The Proliferation of Mediocrity? In an Age of Likes, Commonplace Images Prevail

Everyone is a photographer these days, everyone has a camera. There’s hardly anything left in the world that doesn’t yet exist as a photographed clone. The world is full of little HCBs and countless casual shooters aiming their camera at everything — even at the most private or meaningless stuff. It is estimated that last year nearly 400 billion images were taken, a huge percentage of them with camera phones. Digital photography is exploding, but where exactly are we going with it?

The cigarettes of Jean-François Leroy, founder and director of the Visa Pour L’Image photo festival in Perpignan, France | James Estrin, New York Times
James Estrin from The New York Times’ Lens Blog has some interesting thoughts on where this shift in photography is taking us. In his article “In an Age of Likes, Commonplace Images Prevail,” he outlines two possible outcomes.

We either end up with a culture that is more aware and appreciative of photography, with much better photography than even a few years ago. Or we get a society flooded with a mediocre photos where even the best of the best photos can’t rise above the strengthening torrent of digital images.


Just as access to pens and paper hasn’t produced thousands of Shakespeares or Nabokovs, this explosion of camera phones doesn’t seem to have led to more Dorothea Langes or Henri Cartier-Bressons. But it has certainly led to many more images of what people ate at lunch.

And while you may not think that my iPhone photo, above, is worth a second look (or even a first glance), I can proudly report that between Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, dozens of people have judged its quality positively by liking it.

And I’m listening to them.

Because of the iPhone and social media, the very meaning of what photographs are and how they function has changed radically in the last four years.

A photograph is no longer predominantly a way of keeping a treasured family memory or even of learning about places or people that we would otherwise not encounter. It is now mainly a chintzy currency in a social interaction and a way of gazing even further into one’s navel.


The issue is not whether one chooses to use an iPhone instead of a Leica but the ideas and vision of the photographer.

The effect of the Web on the photography business is ancient news. Film versus digital — prehistoric, at least in the accelerated time chamber of social media and the Web.

Six years ago the core questions we faced were: How do we distribute our work and make a living in the digital age? Since then, some photographers have survived, perhaps with fewer assignments and more crowdsourcing, foundation grants and N.G.O. money.

The proliferation of a commonplace — or vernacular — photography is a much more profound change. The question is not so much whether this is a good thing for society (or a bad thing for photographers). It is happening, a billion times a day, and there is no going back.

The question is: How does the photographic community harness this explosion of visual energy to expand its audience?

As far as he can see — admittedly from ground level — there are two possible effects on “serious” photography:

  1. The flowering of photographers leads to millions of people who are thinking more visually and whom we may be able to entice to become an audience for documentary and photojournalistic images.
  2. We are bombarded with so much visual stimuli via the Internet and social media that it becomes almost impossible to rise above the flood of images. And if everyone likes everything, no one photograph is better than another.

Read the full article at the NYT’s Lens Blog.

  • PWL

    Wull, shucks…..I guess this means I’m a “little Cartier-Bresson.” What can I say? I like photography, and I like candid shooting, but I guess I have a certain level of talent, and it doesn’t rise to the level of David Douglas Duncan, etc. So I guess I might be part of the “proliferation of mediocrity.”

    So should I just give up shooting for the betterment of society? I guess my answer would be that if only one person is happy with what I shot (me), then it’s OK.

    Only other thing I can say is that outside of war zones or fringe groups ( i.e.. junkies, gang members, etc), most lives are filled with banality. Gobs and gobs of it ( something about the “grayness of life” comes to mind). And that’s a lot of what you’re going to capture. Especially out here in flyover country….

  • That’s one great disease of these our current times, that we’re indoctrinated with the illusion that only the perfect, spectacular, outrageous, ultimate and very very special counts. There’s so much beauty hidden in the average, the inconspicuous… And that counts for photography. We just have to open our eyes.