I bought a GPS sports watch recently as a gift for my wife, a keen runner and cyclist, and inside the slightly over-sized box were no less than twelve separately bound instruction manuals, each nicely printed in various languages from English to - I’m hazarding a guess here - Finnish and Polish. This got me thinking, particularly when I also happened on a box full of unused plugs, all of which had originally been supplied with a single piece of electronic equipment. There seemingly isn’t a continent on Earth with electricity where you couldn’t use this gear, notwithstanding the fact that it’s too heavy to contemplate taking outside the UK. But what have a bunch of manuals and plugs got to do with photography? Well, it's a case of oversupply gone mad.
We’ve become all too familiar with the scenario now; it’s such common practice, whether we buy a camera, a computer or flat-pack furniture, in the box there will inevitably be an extra cable, extra screws or plugs and most definitely extra instruction manuals.
The reason is obvious of course - modern economies of scale make it far, far easier and cheaper for a manufacturer to throw in all the peripheral bits and pieces than to be selective for individual products or markets. Better to lump everything in the box and then ship it anywhere. We consumers are okay with this because on the whole it’s easy to identify the items we need and discard the rest. It’s wasteful of resources, maybe, but efficient in practice.
However, what if it was really hard to identify the thing of value to us and difficult to discard what wasn’t wanted? Worse, what if the twelve instruction manuals were one mashed up volume with every other line in Polish, Italian, Danish? Because it seems to me this is what’s happening to photography. As it is with those manufacturers supplying manuals in umpteen languages, we often find it far more compelling to deal in bulk with our photographs, to upload or share without being particularly selective. Memory is cheap, dealing in quantity is easy. Being critical, discarding weaker content, creating a strong narrative with our pictures, these are all processes that require a bit of time, effort and possibly expense and the temptation is not to go through with them.
The removal of film and processing costs from the photographic equation has opened the doors to a tidal wave of imagery and the danger with being inundated is that everything becomes forgettable. If we can’t tell what’s worth keeping, how can we begin to create something lasting? So, let’s not ship everything in the box regardless - we need to do our photographs the justice of at least a little thought. In a world where we’re all potential publishers, we need to remember to adopt the role of picture editor too. It may be harder but our families and Facebook friends will thank us for a more considered approach, not to mention that we’ll be more likely to end up with something identifiably worth keeping for the future.