I'm not at all comfortable calling myself a photographer. This is not the self-loathing artist in me, but the oversensitive second grader me denying a childhood crush despite all evidence pointing it so.
That isn't to say I don't actually use the term. In fact, I don't like calling most people photographers because the term is more overused than ketchup on hot dogs and condiments don't exactly work on people unless you're trying to eat them (if you're into that sort of thing) or unless you're trying to eat them (if you're into that sort of thing).
The term "photographer" has lost its effect on me not by its overuse in my industry but by its glaring homogeny, a ubiquitous fact as clear and obvious as "you breathe therefore you have lungs. Isn't that cool?!"
And yet, the reality is more powerful than my stubborn criticisms allow. We are all this thing. We are all photographers. We are all contributors to this beast called "art." In a world of smart phones and camera apps, everyone is a photographer, or has the potential to be one. Media channels like Instagram and Facebook encourage this trend above all pretense, whether your selfie was shot from three feet above your head or whether you are showcasing food you probably didn't cook.
Yes, you are indeed a photographer.
Regardless of intent or awareness, as both consumers and producers, this is what I've found: we photograph the very things we love. That is a joyous and admirable realization that we all are blessed with the capacity in this giant show-and-tell to share with others the very things we hold dear in this world.
...until I see things like this and suddenly my rosy-eyed idealism takes a backseat.
On April 12, 2015, a Baltimore man named Freddie Gray died while in police custody, his body beaten and spine severed from the rest of itself. And in what has become a horrifying joke of a pattern as recurring as sunsets, the authorities involved in his death were pardoned of crime resulting in civil unrest amongst the neighborhood. The damages were immense, so much so that the National Guard was summoned from within Maryland and its neighboring bases.
Some residents of Baltimore resorted to riots. Others engaged in peaceful protest. Police... arrested. And in the way moths are drawn to flames, so too did the media follow.
Predictably so, the pundits struggled to convey it as everyone at home struggled to make sense of the agendas being presented. Twitters "wars" erupted. "Look at these ruffians," said Fox News. "GO HOME" yelled Ray Lewis of the Baltimore football fame. "These riots are unprecedented and never before seen," quoted an ignorant CNN pundit.
Whatever it was, it sucked and hurt to watch.
Representations like these spur an existential crisis in me. Not the 28 year old me who hates seeing people in pain, but the 28 year old media producer in me who has shot both weddings and funerals, who has seen the richest the world has to offer while being constantly reminded of its worst.
As a full-time media producer, my skillset is to peddle image. Message. I know how to point a camera in ways that'll make most boogers look like beauty marks. I can forecast the kinds of effects certain words and images will have on people and I know ways to twist those letters and pixels to draw a certain emotion that may or may not be completely honest.
But tragedies like these will never cease to unhinge me because this isn't at all new phenomena. Media has played this role exhaustively through time of both truther and liar of civil manipulation and coercion.
In the late 40s, the De Beers corporation tricked people into thinking diamonds are rarer than they actually are.
In Vietnam, propagandists painted colorful pictures of their teams.
In the late 1700s, the work of prominent artist Jacques Louis David spurred the French Revolution with his classical renderings of .
And these are images of the Newark riots of 1967 not too dissimilar from the one of Ferguson 2014, freshly wounded by the death of Michael Brown.
That is the power of art. To communicate message, motive, to lie, to bolster, to battle oppression and to persuade.
I think a lot about the role of media a lot in society. And by extension, my role in the world as a photographer. Whether you realize it or not, media today shapes much of our view of the world at large. It confirms our tastes, our ideals, and our beliefs. It communicates our emotions, our thoughts, and desires.
Most importantly, it conveys power of the human intention.
I try to always remind myself of this, that twenty years down the line, my nephew will find a picture I shot and ask me about it. And I don't want to tell him I made a particular piece of art because it simply looked good or because I wanted to get off or something asinine like that.
But rather, I want to tell him I shot what I shot because it spurred in me something emotionally. That what I made inspired me to look at the world in a different way. Confirmed my ideals about the future. Envisioned the kind of society I want to live in and the dreams I had when I had made that particular piece. Conveyed the fears I still hold about myself and the people around me.
I look back at the shocking footage from Ferguson, from Baltimore, and it always reminds me to stay cognizant of the world. To always remember it exist. I don't think it's sadistic to want or even focus on troubling, political content. In fact, it's the most honest we can be about human civilization and its current direction. Perhaps that's what went through these artist and photographers' minds when they covered these riots. "I want to see a different world than the one I'm living in."
Or maybe they just got paid a ton of money. Who knows.
This isn't a change your life post. This is a photo-for-thought post, a kindly reminder to think about what makes your media unique and what you seek to communicate by sharing it with others. Because Facebook and every other social media channel is becoming a parody of itself of actual social interactions, of soapbox activism, of coy and tasteless flirting, of unpunished racism, and of art aspiring to be itself. Good art. Bad art. Whatever art. And as the world slowly tumbles into a mess of apocalyptic income equality, global warming, and social injustice. The least we can do is make the world a less shitty place by conveying its good, its bad, and its ugly.
All of it.
I'm not asking you to become a war photographer or to drop your current job and save the world. I'm asking you to consider the possibility that you are currently living in the noisiest and most restless era of human civilization outside of the Crusades and that whole Black Death thing and that everything you eat and vomit onto social media can have significant impact on the world, whether you realize it or not.
So what will you talk about when shit hits the fan? Your contributions shape this society, so make each one meaningful.
Because if you can't make it meaningful, at least make it count.
And if you can't make it count, at least make it good.
And if you can't make it good, at least make it honest.
You owe the world that much, photographer.