Disposable photographs

Toilet Paper is hardly an auspicious name for a photography magazine. Reflecting on the title of this new commercial and advertising magazine and the reasons why an editor would choose to imbue their publication with such clear derogatory connotations, I remembered what Eileen, a keen contributor to this blog, said to me at the Brighton Photo Biennial: “there is so much ‘disposable photography’ around…”

‘Disposable photography’. Eileen’s remark has been stuck in my mind from the minute I heard it. In fact, it has become a curse too because now I see trivial, self-indulgent images taken by self-absorbed citizen-photographers absolutely everywhere. The image-upload statistics on the internet, symptomatic of this malaise, are mind-boggling:

  • There are nearly 5,000 new images uploaded to Flickr every minute
  • Every 60 seconds there are 35 new hours of video uploaded on YouTube
  • Facebook is growing at a rate of 60 million new images per week – that’s nearly 6,000 per minute

The great majority of those images are disposable photographs which say more about the person who took them than anything else. To me, they are best described as snippets of triviality. This is what I struggle with as a humanist documentary photographer. For me photography is not about the person who took the image but about the world, that is, about stories that take us along new paths of understanding. The counter-argument is that photographs also function as visual mnemonic devices that encapsulate personal life experiences of those who took them. As such, they are also a document, albeit a private one.

Take, for example, Vice, a free lavishly illustrated print & online magazine about the on implausible topics, some of which are undoubtedly controversial – just have a look at the features listed on the home page. The printed version of the magazine, slightly less outrageous than the online one, is packed with photography which seems to have been sourced out of social networking websites. After much deliberation I’ve come to the conclusion that those immediate, unsophisticated, true-to-the-moment photographs that I see in Vice are perhaps a new kind of documentary photography which may well do away with the documentary photographer sooner than we think.

Disposable images are also slightly surreal, showing a lived experience – that of the person who took the photograph – but devoid of any contextual information to make sense of it. All that one can do is speculate about whatever was in the mind of whoever took the photograph. Pure surrealism then, trying to figure out the workings of the unconscious… Is this why there is a marked surrealist trend in contemporary documentary I wonder? You only have to look at the the dark, sinister photographs by Anders Petersen and Jacob Aue Sobol or the colour worlds featured in Dayfour magazine to notice that surrealist undercurrent. Is this the way we are being trained to see?

Perhaps the best thing to do with disposable photographs is what Stephen Gill did with his polaroids: bury them. Well, not quite; he then dug them up and made a book with them – Buried. See what I mean? These days you can even make a book with images you have disposed of.


  1. Dewald 21 January 2011 at 6:49 am

    Thanks Jose, something really worth a ponder, specially for some of us who may feel a little lost(?).
    Seriously interesting links.

  2. Rob 21 January 2011 at 8:11 am

    I found it interesting that you mention Petersen in the context of this. Last weekend I went to the From Back Home exhibition at the Media Museum and actually found that Engström’s work to be in a more “disposable” style, chatting with Stan we mentioned that some of it felt like it came from the Facebook generation.

  3. AMANO 21 January 2011 at 10:41 am

    Jose writes, “For me photography is not about the person who took the image but about the world, that is, about stories that take us along new paths of understanding.”
    Thanks for that Jose because it needs stating, at least for someone like myself it does. I meet photographers who produce interesting work but it is about them rather than the world; there is a feeling that this can not be questioned because that would be to challenge their way of seeing. Perhaps this kind of imagery appeals to, for instance, people who are celebrity obsessed!? (BTW, many congratulations to the recent expose of celebrities by Rick Gervais at the Golden Globe awards!)
    You also state the counter-argument, which “is that photographs also function as visual mnemonic devices that encapsulate personal life experiences of those who took them. As such, they are also a document, albeit a private one.”
    All food for thought!

  4. marmalade 21 January 2011 at 10:50 am

    Disposable photography (good phrase Eileen) is part of our visual jigsaw these days. utube, flickr, facebook and other yet unborn community hang-outs – is this where it’s all at? It’s a little disturbing that our contemporary art movements are being born out of such sites. The photograph is being devalued in front of eyes to milk and bread in the weekly shop. What should documentary and fine art photographers do, divorce themselves from this ‘genre’ of disposable photography or embrace and shift its values. I like the idea that contemporary photographers are bringing back a little surrealism, a little mystery.

    I think the Vivien Maier case is an interesting case. This makes me question whether the revolution is predominantly the communication channel or the medium itself. Her life’s work was created on film, totally unpublished from yesteryear and it becomes an almost overnight sensation through the power of the web. Theoretically speaking, if she had photographed on digital and uploaded everything as she went along, without careful editing, what would have been the outcome? I think the air of mystery and being discovered added to the weight of her story. That’s what is missing today. It’s all ‘in your face’, all out there, too readily available. Optimistically, perhaps disposable photography is a mere off-shoot of a communication revolution and that the fundamental value of photography remains pretty much the same. I think for us students it does beg the question of editing, exposure and also the value of influences beyond the web.

    But conversely, perhaps we’re just seeing a shift in emphasis that is more collaborative and democratic. There is an interesting article here http://www.sevensevennine.com/?p=2278 questioning the relevance of traditional outlets for art. But whilst the common room of photography has moved on line, I’m not sure the art buyers and collectors have yet!!

    Good article Jose, thank you.

  5. nmonckton 21 January 2011 at 1:21 pm

    Hmmm! i see a parallel with junk food (or any other cheap consumable commodity to be honest – alco-pops might be another example).

    The fact that people consume vast quantities of junk food says more about them and their attitude to their bodies, than it does about the quality of the food. In junk food all the flavours are thrown in together with little differentiation- just like FB photos (and Flickr to a lesser extent – it still has a little more photo elitism to it). All this is fed by the commercial drive for band-wagon jumping – everyone is afraid not to be on Facebook in case their competitors/mates get a jump on them, every food culture has to be treduced to the level if a take-away. There are always people who either don’t know or don’t case that there are more satisfying outcomes available.

    All an artist can do in the face of this is try to communicate the satisfaction they find.

    To return to food they can take the same ingredients and produce food (or fine wine) that says something about a culture or the chef or the organic grower. the two aren’t mutually exclusive, and one need not be the end of the other. This will inevitably resonate with some people – hopefully enough that the message does not die.

    We’re simply seeing the natural conclusion of a process that started with the box brownie – everyone now has the capability to take a photo. In art the same process occurred once coloured pencils and paint became freely available and the result was graffiti and doodling.

    Inevitably there is cross-over as current artists in whatever medium come from a cultural tradition, but I don’t think the ‘sea of triviality’ matters. There is always a market for fine food or fine art and there will always be a market for good documentary photography (until someone invents a better and more portable medium that can achieve the same thing).

    Amongst all the trivia there will surely be nuggets of genius – the secret is to take them and mould them to the service of serious photography – like a photo-Banksy for example.

    What chance that Vice will last as long as the BJP? Quality generally floats to the top. Facebook and phone-photography will pass with the arrival of the next big thing.

    Of course, I don’t know what that will be – or I wouldn’t be spending time here – but unless we assume that evolution is going to stop there will surely be one.

  6. nmonckton 21 January 2011 at 1:23 pm

    PS Sorry for the typos – wish there was an edit function here as my proofreading leaves a little to be desired.

    1. Paul 21 January 2011 at 2:57 pm

      Happy to help Nigel 😉

      1. nmonckton 21 January 2011 at 4:41 pm

        I shall look forward to being able to save people from my garbled typing. Thanks Paul

  7. Graeme Hoose 21 January 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Surely people are missing the real issue here – the mass of images being produced is Digital…

    Is this why there is a resurgence in the low-tech tools amongst photographers and artists?

    Ephemera has it’s place but a print will always be a thing of beauty to hold and watch slowly decay, the same can’t be said of flooding your Friendface account with blurred and underexposed images of you and your friends last drunken night out… 😉

    1. nmonckton 21 January 2011 at 4:44 pm

      But it’s the print that is the ephemera – we can – if we so wish duplicate a digital file unchanged and perfect to infinity. The same is much less true of a print.

      And lets be fair – the majority of prints were no better than FB photos – it’s just we, fortunately, didn’t have access to them.

      1. Graeme Hoose 21 January 2011 at 5:22 pm

        Is that fortunate or unfortunate. The negatives are a more permanent record. You can touch and see analogue images for may years but who is to say that jpeg will stay a standard – like floppy discs… even with the current wealth of viewable images, who actually sees them all? and more importantly who will be able to see them all in the future, even a faded print is a tangible visual entity.

        Recently much has been made of a wealth of images created by a Chicago nanny, Vivian Maier, that were discovered shortly before her death.Many are acclaiming her as an undiscovered genius… but nobody had seen her work until recently. She took thousands of images that lay undeveloped for years that many find breathtaking in their quality of composition… but how does this fit into the notion of “disposability” based on the volume produced?

        Images retain what appears to be an arbitrary permanence due to their perceived artistic validity. This constant reference to images not being perceived as having merit as being disposable might be strongly contested by the folks who’s drunken antics they record.

        It could be said it is a case of validity being in the hands of the beer holder 😉

    2. RobTM 25 September 2011 at 9:55 am

      Looking at this thread a few months later, I felt I had to add that it’s not all digital. In the 90’s, photo diaries were very popular in Japan, and a book from Hiromix (Girls Blue – one of Parr and Badgers picks in “The Photobook”) was apparently drawn from 30,000 images. All of them were analogue.

  8. Keith Greenough 21 January 2011 at 3:19 pm

    To call  Anders Peterson and JH Engstrom’s work disposable seems a little harsh. Both have been shortlisted for the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize in recent years alongside luminaries such as Luc Delahaye and Stephen Shore. I found the From Back Home exhibition really interesting. Engstrom’s and Petersen’s styles are totally different and to see them exhibited side by side is quite a shock. Petersen’s work is very expressive. He gets in close with a wide angle lens in a street photography style. The final prints are high contrast black and white presented in a standardised 3×2 format. Engstrom’s  work is more eclectic.  He shows photographs individually and in groups. Most, if not all, are in colour and they seem to follow no particular style. Both are individual interpretations of Varmland the region of Sweden from which they hail.      

    1. Graeme Hoose 21 January 2011 at 3:36 pm

      I agree with Keith – some “disposable” aspects of producing ephemera should never be confused with actively recording ephemera.

      But are any images truly disposable? Are they all representative of their point of creation – a million frozen moments in time ?

      1. CliveW 21 January 2011 at 7:16 pm

        They aren’t frozen any more, they are all provisional, perhaps that devalues them.

  9. standickinson 21 January 2011 at 4:46 pm

    Perhaps the visual image is just replacing the verbal, because it’s available to everyone and fast – a picture still paints a thousand words? Just because everyone has been able to write words doesn’t mean that great novels have been devalued.

  10. Cedric Sherwood 27 January 2011 at 12:13 pm

    All photographs are disposable unless someone ascribes value to them. If the photographer values the image he or she has taken then it is not disposable. It matters little that it is slightly out of focus, poorly composed and has blocked out shadows if the taker cherishes the memories that it evokes.

    There is a very real danger for the serious photographer that all photographs are judged on the things that we have been conditioned to ‘see’. There is no universal truth in photography and what is seen as ‘good’ now will inevitably fall out of favour and the latest guru will pronounce on what is or is not a good photograph. Perhaps we should have belief in what we are doing and have the courage to steer our own course and refuse to be swept along by whatever is seen to be ‘right’.

    Much of what I have read above seems to be prompted by a fear that anyone can take a good photograph (which is true – infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of cameras) so why do we bother to study or put our professional lives on the line. The only probability is that we will produce more good pictures that will sell than Fred(a) with the point and shoot although it is equally probable that they will take one good picture that will win a prestigious competition or appear in all the Nationals.

    Photography and photographers seem to be going through a period of self doubt as it faces new challenges. We attach labels to various genre so that we can differentiate our photographs from those of the masses. When the boundaries become fuzzy and overlap with other labels we apply tighter and tighter limits to remain special and feel important. Ultimately those who can call themselves followers of genre ‘x’ can meet in a phone box in Bradford and feel special and superior. Perhaps we should get over ourselves and embrace the world. It is a big place and there is room for all of us to be different.

  11. tom smith 27 January 2011 at 1:54 pm

    Thankyou jose.
    you have hit the nail right on the head
    how many times have i wanted to dispose of many of my own
    pictures when i first became interested in photography.
    Thankfuly with todays camaras you can.You just press the
    delete button.

  12. Lloyd 27 January 2011 at 2:28 pm

    Is it for one artist to label the work of other artists as ‘disposable’ because their art doesn’t conform to a style he or she is comfortable with? I’d rather think not. Art is whatever the artist says it is. We don’t have to like all the styles of art/photography be they documentary, conceptual, or whatever. If I don’t like a particular photo I don’t consider it disposable in the eyes of the world. I simply understand that I don’t find it appealing or of interest to me. Believe me there have been some photos that are internationally lauded and yet which I wouldn’t personally give you a thank you for. Are those disposable?

    To me it seems you have taken compared the work of others to something you do, decided you don’t like their photos and therefore dismissed them collectively on behalf of everyone else.

    I would like to reiterate Cedric’s last sentence – “Its a big place [world] and there is room for all of us to be different.”

  13. Eileen 28 January 2011 at 10:45 pm

    When I referred to disposable photography I didn’t mean that I thought it was disposable, but that the users often do. Last time I looked, my goddaughter had 1,581 pictures of herself on Facebook (and she spends a lot of time untagging herself when people post ones she doesn’t like, so Lord knows how many have been taken of her). I know people who regularly upload every picture they’ve taken to Flickr or FB – sometimes without bothering to turn them the right way up. Collectively, they are often fond of their pictures, but few individual ones matter that much, and there are always new pictures to upload.

    Cameras are everywhere and we are surrounded by images wherever we go. This ubiquitousness affects how we look at and value images, and is probably changing out attitudes in subtle ways we don’t yet fully grasp. Whether this is a good or bad thing is to me somewhat irrelevant. We are where we are. And it is quite an interesting place to be and worth some attention, I think.

    That said, the sheer volume of pictures uploaded to Flickr and other sites sometimes fills me with an almost existential angst. I ask myself why am I bothering – why should I add to the numbers? Wouldn’t it be better not to add yet more pictures to the total? But something drives me to keep taking them, though it’s often an effort to post them. To take more photographs or not: what is the right thing to do? Answers on a postcard please. ; -)

  14. CliveW 28 January 2011 at 11:34 pm

    Print out the ones that have meaning for you, on A3 high quality paper, put them in Silverprint polyester sleeves and store in a portfolio box, treat them as precious objects, not yesterday’s papers.

    Archive the also rans out of sight; just because they’re colour positives it doesn’t mean that you can’t treat them as negatives, a means to make a photograph.

    You can have a look through them every couple of months and see if any of them now make sense in light of the work you’ve done subsequently. The rest of the time ignore their existence.

    Creating the images as objects completes them as photographs and elevates their status in the sense that they are now unique impressions that are ageing and changing, while their Dorian Grey counterparts remain suspended in their binary pristinity and ubiquity.

    1. Rob 31 January 2011 at 9:40 am

      I was recently at a talk by Martin Parr. If I remember correctly, he prints everything at 10×8 and then sees which might have the staying power to be worked on further. The rest just get put in boxes….

      1. CliveW 31 January 2011 at 10:36 am

        Yes, with digital every time you go into Lightroom your whole photographic history can be swinging back and forth along the bottom of the screen. Familiarity breeds contempt and doubt in equal measure; plus you’re not only seeing your edited highlights, as you do when you look at other people’s work, you’re faced with all your past misdemeanours, better to just have sight of the projects you’re working on and enjoy the progress.

        I’ve got stacks of boxes of work prints, 10×8 and 5×4 trannies, and representative Polaroids from most every shoot I ever did; waiting in the attic for my kids to throw them away. Hahaha

    2. Rob 31 January 2011 at 6:18 pm

      or to somehow cash in many years from now…

  15. Ben 29 January 2011 at 11:38 am

    Wow – what an interesting read for a Saturday morning!

    I think it’s fantastic, fascinating, and mind boggling that there is a global army of millions that are just out there taking photo’s 24/7.

    There may be a zillion “snippets of triviality” – but won’t these all add up to what will be one hell of a historical record the now?

    I do think that there is a distinction though between the randomness of say a million camera phone facebook photos – a noise of images – and something that is conscious decision to, for example, document the people “From Back Home” like Anders Petersen and JH Engström did.

    But – For me, my little ‘journey’ (what an awful strictly come dancing word) – is that I took/take disposable images, but in doing so it led to an interest in this subject of photography, and created an itch of “how far, where can it take me” – and ultimately ended up with me joining a course on the OCA… so long live disposables!

  16. Eileen 29 January 2011 at 1:16 pm

    I think that digital cameras offer many benefits Ben, and wouldn’t wish to go backwards, even if it were possible.

    Thanks for the idea Clive. I think I’ll give it a go. I can see that in part it’s about committing to certain images, both artistically and financially (neither the prints nor the portfolio boxes and sleeves are cheap). Turning the pictures into relatively precious objects and then consciously respecting and caring for the objects might well make a change in how I feel about them.

    Also, of course, it’s harder to hide in a print – they show strengths and weaknesses much more effectively than screens even at A4 (my normal printing size). Mmm, food for thought…

  17. CliveW 29 January 2011 at 1:56 pm

    The thing is serious photography has always been expensive, especially for poor students. We used to club together to buy a box of Brovira or Royal Bromesko and eke out our share; studying contacts long and hard then proofing on college supplied Ilfobrom before risking a precious sheet. That set the standard for taking care, treating with care, and believing in what you had put a lot of considered, expensive, effort into producing.

    The same applied to working in the studio with analogue, when you’d spent all day producing an in-camera comp. of 5 or 6 elements, to produce a definite article, you had to believe in its worth. Now with Photoshop it’s easily achieved, always remains provisional and is unremarkable.

    That’s not to say I’m an analogue recidivist, like you, I wouldn’t go back. My darkroom is a storage room now and the enlargers are gathering dust but I still believe that the realisation of a physical object that you can contemplate is the completion of the process.

  18. Peter Haveland 30 January 2011 at 3:28 pm

    I tend to agree with much of what Clive says, having been educated to work towards the High Modernist ‘Fine Print’ a la Adams. However it is interesting to note that although I was blown away by the prints of Crewdson’s ‘Sanctuary’ exhibition recently, many ofmy non-photographer, fine artist colleagues who were with me prefer the bok to looking at a room full of A1 black and white prints. They find them more intimate and united into a whole…interesting!

  19. CliveW 30 January 2011 at 4:00 pm

    Well I agree about the book, but for me that’s more to do with a hold in your hand personal one to one with the work, such as the box of pristine prints supplies.

    I prefer a box of personal size prints to massive prints on the gallery wall, there’s an element of high class wallpaper about that.

    My only slight reservation about the book is that you’re looking at pictures of pictures, so that you’re one removed from the actual object.

  20. Peter Haveland 30 January 2011 at 11:03 pm

    For me the difference is that the images on the wall sucked you in, made you inspect the details of the image before moving on whereas the book asks you to take in the image as a whole and follow a possible narrative, two different presentations producing two different results.

  21. CliveW 31 January 2011 at 12:28 am

    Yes, as you pointed out with the videos, size does matter, as does the form of presentation and context. They all impact on how the work is received and need to be calculated for.

    I surprised myself this week suggesting to a student that it would be interesting to see their assignment as an installation of Duratrans on lightboxes; not something I’ve advanced before in my remembering.


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