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Once a Week, By Quintin Ellison

After leaving cameras alone for a couple of decades, I’ve returned to taking lots of photos for work-related and personal-project reasons.

This has meant learning to operate a digital camera in place of film. In the main, basic photography skills learned as a young wee impressionable lass at The Franklin Press in the early to mid-1990s seem to have transferred. Exposing, composing and taking photographs is basically the same then as it is now.

I have observed one notable change. People today seem willing, even eager, to be photographed.

Back then, The Franklin Press featured prototypical, cliched community-newspaper photography fare. In addition to chasing and shooting photos of every fender bender in the county (for front-page placement, no less), we published images of groundbreakings (where suit-and-tie types sported hard hats while pretending to dig dirt with gold-colored shovels); grip-and-grin check presentations (the shaking of hands while staring toward the camera); and ribbon cuttings for new businesses (with Chamber employees dutifully wielding ridiculously big, monster-sized scissors).

Even in such artificial, contrived situations, I’d often find myself cajoling or bullying people at photo time. Inevitably, some folks would try to hide behind others when lined up for photographing. Some would vanish when the camera came out. 

These days, I snap photos without much fuss, bother or explanation. If anything, people’s willingness to be photographed proves a hinderance, not a help, because I’m mostly interested in making candid images.

I’m not alone in noticing this difference in attitude.

The masterful Martin Parr, a British documentary photographer and photojournalist I greatly admire, has spent his career examining and skewering stereotypes, typically sardonically and with great humor.

As part of my fascination with his work, I’ve been reading of late through Parr’s archived essays at martinparr.com. In one, “The Facebook Problem,” he complains of trying to photograph in an age of constant images.

“The more drink is taken, the bigger the ‘Facebook Problem’ becomes,” he writes. “You walk into a crowded bar or party, lift your camera and everyone in front of you starts posing and smiling, producing the kind of image in the past associated with the social pages in magazines, but now the stock that fills up Facebook.

“I sometimes take great delight in telling people that I have no interest in photographing them. This is not quite true, as I would not have halted in front of them had I not seen something that caught my eye. Sometimes people get quite angry at this rejection, although the image is unlikely to disappear, as they have probably been photographed many times already that night on countless mobile phones.”

Parr doesn’t complain, however, about people taking lots of photographs of themselves. He delights in the rise of selfie sticks, calling them “the must-have accessory for the modern day tourist experience.”

“I welcome this trend as, interestingly, you can get the whole scene in front of the camera and the backdrop all in one photo,” he writes. “Previously I had to make do with photos of people from behind as they looked at the view.”

I’ve read other professional photographers, not Parr, who have written negatively about the proliferation of amateur photos, as somehow damaging to them personally and to the art of photography in general.

As a professional writer, let me say this – get over it. There’s not a writer alive who hasn’t been taken aback by people who believe it’s an easy thing to, say, write a book, perhaps after retirement between cocktails as a one-off sort of affair.

Ultimately, whatever the art form, it’s the quality of work that counts. Great photographers such as Parr have no trouble distinguishing themselves from the pack, no matter how many images Facebook might provide.

Quintin Ellison is general manager of The Sylva Herald.