One forecast estimates 1.5 trillion photographs were taken in 2022.1That’s 1,500,000,000,000 photos. Imagine seeing them all in a near-infinitely wide and tall mosaic, arranged by some all-powerful AI in thematic clusters. You’d have a cluster of flowers and sunsets and adorable babies and doggos and cats. And a cluster of coffees and meals and shoes and insects and, of course, genitals. To attempt to put that in context, that’s over 4 billion photos a day, which is around 2.8 million every minute. The world’s population is around 7.89 billion people, which equates to a wee bit over 190 photos per person. The majority—90% of photographs—are taken by smartphones, which should come as no surprise to anyone.2Worth noting that the photos per person estimate is misleading: smartphones are expensive—increasingly so—and so smartphone ownership is proportional to a country’s income, and therefore higher in more wealthy incomes. One wonders what this disparity to access may do to how we see and related to parts of the world with lower smartphone penetration. Plus, obviously, some people take a lot more photos than others.
We haven’t reflected sufficiently on the significance of the smartphone. At no other time in history have we had access to the sum of the world’s information AND access to a camera in our pockets, with us wherever we may go. We are so caught up in the incredible pace of technological advancement that our perspective is narrow and so have lost sight of how truly remarkable a transformation has occurred: photography has gone from a tool of the few to being near-ubiquitous, a fundamental change to the medium. It is hard to see this as anything other than a net positive: photography has the power to change the world, to bring us closer together, and to inspire us. It follows that the more people who have access to this power, the better.
And yet—the accessibility and convenience of modern photography has resulted in a curious side effect in some cases: a lack of soul. And to be clear, for the rest of this essay, I’m only talking about photographs intended to be art, or at least intended to have some sort of artistic or creative merit, which is obviously an infinitesimal proportion of the 1.5 trillion photos created a year. Most photos are taken for a different purpose, and that is fine and well, in the same way most pieces of paper aren’t used to pen sonnets.
What on earth do I mean by “a lack of soul?” Sadly, there is a bit of you know it when you see it (or, rather, you know it when you don’t see it) involved. This whole line of thought occurred to me when I was engaged in a frequent pastime: looking at my old photos. And not just any photos, but photos I had been proud enough of to post online. As I looked at those photos, and thought about them in the critical way that only the passage of time allows one to see their own work, I was hit by a realisation: while the photos were technically component and demonstrated some creativity, they were lacking something. And that something was important.
I reflected on what this missing something was, and decided to write this essay to help me explore how I felt. It occurred to me that many of the photos I had posted felt somehow empty or cold. They were missing a sense of narrative, of emotional resonance, or even an aspiration towards profundity. In short, they were missing soul.
As this thought wormed its way through my mind, I began to observe that more and more of the photos I was seeing—photos from friends, posted online, in various photography-focussed communities—also appeared to suffer from this same lacking feeling. It was as if we had all been subcontracted to churn out anodyne photographs that would make a great addition to a stock photography cd-rom from the early 2000s. I’m exaggerating, of course, but there is truth there nonetheless. And to head-off a potential argument, am I perhaps just using “soullessness” as a way of dismissing a sort of abstract and minimal type of photography? I don’t think so, however: it is entirely possible to make minimal and abstract photos that have plenty of soul. It may be harder, but is clearly possible.
As I thought more about this, I became curious about the connection between ease and accessibility on one hand, versus creativity and expression on the other hand. Intuitively, there should be a positive correlation between these factors. And yet I wonder if there is something about the ease of modern photography that has had a perverse effect: freed from the finite nature of analogue photography, are we engaging with the act of making photographs in a different way? Has the abstraction of the technical elements of photography—and the associated rise of algorithmic photography, a constant battle to fight the limits of physics—made us, in some respects, less component at expressing ourselves creatively? The path of least resistance is not always the best path to take, in that sometimes friction unlocks creativity.
To be clear, not every photograph needs to have soul, and that is even so of photos intended to be art and not just those that are clearly temporary ephemera. And yet when more and more photos lack soul, it is a curious trend in the development of the form. Arguably, some sort of reset is needed. The increasing modern interest in analogue photography is a direct response to the soulless nature of modern (that is, digital) photography, and is one way artists are tackling this sentiment. But it surely is not the only way.
One such way is to perhaps stop obsessing so much on the tools we use to create photos, and reorientate our focus on the photos themselves. We have been beguiled into believing that more expensive cameras and lenses make for better photographs. It almost feels that in some corners the equipment is an end in itself, as opposed to just a means to make art and to make connections with each other.
On a discord server I frequent there is a sticker that is posted with some frequency:
On one hand, of course, this is a crude and reductive way of looking at things. Not everything can be blamed on the boogeyman of late-stage capitalism, or at least not everything in its entirety. On the other hand, one cannot feel there is often some underlying validity behind this complaint, and so it is the case here. If modern photography has become soulless then it is hard to argue that the invasive effects of capitalism have not had a role to play. Capitalism has always been accused, and with grounds, of corrupting art, and so it is the case now.
Or am I wrong? Art, both creation and interpretation thereof, are utterly subjective, so it is perhaps not possible to be wrong or right, in that they are objective terms, but merely one can attempt to put together a compelling argument one way or the other. To wit, if anyone wants to make the counter-argument, or even share their thoughts on a topic I will continue to think about long after post this, do reach out: [email protected]
And in the meantime, I am going to try to find a way to create photographs that have some soul, or at the very least, something to say. Not every photo will reach this lofty (and of course, subjective) threshold, but there is certainly value in trying.
- 1That’s 1,500,000,000,000 photos. Imagine seeing them all in a near-infinitely wide and tall mosaic, arranged by some all-powerful AI in thematic clusters. You’d have a cluster of flowers and sunsets and adorable babies and doggos and cats. And a cluster of coffees and meals and shoes and insects and, of course, genitals.
- 2Worth noting that the photos per person estimate is misleading: smartphones are expensive—increasingly so—and so smartphone ownership is proportional to a country’s income, and therefore higher in more wealthy incomes. One wonders what this disparity to access may do to how we see and related to parts of the world with lower smartphone penetration. Plus, obviously, some people take a lot more photos than others.