deeper to it than that.


Psychopathy and Photography

It is no surprise that such psychopathic individuals would thrive in a loose, unstructured photographic world based largely on smoke and mirrors. They are able to use their charm and manipulative abilities to assume positions of power. They then may use their position to prey on weaker individuals within the photographic community. Or manipulate them as pawns in whatever scheme they have cooked up to amuse themselves today. Just because its fun.

The art photography sub-culture is actually quite similar to athletics or cycling. These are highly competitive “sports” dominated by money where ruthless individuals are rewarded for behaving badly.

For a start, photography is an intensely individual pursuit and it takes self-belief and confidence to assert your vision through the medium. Obviously if you are an individual with psychopathic characteristics then you have no self-doubt whatsoever. You utterly believe that your photographic work is the best the world has ever seen. Or that your opinion is the most important and influential ever. Psychopathic charisma works wonders for your career. That probably goes a long way to explaining some of the huge egos you encounter within photography. A generous helping of narcissism adds to the flavour.

Of course, some of it is probably learned behaviour; if successful people do it then others will emulate it.

But without a disfunctional anti-social personality it is impossible to sustain such behaviour for any length of time.

Why this works so well within photography is because there are just too many people chasing too few opportunities. Because of this, people who occupy influential positions can wield immense power over emerging photographers. This lends itself open to abuse.

Like many other jobs or professions, the photography world is pyramid shaped – there are a very few places at the top and lots and lots of people at the bottom. The problem is that the vast majority of them won’t succeed. And mostly it has nothing to do with talent, ambition or vision. It is simply because there are not enough spaces available at the top. This has huge implications for how the art photography world behaves and treats people.

But the higher you climb, the harder you fall.

Fear permeates the entire photography hierarchy.

Patronage is used as a way to control those beneath them and prevent dissent or a wider discussion of the arbitrary nature of this bizarre photography sub-culture which we inhabit.  Thus, emerging photographers are strung along and a few crumbs are strategically doled out to keep them quiet and compliant. As well as fostering a sense of dependence it also serves to confer immense power on those who claim to be able to make or break careers. The rampant industry-wide exploitation by magazine editors and newspapers who pay a pittance and expect struggling photographers to work for free in return for vague promises of raising your profile is a classic example.

There are many other examples.

It also works to explain the cliques and bitchiness that is rampant within the photography world. Gossip and innuendo are used to sow doubt and undermine others for the purpose of maintaining control.

These processes all work to prevent challenges. The result is toxic – it pits a small group of privileged insiders against outsiders.

A key part of this process is to ensure that the vast numbers of photographers who fail to climb the pyramid (simply because there aren’t enough places available) internalise this as a personal failure rather than as a result of the system itself. This ensures that they will not pose a challenge to what is a very flawed structure.

But it’s all just an illusion. It’s a social construct that only works if people accept it. With cutbacks and economic downturn, the competition for funding within the photography and arts scene is getting more and more cut-throat. Behind the bonhomie, people are increasingly turning on each other in a ever more desperate fight for the few crumbs left on the table.

Let’s get even more depressing – the problem is that this short-term self-interested behaviour is undermining the future of photography itself. Ruthless sociopaths/psychopaths are very good at ensuring they get what they want. But they are not so good at the big picture. And this is a massive problem. A central aspect of the psychopathic condition is that they get bored easily and need constant stimulation or excitement. Therefore they will always privilege short-term immediate games (that often serve no purpose whatsoever other than the rush of “winning”) over long-term outcomes. And if many of the people who occupy places of power within a system exhibit psychopathic characteristics then it is doomed to inevitable collapse. Superior and arrogant, occupying positions of power, surrounded by lackeys and protected by a culture of silence, poor decisions are the inevitable result. They overestimate their abilities. They push their luck with one scheme too many. And then the entire house of cards comes tumbling down around them. Think FIFA, Enron, UCI (the cycling federation) etc.

The entire system stagnates. Lip service is paid to creativity and encouraging new talent but in reality the rules of the game are structured to preserve the insider-outsider dynamic.


What is to be done?

So lets end this on a more positive note: what is to be done? Well, these problems are nothing new under the sun. Frustrated artists have long battled against the old-regime and the vested interests of a stagnant academy who were holding them back. But the problem is that once the avant-garde take power they quickly turn into clones of the narrow and conservative people they once fought against.

So, my advice (for what it’s worth) is as follows; don’t follow the rules of the game because they are rigged against you. Talent and ability will get you so far but they’re not enough. Being a sociopath will increase your chances of success but even so there is a hell of a lot of competition for the few remaining places left on the pyramid. So don’t bet on success just because you’re a schemer and a manipulator – there will always be somebody better at it. Don’t expect a miracle to happen and be discovered by an art world which is obsessed by money and superficial shallowness. Don’t depend on kingmakers to pluck you from obscurity.

If you want to succeed in photography, do your own thing. Be smart. Don’t follow the herd because nobody really knows what they’re doing and they’re too frightened to admit that the emperor has no clothes. Besides, if you’re part of the herd then you’ll never stand out in a world where individual vision is supposed to be valued. Find a niche and go for it. Don’t be too swayed by the opinions of those in authority – many are pursuing their own agendas and relish the power and control they wield and use it for malicious purposes. Be suspicious of them. Be sceptical.

At its core, photography is about telling stories through images. If you have an interesting story then find way to tell it and stick with it. Find something different. If you’re reading this then you’re a creative person – so create! Without people who are committed and love their art the entire photography sub-culture will collapse. The dirty secret is that the people sitting at the top of the pyramid are only there because creative, passionate photographers allow them to stay there out of fear. Unless we encourage more people with fresh perspectives, passion and enthusiasm, then I fear photography is doomed to a bleak future of endless introspective navel-gazing, stagnation and slow decline.

The various institutions and the diminishing number of people they support will stagger on in a zombie-like daze, propped up by inertia and the vested interests of a few. But they will be hollow at the core because there will be no real purpose to their existence. And inevitably, they too will decline.

But by that time nobody will care because all the committed and passionate people will have left.

P.S.  Absolutely nothing I have written here is meant to distract from the very urgent need to address sexual harassment within the photographic community. 

These are all my personal views. Not everybody is a psychopath so don’t get paranoid. Just keep your eyes open.