Between Object and Information

Between Object and Information
From The Weight of the World, by the author

If you’re working in photography in a commercial capacity, you probably spend a non-trivial amount of time wondering about the future of the medium as far as work goes. I know I do, especially now that a biggish chunk of the industry is basically competing against machines that we unwittingly trained (for free!) and using cameras that are getting cheaper and easier to use.

As photographers, we occupy an ambiguous role in the ‘creative economy’ - that’s what used to be called the arts before financialisation nailed a dollar sign onto everything - because we are both skilled machine operators (“knowledge workers”, as HR prefers it) and craftspeople. Of course each photographer situates themselves differently along this continuum, with analogue at the right and digital generally on the left, photojournalists on the left and artists on the right, etc etc, but basically you either sell your skill in manipulating a machine, or you sell the objects that machine creates.

The relationship of the maker to their images reflects their location on the spectrum. The further we go towards the 'labour' end, the more we focus on the informational value of the image; the work being done is the collection and presentation of information in a legible and useable format, and the worker will hand over little more than information in return for their payment. Meanwhile at the 'object' end of the scale the image becomes a decorative element enhancing a physical form, or at least the physical form upon which the image is displayed is in some way intrinsically valued, whether through scarcity or by material, or both, or other. The lion's share of workaday commercial photography focuses almost solely on labour, with the information of the image being the product sold (or rented) to the client.

The internet complicates this because it diminishes the resale value of information and thus the bargaining power of any knowledge worker. The internet is Pandora’s Box on radioactive steroids, and any image ever made visible on the internet is potentially visible for (human) eternity. This same searchability erodes photographers’ bargaining power; the image you seek likely already exists, so are you going to hire a professional to photograph a woman laughing alone while eating salad if you can just steal one from the internet?

Now you can just ask a machine to imagine a woman laughing alone and eating salad

Because Silicon Valley is allowed (nay, encouraged) to commit crimes that regular people can and do go to jail for, pretty much every joyous form of creativity has found itself being happy-slapped by a procession of snotty teens who cry disruption while stealing your things and then demanding that you pay to look at them, like a sneaker-clad British Museum. Labour rates stink and they’re getting worse, and making objects in order to conjure up aura is difficult at the best of times (and expensive!) but it can be quite a leap for photographers whose entire training and professional life has been predicated on the idea that objects are emphatically Other People’s Problems.

It’s hard to see the shape of a storm when you’re inside it, but eventually this wind will die down and it’s interesting to imagine what the photographic field will look like once we’re out the other side. It is definitely changing form, and while I am on the fence as to whether that’s good or bad, my ambivalence does nothing to diminish the scale of the transformation. An entire generation makes money as photographers without ever needing to use manual focusing, metering or any advanced post-production, and while that is emphatically fine (and snobs should ask themselves if they’re similarly judgy about people using computers instead of slide rules) the sort of images created by photographers whose relationship to the medium is less deliberate and more literal are exactly the sort of images that AI is great at spitting out.

Matt Muir (yes, he of the boutique swears over at Web Curios) made a sharp observation while on the Private Eye podcast discussing labour shifts in the era of AI. He said that one of the roles most obviously targeted by AI is that of the junior lawyer- lots of sifting through old casework, tons of dead-end writing, basically trying to turn masses of information into digestible forms for busier and more important people to consume. But then he added that the problem is that unless you have junior lawyers, you can’t get senior lawyers. It is the learning undertaken during the junior lawyering which produces the senior lawyer, and removing the opportunity to learn does not remove the need for the learning.

This is just as true of commercial photography, where it’s the crappy grip-and-grin gigs which help us to build up the knowledge needed to confidently tackle high-stakes jobs without fumbling. We needn’t fear as much as some claim; the machines still can’t imagine things they have never seen and that includes the local motorcycle blood delivery service receiving a donation cheque. What will be removed though will be the middle ground of the industry, the jobs most itinerant photographers rely on, of documentation, promotion or explanation. These jobs will be gobbled up by  image search, generative AI and camera phones, perhaps pushing photography as a medium (further) towards the two poles I mentioned above, dividing it into two distinct forms; the technician and the craftsperson.

Welsh Motoring Writers chair Simon Harris (left) presents a cheque for £500 to Blood Bikes Wales Powys committee representative Ray Rand (Picture: Monmouthshire Beacon, no photographer credit visible)

Technicians would be skilled specialists who make their living in niche areas, using their skills and ever more advanced technology to create and document scenes whose value (whether informational or aesthetic) is sufficient to justify the outlay. Their education will likely include elaborate technical grounding as well as professional certifications such as drone piloting licences or safety courses of the type required in certain industries. The only guarantee of value of the technician will be their unique profile, constructed out of a mixture of equipment and expertise, and it’s perhaps easier to imagine this form of photography as having more in common with technical imaging than the traditional photographic education.

Jimmy Chin, whose skill as a rock climber is the basis of a lucrative career in photography and filmmaking (not to mention a greenwashing sponsorship from Ford)

On the other end of the scale would be the craftspeople, photographers whose practices return to something surprisingly similar to the early days of the medium, centred around the creation of the object, and creating finite, limited, perhaps even unique things. These people’s careers might also mirror that of an oil painter or a bronze sculptor, with a lack of obvious commercial application meaning that, at least in their early careers, such photographers will be more than ever dependent on grants and patronage. This is fine if the grants exist and go to the right people, but experience tells us that such people are instead likely end up as members of the entreprecariat, delivering groceries on a bicycle or enduring temp contracts as they wait for their genius to be recognised.

You wouldn't download a car

The technician’s job hinges on the value of their labour- the images they create are likely only to be circulated as part of wider value-additive strategies such as marketing or communication, and their exposure online frees them from ownership and their value inevitably craters. The craftperson’s job, meanwhile, depends on scarcity, and like the edition printers who stanley-knife their duds, crafty photographers may even refuse to allow their images to be rephotographed or prevent their depiction in photographic form. We’re in an age in which it feels like we’ve completed photography; after all, pretty much every image ever made is sitting quite literally in our pockets. What remains of value to the working photographer is the information and the object- the photograph is just a vehicle.