Photographers often talk about creativity, the creative arts, and making pictures. I have been thinking a lot about the current upheaval in the world of digital media and what the role of photography is. If we are to rethink the economics of media and find a way to cover the costs of production for what are increasingly quasi-public goods, then it might help to go back to the origins.
Like painting and drawing which preceded it, photography is fundamentally a “perceptive art” that provides a way for people to “see” at a distance, either in time or space. Photographers, journalists, non-fiction writers extend the senses of society, informing us all, filtering (yes) but also clarifying. The role of photography is to be the eyes of the world.
Other media like films and music serve as entertainment, inspiration and critique. Advertising serves as influence. Photography can do that too, and be “creative”, presenting images from the imagination, made-images conveying a point of view.
Perceptivity is different than creativity, though. The root of the word “attention” is to stretch (Latin tendere ). When people pay attention they stretch their minds, learn to see more clearly, gain a better understanding of their circumstances and those of others, and so are more able to act to improve things
It follows that the best strategy for photographers, for journalists, for the “non-fiction” media, is not to hide behind pay-walls, DRM or (dare I say) tightly controlled copyright, but to seek as widespread distribution as possible of what they see, so as to provide “thick” value to society. It implies a stance and an ethos of openness rather than closedness.
Finding out how the “perceptive arts” fulfil their role in the “attention economy” is the challenge. And it will not be without difficulty since, as Clay Shirky notes, “the old models are breaking faster than the new models can be put into place”