The unspooling of photography


The unspooling of photography

Digital cameras have made the act of taking pictures pervasive and almost meaningless, writes ISMAIL LAGARDIEN.


I AM quite without a sense of humour these days. I am in a state of disbelief; people are losing their income for expressing opinions; children are being killed, but it’s their fault for not condemning someone before a bullet splattered their brains on the ground; the word “ceasefire” is equated with Nazism and, just as the late US secretary of state Madeleine Albright once said the killing of 500,000 Iraqi children was “worth it”, a group of South Africans seem to have decided that an acceptable number of people have been killed and that the bloodshed should, now, stop.

How we got here is beyond me.

Actually, it reminds me a bit of traffic lights at any busy intersection: green means go (but wait for the taxi to cross); orange means go faster (but look, first, for the taxi to cross); and red means cross at your own peril because, you know, the taxi. Nothing makes sense any more.

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I used to turn to photography for some sanity but that has also become impossible to fathom in this digital age. Photography is a big part of my life. More so than reading, writing and cooking. It’s the way I look at the world, the way I see things. How I wish others would walk around a subject — one of my own favourite habits — before making the picture (or opening their mouths, for that matter).

Looking for an “angle” or a “perspective” that has not been discussed, explored or photographed is actually easy. It's also easy to hide behind a viewfinder, knowing that nothing beyond the frame matters while also knowing that it does matter. Anyway, I have now escaped, as it were, into the philosophy and sociology of photography and the “reading” of pictures. Now I am curious about how and when images are captured within frames, what is left out, and the self-dramatisation and apostasy that places photographer-turned-heroes into, well, heroes.

It all started a long time ago. I did not set out to be a press photographer. If I had followed family expectations I would be a carpenter happily married to a “good Muslim woman” with children, living in a facebrick and driving a Golf GTi with a big sub-woofer in the boot and a miniature copy of the Quran dangling next to an air-freshener from the rear-view mirror. I ran from all that.

So, by my early 20s I held down two or three part-time jobs (one in a carwash, I think) while learning the craft of writing, and the next thing I knew I was getting freelance photographic “assignments” — we called them “jobs”. One of the first photographs I took as a “professional” was rejected.


I can guess why the photo wasn't regarded as suitable for publication. It was of two men, one with a thick moustache and another with a bulging dinges, during a wrestling bout at Wembley Arena in the south of Johannesburg. The next one was rejected, too. It may have been a good picture, but (I suspect) Ford’s public relations division had been at work and insisted their Sierras would win — and they did.

In those days you acquired habits; when you left home during a sunny Johannesburg day, you automatically set the aperture, the ISO and the shutter speed. Then it was simple to press the shutter release. You would, of course, go into the darkroom afterwards and make small corrections or choose the best frame on a contact sheet. But things happened in the darkroom. You knew, for instance, who was inside, or who had just been inside, when you were greeted by a waft of the good stuff.

Like so many endeavours, I was never a good photographer. I think I may have made two or three good pictures. One quite accidentally. While the print was technically impressive — it was dark, grainy, the subject looked at me a bit skeef — it was everything outside the frame that made the picture. It was a photograph  of George Buchanan, Desmond Tutu’s replacement as the Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg.

Quite unexpectedly, and because I had the habit of always changing the shutter speed and aperture when conditions changed, Buchanan stepped out of a shadowy area and into a dim light. I raised the camera and made the picture. The picture was impressive but the story was perfect. A white man stepping out of the shadows to replace a black bishop. I sent a note to the picture editor: “If you crop this picture in any way don’t put my name to it,” or something like that. The picture was run “full frame”.

Then the trouble started. About two decades ago I bought a “cheap” digital camera. There were too many buttons and settings. It felt like that first time that I (as a heterosexual teenager) encountered a woman’s (naked) body; I did not know what to press, what to turn, where to put my eye, whether to hold my breath (usually, with film photography, it helped to hold your breath when you used a slow shutter speed), whether I should rub, push or pull and whether all those calculations and considerations meant the moment had been lost. I went from capturing “perfect moments” with a film camera to ruining moments with digital photography.

We are three or four years away from the 200th anniversary of the first product of a photographic process. Shot through a window, it was made by the Frenchman Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 or 1827. We have, of course, come a long way since then, but things have changed for the worse over the past two decades. More options — like rows of different brands of baked beans that do not signify progress — make life really difficult.

Consider this. Sometime in 1999 I took a photograph, a single shot on a roll of 36 frames, and the picture was exactly what I wanted. It was E6 (that’s slide film for those of us under the age of 20). It was shot manually, with a manual camera, without a tripod, and hanging on the wall of my home it reminds me of the privilege of capturing the “perfect moment”. (See below, a picture I made in Bryce Canyon in the United States).

The act of taking a picture has become pervasive and almost meaningless. It is no longer to do with preserving memories or safeguarding family histories. With Instagram, especially, it has become an act of identity formation of the self. A new generation will walk to the edge of a cliff or a waterfall to take a selfie. That’s an entirely different thing from what I am banging on about, even setting aside the philosophy and sociology of photography.

After finally selling my trusty Nikon F5 (a decade later, it still hurts), I have been expected to learn so many new concepts that have turned me off taking pictures. Before, you inserted a roll of Tri-X ISO400 in the camera, set the aperture to f11 on a blistering day and, depending on what you were shooting, selected a shutter speed of between a 200th and a 400th of a second. Now, you have to think about multiple focal points, white balance, bitmaps, vectors, raster graphics, whether it’s best to shoot JPEG, TIFF or raw (and Apple, as moedswillig as it is, has now introduced High Efficiency Image File as a new format. You no longer work in a darkroom; now there’s a “light room”.

A lot of fun happened in darkrooms; sometimes very little of what happened in darkrooms had to do with photography. #justsaying

With digital photography, and in light rooms, you have to wonder about “metadata”, “rendering intent” (I honestly don’t know what that means), “masks”, placing photographs on the web, which take on a life of their own, and you have to either add a watermark to make a note that it’s part of an amorphous “creative commons” — which basically means anyone can use it.

Actual cameras are hardy. I once dropped my Olympus OM1 in about 30 centimetres of snow. I pulled it out immediately, dusted it off and kept shooting. I’m not even sure I can sneeze when I’m holding a DSLR. And then there's the cameraphone. For this function, and this function alone, I bought an iPhone. Between digitisation and iPhone photography, I need a PhD. (Oh, I have one, and that just shows you how useless a PhD is). There are so many filters and settings it's like that naked female body again; I don’t know where to start. I do get the occasional good pic. Like the one below I made in Bonn railway station in 2015.

Left: Bryce Canyon in the United States. Right: Bonn railway station.
Left: Bryce Canyon in the United States. Right: Bonn railway station.

I guess it’s a good thing that I no longer make pictures regularly, or for money. I hate to say it but (referring again to my snobbery) there are too many photographers. Consider these facts from a somewhat reliable source.

  • 1.81 trillion photos are taken worldwide every year, which means 57,000 a second or 5 billion a day.
  • By 2030, about 2.3 trillion photos will be taken every year.
  • 1.2 trillion were taken worldwide in 2021 and 1.72 trillion in 2022.
  • The global pandemic reduced the number of images taken by 25% in 2020 and 20% in 2021.
  • The average person takes 20 photos daily. This number is higher among younger people and lower among older people.
  • American smartphone users take the most photos: 20.2 a day. In the Asia-Pacific it's 15, in Latin America 11.8, in Africa 8.1 and in Europe 4.9.
  • 750 billion images are on the internet, which is 6% of all photos yet taken.
  • There are 136 billion images on Google Images.
  • By 2030, there will be 382 billion images on Google Images.
  • The average user has about 2,100 photos on their smartphone.
  • iOS smartphone users have about 2,400 photos on their phones, while Android users have about 1,900.
  • 12.4 trillion photos have been taken throughout history. By 2030, this number will increase to 28.6 trillion.
  • Users share the most images on WhatsApp: 6.9 billion a day. About 1.3 billion images are shared on Instagram daily, with about 100 million in posts and more than 1 billion in stories and chats.
  • 92.5% of photos are taken with smartphones and only 7% with cameras.

I just miss photography, the photography that was taken away and replaced by digital stuff, and that Apple would have us believe is better than actual cameras. It really is not.

♦ VWB ♦

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