Sixty years ago, in 1959, one of the primary ways Americans understood the world was by looking at photographs in magazines like Life and Look, where multipage photo essays covered topics ranging from the space race to Marilyn Monroe. But even then the media landscape was changing—that year, Life reduced its cover price to compete with growing television viewership, and by 1972, the magazine had ceased weekly publication. Today, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, more Americans get their news from social media than from print newspapers, and that online world is becoming increasingly image-driven, with the rise of Instagram and the greater ease of communicating through pictures alone. Photography is again a central component of how we make sense of the world, and more widely used than ever—by some estimates, we take upward of a trillion photos a year. But basic questions about photography’s meaning and its power are still being hashed out, and its future will be determined by the answers to those questions. What will happen when smartphones can take pictures that equal those made by professional cameras, or when computers can make convincing but entirely made-up photos? Whose stories do photographs tell, and who gets to tell those stories? What—and whom—do photographs tell us is beautiful, and what obligation do photographers have to make that beauty inclusive or attainable?
The photo industry has been through countless ups and downs, but somehow photography always gets reborn, transformed into something new. “There have been so many times something has been labeled the next big thing, or ‘this is going to be the death of photography,’” says New York–based creative director Toby Kaufmann. “But things evolve and change, and really, that’s all you can do as a creative, is continue to evolve and change.”
According to many in the tech and imaging worlds, photography’s next metamorphosis will be driven by artificial intelligence (AI). Articles abound about how AI and machine learning are transforming—or have the potential to transform—field after field, from medicine to transportation. As computers have become more powerful, AI systems have been programmed to use massive databases to improve their performance at a particular task, and “learn” over time. AI has been a crucial part of recent advancements in smartphone cameras—AI-driven software helps make images that look like they came from better lenses or were made with better equipment. “In the past, photography was the domain of those with the expertise of using a DSLR to create different types of images, and what AI has started to do is to make the effects and capabilities of more advanced photography available to more people,” Simon Fitzpatrick, senior director of product management at computational imaging company FotoNation, told Digital Camera World last year.
AI has helped push new developments in image recognition software, which identifies specific types of objects and particular people, automating some of the photo editing tasks once performed by humans. It also helps synthesize new images, inventing human faces and landscapes that never existed. In one of the more startling examples, NVIDIA, the chip maker with an AI research arm, developed a system that produces convincing-looking photos of glamorous but fictional men and women, using a database of celebrity photos as its starting point. “We think we can push this further, generating not just photos but 3-D images that can be used in computer games and films,” Jaakko Lehtinen, one of the project’s researchers, told the New York Times recently. The technology could potentially be applied to other kinds of images, perhaps someday enabling users to generate imagery while bypassing professional photographers—and models—completely. Along those lines, the past several years have seen the rise of a handful of computer-generated Instagram influencers and virtual models. Perhaps the best known of them, Lil Miquela, has more than 1.5 million Instagram followers. The product of a technology startup called Brud, she has appeared in fashion magazines, puts out her own music and even has a job as a contributing editor for a beauty website. While models like Lil Miquela aren’t strictly made with AI, their success has inspired investment in “digital beings who actually are powered by AI,” Julia Alexander wrote this year on The Verge.
With its ability to create real-looking fakes, AI undermines photography’s already shaky claim to truthfulness, a claim that took a beating in the Photoshop age, when it became simple and easy to manipulate images. Since then, trusting what you see has only become more difficult. In one of AI’s more notorious applications, researchers at the University of Washington converted existing audio files of things Barack Obama had said into realistic mouth shapes, which were then blended onto existing videos of the president. Taking things a step further, BuzzFeed used Adobe After Effects and FakeApp, an AI-powered face-swapping program, to create a PSA in which Obama appears to be speaking words written and voiced by filmmaker Jordan Peele. (“How we move forward in the age of information,” Peele says as Obama, will determine “whether we survive or whether we become some kind of fucked up dystopia.”) These experiments highlight the danger that AI poses to the long-standing trust we place in video, and by extension, to our trust in all visual media. “More engaging and more believed than text, any and all photos or videos could become as doubted as a Photoshopped magazine cover,” wrote Jared Newman, an analyst at startup platform Betaworks Ventures, in Nieman Lab’s rundown of predictions about journalism in the coming year.
A new diversity
Writing in the New York Times Magazine recently about a 19th-century colonialist photograph, writer, critic and artist Teju Cole described a bleak status quo. “Photography’s future will be much like its past. It will largely continue to illustrate, without condemning, how the powerful dominate the less powerful.” One long-standing cause of this inequality (but certainly not the only cause) is that the majority of photographers and the people who hire them have historically been White men. Women and people of color have been underrepresented in the industry, and their perspectives have been frequently excluded from mainstream visual culture. In the past several years, there has been a push to challenge that and make the photo industry more inclusive, by encouraging photo editors to hire outside their usual networks. Several projects have focused on making these marginalized voices easy to find. Diversify Photo (diversify.photo) was founded in 2017 by New York Times photo editor Brent Lewis and visual communication and digital media specialist Andrea Wise. The website presents the portfolios of several hundred photographers of color, mostly based in the United States, and provides their contact information to editors. Women Photograph (womenphotograph.com), also founded in 2017, promotes women and nonbinary visual journalists by bringing together portfolios from more than 800 photographers in close to 100 countries.
Women Photograph founder Daniella Zalcman hopes the project will someday become irrelevant. “I’ve always operated under the hope and belief that Women Photograph will cease to be necessary at some point in the future,” she says. While that point may be further away than she would like, “I truly hope that eventually, across the photojournalism space, editors, curators and gatekeepers will be building networks, hiring, assigning and paying photographers who fully represent our global population.”
In her own work as a documentary photographer, Zalcman has emphasized collaboration with her subjects, making images that are compassionate and evocative rather than neutral or objective. Her ongoing series Signs of Your Identity explores the legacy of forced assimilation policies in the United States, Canada and Australia, through portraits and interviews with Indigenous people who survived them. For her, the drive to diversify photography is connected to a change in how we tell stories—in what stories we tell, and who gets to tell them. “At their core, both conversations are about questioning the lens through which we have seen the world for a very long time—and whether that’s via photojournalism, or history textbooks, or Hollywood films, the most visible storytellers who have shaped our collective worldview have been cisgender, heterosexual, White, Western men,” she says. “There is nothing wrong with that lens, per se—but if it is the only experience that informs how we see the rest of our world, that’s dangerous. I believe that questioning the journalistic process and many of the traditional tenets of journalism ethics means pushing our understanding of what it means to tell stories responsibly, with empathy and with community involvement.” This approach is one path that Zalcman and others hope will lead to a more equitable future for photojournalism and documentary photography.
For Kaufmann, diversity is a question for fashion and beauty photography as well. Kaufmann has a small creative agency in Brooklyn and is currently the creative director for Pur·suit, photographer Naima Green’s project developing a deck of playing cards that celebrate members of queer communities. While she was executive photo director at Refinery29, Kaufmann was part of a push to change how the media and entertainment company pictured women, focusing on using models (and photographers) who looked more like their audience: racially diverse, with a range of gender identities, body shapes and sizes. The shift came out of “everyone feeling that they were sick of not seeing themselves in the content,” she says. But the results of that shift will only be clear in the future. “I actually don’t think that we’re going to see the full result. The real results will be in teenagers who in the past wouldn’t have been able to fit into the standard of beauty,” but through seeing themselves represented in media images, “will become more confident.”
Does Kaufmann think that with these changes, photography can overcome its troubled history?
“No, absolutely not. It’s not possible. I think inherently photography has had a very long history of being racist and sexist,” says Kaufmann. The answer will be to work towards reinventing photography once again, image by image. “I think it’s about just doing new things,” she says, “digging deeper and working with new people and challenging yourself constantly.” ca