Welcome to our virtual debate about the relative value of amateur vs. professional photojournalism. Although it’s not an actual face-to-face argument between two opponents, our side-by-side presentation of two separate talks from TED (see videos, below) helps illuminate some key tensions between the people who control traditional media outlets—and those of us who don’t. Our hope is that by addressing these issues honestly and openly, we can help the Editor of National Geographic realize the untapped potential of the Society’s members — millions of whom have digital cameras of their own.
The gap between professional and amateur photographers
is closing fast.
Arguing in the affirmative: Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, and a faculty member at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. His video presentation is called “Institutions vs. Collaboration” — but it could be called: The High Priests in Our Old Photographic Temples Should Be Trembling In Their Shoes.
Arguing in the negative: David Griffin, Director of Photography for National Geographic magazine. His presentation is called “Photography Connects Us With The World,” but it could be called: All Hail The High Priests of Professional Photojournalism, For Only We Ministers of the Media Can Reliably Lead The Rest of You to The True and The Beautiful.
Some listening tips….
In David’s talk, you might pay particular attention to the structure of his presentation. He begins with Let’s look at some great photos…. He segues to: One of these photos was taken by an amateur, and amateurs sometimes produce some amazing pictures…. Which leads to his key rhetorical pivot — the big But: “… But to be a great photojournalist….” David then offers a spirited defense not of collaborating with amateurs, but of professional photographers — and, by extension, a defense of his own institutional authority (and of his job).
In Clay’s talk, you’ll hear why he believes there’s enormous value to be found in the tsunami of images produced by amateurs. Also: Pay particular attention to his critique of Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft. Ballmer once belittled the thousands of amateur computer programmers who created Linux — a hugely successful open-source operating system — because each programmer contributed a tiny bit of code compared to what’s produced by the highly-paid professionals at Microsoft. According to Shirky:
[Ballmer] said, oh, this business of thousands of programmers contributing to Linux, this is a myth. We’ve looked at who’s contributed to Linux, and most of the [security] patches have been produced by programmers who’ve only done one thing….
From Ballmer’s point of view, that’s a bad idea, right? ‘We hired this programmer, he came in, he drank our Cokes and played Foosball for three years and he had one idea.’ (Laughter) Right? Bad hire. Right? (Laughter)…
[But] the fact that a single programmer can, without having to move into a professional relation to an institution, improve Linux once and never be seen again, should terrify Ballmer. Because this kind of value is unreachable in classic institutional frameworks, but is part of cooperative systems….
First on stage with his opening argument, please welcome a senior representative of a “classic institutional framework” — Mr. David Griffin….
(To view the videos, please click on the thumbnail images at the bottom of the frame;
if you click on the big image at the top, you’ll jump over to YouTube.)
In closing, we’d reiterate one of Clay’s points:
Institutions hate being told they’re obstacles.
But the good news for National Geographic is: We don’t have to be an institution controlled by a few of photography’s high priests. We could be a Society of members instead.
Special note to David Griffin & Editor-in-Chief Chris Johns: What’s your take on Clay Shirky’s presentation? Do you plan to engage the members of our Society in any type of “cooperative system” that extends beyond the tired old divide of Your Shot & Our Shot? (You want labels for who takes the pictures — pro or amateur — but most of us out here are simply interested in seeing great pictures.) If you’re interested in collaboration, what do you have in mind? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments, below.