Pictures as a Commodity

Michael E. Kirkpatrick ·

My first real experience with photography was my junior year of high school. I took a year-long black and white photography class to fulfill my University of California art requirement. I loved it. I shot with an old Minolta camera my parents loaned me and developed dozens of rolls of film over the course of the year. I even had two of my photos put on the cover of our yearbook.

In college I bought my first SLR camera, a Canon Rebel XTI, and found myself shooting with the black and white setting turned on despite having a full-color digital sensor. When traveling, I embodied the stereotypical tourist with my big camera slung over my shoulder or pressed to my eye clicking the shutter as I saw the sights.

Graduating from college my parents gifted me a beautiful 24-70 mm professional “L” lens for my new Canon 5D Mark II camera and I picked up a few jobs doing engagement photos and portraits. By this time I was two years out of college I had printed two photo books, made a couple iterations of my photography website and attempted to sell my photography online. The only customer I ever had buy a print from me online was my mother (thank you Mom).

To this day I love photography. But I find its meaning in my life significantly diminished by the power of social media photo sharing and the deluge of photographs we consume on a daily basis. It’s so easy, and yields such great results, to take photos with my iPhone camera that lugging around my Canon and lenses in a backpack isn’t appealing.

Benedict Evans recently wrote an article titled “How Many Pictures” in which he estimated the number of images shared around the world. According to his estimates and data that he gathered, “in 1999, the peak of the film-camera industry, consumers took around 80 [billion] photos…estimates of the total number of photos ever taken on film range from 2.5-3.5 trillion”. That’s a lot of photographs.

But with the increase in digital cameras out in people’s hands (e.g. smartphones), “at least 2 trillion photos will be shared this year, and possibly 3 trillion or more”. That’s more photos shared in a single year than were ever taken on film. Incredible. Photographs have become a commodity.

That said, great photography will continue to be sought after for marketing purposes and great photographers will be booked to shoot portraits and special events. Landscape and art photographers will continue to be pushed out of the market as consumers have free alternatives to expensive art prints shot with their personal cameras on vacations and edited with “filters” in smartphone apps.

Photographs can be moving and extraordinary. They can tell a story and inspire thought. And as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. That said, I took no more than roll of film’s worth of photographs on my last week-long vacation. Why? It was more valuable to be in the moment, learning and looking than to be constantly taking photos and missing out on the human company and new places that were right next to me.

But what about my friends and family you ask? Wouldn’t they like to see photos from my trip? I’m sure they would. But they don’t need 200 photos and a 30 minute photo slideshow. What I think my friends and family are really looking for are ways to connect and share in my travel experience. And I can do that through storytelling and the few photos that I took. Because life is about so much more than the snapshots; it’s about the overarching story. A snapshot is disposable.