Too many photographers, too many festivals, too many photo books

This post is also available in: Italian

Short Version

The title is intentionally sarcastic, as are several parts of this text. Quotes, clichés, analysis and thoughts have been pulled together without misusing italics or inverted commas. In brief: we have to use the concept of “too much” as an incentive, as a critical, reflective, constructive question. Natural selection will run its course. Therefore, stop feeling sorry for yourself.

Long Version

I could write about interesting photography projects connected to a central idea, interview publishers and workers in the field of Publishing, tell about the dynamics or the motivations that gave birth to Gazebook; nevertheless, I don’t think this would bring anything concrete to our blog; I’d rather tell you my impressions on the current too many photographers, too many photo books, too many festivals problem. It’s a refrain that runs on a loop and wipes out a valley of tears in which people — too many of them, yes — keep feeling sorry for themselves. It’s a slogan that people – too many of them, yes – use as an excuse, as a sentence that is an end to itself: the overpowering evil of contemporary photography.

Slowly, we’ve emerged (hopefully) from the eternal tension between analog and digital realms: in particular, this last one has turned us all — and I’m no exception — into digital photographers. It’s the brief, exponential, tragic story of the digital camera sensor and, more specifically, the digital camera sensor in an Internet populated by young people; its relationship with these damn smartphones, and then also social medias, Instagram, hashtags, and an increasingly mature — yet poorly exploited — Internet. The citizen journalist’s path in all of its damn glory. We’ve woken up all of a sudden and realized that the iPhone-equipped passersby have become an overbearing part of the photojournalism field, just like the bride’s uncle who takes pictures of her at the wedding ceremony and then sends them to her on WhatsApp during the reception that same night.

Too many photographers, too many festivals. Big cities and small towns. Successful artists and young beginners. Then again: portfolio readings, talks, workshops. One a year, in each region of Italy. God, we’re really sick of this!
Besides, these many photographers — too many — and the insiders magically become a few and always the same. Instead of getting curious about all the new people we meet and trying to understand how a certain public might react towards certain contents, we get stuck with the fact that no matter what, there’ll always be the same people; therefore, the world of festivals is seen as a self-referential circle. There should be fewer festivals, for it’s a repeated format, according to many people, and it has become a total bore; but it doesn’t really matter if the real photographers (not those of the “too many” variety) follow the same ancient format as well —embedded in their respective genres —, without being considered repetitive (not that they would really care about it, anyway). There’s no need to change, of course; at worst, they get called “creative documentary photographers”. After all, the iPhones and the damn citizen journalists are the ones to blame, just like the bride’s uncle.

All things considered, we should wonder who forces us to go to these festivals, why we don’t attend just a few or even, why not take a few months off.
In other words, we shall wonder what is that’s wrong with these “too many festivals”, what would happen if we decided to choose a different path in the meantime; essentially, we should wonder what really, honestly motivates the organization of a festival and its attendance in the first place.
Personally, I believe that each exposition finds (or ought to find) its strength in the local public; it’s really exciting and satisfying that many – or just a few – people go on a journey to attend a festival, but what’s even more powerful is when local people have the chance to meet other sides of the world, ideas, people who are totally new to them – yes, to them. Those who aren’t used to taking trips to Arles, Gibellina, Foligno, Punta Secca, etc., to eat, drink and talk about photography (perhaps), well, they only attend one festival a year, if they’re lucky, or may not otherwise attend any. So, “too many festivals”? Really? These people represent the breaking point of self-reference. So it’s not about reducing festivals! If that man is currently ruling the United States of America, it’s because all the forgotten people (in every sense, pollsters included) who live in small towns have been ignored and have no positive or cultural ideals, artistic ones included. And all of us insiders — photographers, editors, curators, professors, art directors, publishers, cultural workers —, instead of considering this sterile controversy of “too many” photographers and festivals as the root of all evil, we should look at this concept as a social and visual analysis, not as a problem; indeed, we should take the cue from it, in order to ask ourselves some critical and constructive questions. We’re insiders, and presume we know how to depict the world, and then, maybe, suppose that the world of photography is our Facebook timeline, for it’s only there that these festivals become “too many”. If we state that they ought to be fewer, as a remedy to self-reference, well, that self-reference itself.

Everybody takes pictures, everybody attends festivals, and now, as if the big publishing houses weren’t enough, everybody presents their own photo book. After crowdfunding, self-publishing, hand-made, on-demand, here’s dummy books, fanzines, newspapers, Blurb – which is a publishing house, yes, but small and independent -, organizations that become publishing houses, yes, but small and independent. Long story short, we’re sick of this too. As if this visual pollution due to all these many photographs taken by too many photographers who attend too many festivals weren’t bad enough: now they even bind them!

I believe that simply making a book doesn’t mean quality or prestige: they’re as mediocre as your dad’s pictures, when he wanted to photograph the biggest and brightest moon in the last seventy years, while trusting his iPhone flash. Now everybody is democratically allowed to sing, write (even me, matter of fact), cook, photograph… and make a book.
At last, the bride’s uncle can make his own book on Blurb with the pictures he took from his smartphone, and if his wife discovers the binding tutorials on YouTube, who cares about print on-demand books: you might as well go into a tobacco shop and easily bind everything. “Well, but it’s not a book, it’s just a fanzine.” “Just a fanzine.” As if a photo project could reach its highest prestige only by virtue of being a photo book; as for this one, it’s the label of all the big publishing houses (which keep being snobbish towards self-publishing), the small ones and those who go boating on the Seine – that is, the French. It doesn’t really matter if, in the meantime, the photo books that come from the big publishing houses have reached the final stage of some eminent contest made of shameless conflicts of interest, in the style of Alemanno*; it doesn’t really matter if, in the meantime, the big publishing houses keep brushing up on authors, projects and editions whose style and contents are definitely old, though they pass it off as the latest product, in the style of Renzi**; it doesn’t really matter if these important publishing houses make a photo book from the money collected by crowdfunding – personally organized by the photographer -, without standing up for it, in the style of Grillo***. Alemanno, Renzi, Grillo: getting to that man – Donald Trump – isn’t that hard. There are too many photo books, that’s a fact. Well, let’s start again from here. There’s still a chance to show that photo books aren’t the only favored instrument of distribution for a project. Before complaining about all of these other photo books, we shall reflect that even ours could contribute to visual pollution. Are we really sure that the photo book is the only possible form of dispersion? Are we sure that a fanzine is “just a fanzine”? Can I still publish things that would have been fine ten, twenty, thirty years ago? Can I still afford something that has nothing to envy when compared with an on-demand photo book printed by the bride’s uncle on Blurb?

Before accusing and complaining, it would be good if we answered, as well as helpful to ask ourselves some questions in order to go beyond this controversy that is an end to itself.
In other words, I believe that the concept of “too many” reveals a hypocrite suffering for a competition from which we can’t draw any constructive incentive. We shall constantly keep ourselves updated, be always on the ball and open up our minds, but we can’t do this by dampening the democratic nature of photography; when I say that we shall always be on the ball, I don’t refer to any kind of trend we shall follow, but to the importance of understanding the social, and most of all, political period that we live in and to which we relate in the field of photography through our work.

This “too much” is just statistical, and the Darwinian selection will run its course.
The bar is getting higher, and the cutoff frequency is continuously established by what we want and our ability to relate to this society.

* Alemanno: Mayor of Rome from 2008 to 2013.
** Renzi: former Prime Minister of Italy.
*** Grillo: Italian comedian and politician.

About Simone Sapienza | Gazebook – Sicily Photobook Festival

Alternative TextSimone Sapienza (Catania, 1990) is a documentary photographer recently graduated in Documentary Photography (with First Class Hons) from the University of South Wales - Newport. His photographs have been published in several magazines, including The British Journal of Photography, Io Donna, New Republic, PDN, La Stampa, and others. He has received several awards at national and international level, including first place in the BJP Breakthrough 2016, the second in the Prix Tabò in 2015, honorable mentions to Pesaresi Prize in 2016 and Photographic Museum of Humanity in 2015. And 'co -founder of Gazebook - Sicily Photobook Festival and is now one of the members of Minimum in Palermo.
*image Humanae © Angelica Dass