It doesn’t happen very often that I get the feeling I’m missing out on something. I can happily sit on my couch and watch the cheering crowds in the Olympic stadiums without craving to be there in person. I can read about ventures into hipster wonderland, which is Brooklyn, New York, by the way, where every young man supposedly has a beard, a bun, a bamboo bike and an irritatingly incomprehensible book, without necessarily wanting to go there myself.
These last few days something inside me has been gnawing. Something has been nibbling at my peaceful feeling of aloofness, which I was enjoying so much. Here’s what it is: it’s the photo collective. Boy, what a world that is.
Of course – I’ve had the occasional encounter with groups of people working together, where I had to shake I don’t know how many hands at once and had to somehow remember which photographer made which photograph, but somehow it never struck me as something I ought to be genuinely excited about.
Until I actually started to read about them. Then it suddenly dawned on me: photo collectives are the bloody future. They must be. I mean: just reading about them made me so… happy, made me want to join in that very instant.
Let me read to you a couple of sentences I stumbled upon and which rocked my world. I hereby gratefully quote from an article that photography publicist and blogger Pete Brook wrote for Wired two years ago. It consisted of interviews with members of ‘7 budding photo collectives’, that I, according to Pete Brook, simply Had. To. Know.
‘The [photojournalist] path alone can be lonesome and fraught with countless obstacles to the longevity of ones career. A collective is a makeshift safety net, a support system and a group of friends we can always turn to in this hostile industry.’
‘We inspire one another to be better photographers and better human beings.’
‘We really are brothers and sisters with all the benefits and drawbacks of family. We are honest with each other, and in a world of big ego’s that’s really important. We keep each other grounded, learn from each other’s successes and mistakes, and keep no secrets.’
‘By keeping the focus on creation and less about money-making, we have less rules and are flexible to do as we wish with whomever we wish, without the pressure of always having to produce what we think is expected of us.’
‘We fight evil.’
That’s amazing. Imagine: all this time world leaders have been racking their brains about achieving world peace. We all have been brooding over how to make a decent living during the financial crisis, and beyond. We have been, from time to time, scared and confused, we’ve had doubts about our professional lives, wondering whether we should have taken this path or another, and there were days when we have felt so alone and lost. And all this time there has been a simple solution for every one of these problems.
Well. At least for the past seven years or so there has been. Because it must have been around 2007/2008 that people started to write: ‘Photo collectives are the new trend in photography, especially documentary photography’. And photo collectives were the trend in photography all the way during the crisis, the economic one and the one that documentary photography seemed to be in, the latter one involving the outrageous cutback of pages for documentary projects and images by newspapers and magazines formerly known as photography lovers. As a result of these two crises, poor, frustrated and unemployed photographers started to flock together, thinking that when the shit hits the fan, power is in units.
Now, you can call me a sceptic (and I’m not actually, I’m just trying to deliver a razor-sharp column – all on my own, I might add). But while I was reading about the friendships and creative inspiration that supposedly sprout from these small photography cartels, a little voice in the back of my head kept saying: what is the actual benefit of the photo collective, besides sharing the workload – which can also easily lead to having even less work than before – and gently forcing some of your colleagues to do the things you hate, like writing endless press reviews and being in charge of the group’s financial administration?
Is it just the reassurance of being in a group with like-minded people? Is it just the freedom to do whatever you want? Is it just the gratification of listening to each other’s ideas and discussing each other’s work that makes the photo collective so attractive, because, frankly: I have not encountered one collective which can honestly say that the financial situation of their individual members has improved immeasurably since they’re working in a group.
Are photographers really that noble? I thought they were, like bitter freelance journalists and the occasional sobbing photography critic, always whining about money – now all of a sudden they just want to be creative? That’s weird.
And there’s something else. Some of the photo collectives have been devoting themselves as a whole to one subject. It has resulted in interesting and also not so interesting topics being highlighted from six or seven different points of view. Now I know these are the years of storytelling, but there is a point where you just have to stay STOP! In the name of journalism.
It seems to me that making stories, writing or photographing them, is all about making choices and approaching the subject in the best and most newsworthy way. I don’t mean to say there’s only one story for every topic. There’s always another side, and maybe even a third one. But the possibilities aren’t endless – at least the interesting ones are not. And before you know it, your highly creative photo collective ends up with a half-breed end product, that’s neither journalistic nor for the most part exciting.
And then what?
By all means: prove me wrong, I beg you. After all, even Magnum Photos, that tiny, insignificant photo collective from the forties, survived until now. And we all know that Henri Cartier-Bresson irritated the hell out of his fellow Magnum members by always – okay: nearly always – missing the most important moment, and that the only reason Robert Capa went to all these different war zones around the globe, was because he was trying to dodge his task of making notes during boring weekly meetings.
But most importantly: don’t forget that the toughest criticism always comes from the one lone wolf, one who’s actually jealous of people belonging to a group of inspired people, who are fighting evil till death do them part.
Column uitgesproken ter gelegenheid van ‘Fotodok Strijkt Neer’
1 maart 2014