Cameras as Convivial Tools

POSTED: May 6, 1981

This essay was written by Owen Kelly and Dermott Killip in 1981 and was first published in Camerawork 22. It was highly edited and condensed from a pamphlet that we wrote entitled Shooting People Is Wrong, published by Mediumwave. I have resisted the temptation to update the arguments here, and have merely altered a few typos and amended some sentences where, in retrospect, the editing obscured or altered the intended meaning.

In my view the ideas expressed here still hold but do need updating. I shall attend to that in a separate essay, following a photographic project that I have in mind to test these ideas in the context of digital photography.


This essay has developed out of our work with pinhole photography with teenagers. In the course of this work we have become concerned with the assumptions that photographers often make about the relationship between the photographer and the photographed. This relationship is often seen as resulting from the objective limitations of the medium, but it can be better understood, and countered, when it is recognised as resulting from specific decisions and choices.

These choices involve, among others, the design of equipment and its subsequent development.We are not suggesting that the nature of photographic equipment determines the nature of photographic activity. Rather we are suggesting that it imposes pressures and limitations which come to be seen as natural. In this way activity is contained within the boundaries suggested by technology, without in the end being determined by it.

In writing about the assumptions within photographic practide we draw implicitly from our own experiences. We are not of course suggesting that they constitute the only basis for an alternative practice.

The Photographic Reality

All photographs are jointly authored. Pinhole photographs are jointly authored by the subject and the photographer. With standard photographs taken at speeds faster than a thirtieth of a second authorship is shared between the photographer and chance. Nobody can think at this speed, not even a Cartier-Bresson. What such a photographer can do however is take a large number of photographs and subsequently select one of them as representative of the ‘decisive moment’. In doing so s/he is acting as a post facto editor. The elision of the distinction between this role and that of camera operator serves to disguise the true nature of photographic joint authorship.

Pinhole photography raises serious questions about the authorship claimed by photographers and the nature of the reality they are supposed to record. The recording process used in pinhole photography takes far longer than that used by standard cameras. Pinhole cameras have no lens to intensify available light and often se photographic papers as negatives, so exposures range from seconds to hours. Like old photographic portraits, which often have a blurred softness to them, pinholes record movements that occur too slowly for modern cameras.

Pinhole allows the subject to become the author of their own image: the exposure durations allow the subject to play an active part in the process. The operational time zone of standard photography is so quick that it renders the subject passive.

Moreover,the fuzzy appearance of pinhole photographs, their recording of people as events recorded over time, show that they are not relections of reality as conscously experienced, but are instead diagrammatic approximations to conscious reality.

Human choices over the duration of light, which are embodied in the design of modern cameras, enable sharp clear images to be produced. These images, however, are approximations of a reality which, because of the short exposure times, is beyond human comprehension. MOst photagraphs are now taken at speeds (as in subliminal advertising) that can only be perceived unconsciously, if at all: most photographs are in fact analogues of events of which most people are unaware. Standard photographs therefore share a similar relationship to socially conscious reality as that of x-rays, which are also analogues of a reality to which we can have no direct access.

The relationships embodied in pinhole and standard photography are completely different. These differences are obscured by the view that the camera is a socially neutral tool, a view embodied in our received concept of the history of photography.

The two histories of photography

The history of photography is usually seen as a series of connected development whose roots may be traced back to 1835 and Daguerre and Fox Talbot. In fact there is not just one history of photography, but two separate and discontinuous histories. The first history did indeed begin in 1835 and proceeded through such innovations as the Petzval lens of 1840, the creation of wet-plate photography in 1850, and the modern plate camera developed in 1895.

The second history of photography may useful be dated from 1887 when Goerge Eastman founded the Kodak company. This history is not a natural development of previous photographic practice, and nor are its aims the same. Its roots lie in the spread of capital intensive industrialisation from manufacturing industries to all aspects of life which could be organised for profit. The creation of the factory worker was now being matched by the creation of the consumer. Entrepreneurs were now viewing the general public as an atomised collection of private consumers, a mass market, whose needs could profitably be transformed into a small range of wants, to be satisfied by a modest range of mass produced goods.

The founding of the Kodak company marked the beginning of the industrialisation of photography. It created a new type of camera, a new kind of photographer and a new type of photograph. Eastman recast photographers as consumers, as people who could more easily be persuaded to take photographs than to learn the photographic process. Eastman therefore developed and marketed a miniature fixed-focus camera, mass-produced and standardised, that was already loaded with a one-hundred exposure film. When the film was completely exposed the whole camera was sent back to Kodak. The consumer was sent a set of prints and a reloaded camera. It was sold under the slogan ‘You press the button – we do the rest’. Eastman advertised the cameras directly to the masses using the brand name of his company: Kodak.

Eastman’s intention was to reorganise the process of photography along the same lines as the division of labour using in the factory system. He divorced the ‘photographer’ from the ‘technician’, realising that successful marketing depended on simplicity of operation and a guarantee of reliability. He wrote in the primer of one of his cameras:

The principle of the Kodak system is the separation of the work that any person whomsoever can do in making a photograph form the work only an expert can do…We furnish anybody, man, woman, or child, who has sufficient intelligence to point a box straight and press the button…with an instrument which altogether removes from the practice of photography, the necessity for…any special knowledge of the art.

This created the basis for a new photographic practice in complete opposition to that which had previously existed.

The older practice was one in which people were photographed as part of a collaboration between photographer and photographed. The cameras used, because of their weight and the long exposure times they needed, were mounted on a tripod, so it was usually necessary to obtain someone’s permission before photographing them. Indeed, it was necessary to ask them to stand still while the plate was exposed. In this way the taking of a photograph was, as in pinhole photography, the representation of an event that had taken place in order to be recorded and which would not have happened otherwise. The photographer and photographed were both willing players in a co-operative drama which they hoped might reveal a kind of truth from its fabrication. This practice often produced a distinctive type of photograph:

The synthesis of expression brought about by the length of time that a model has to stand still is the main reason why these (early) pictures, apart from their simplicity, resemble well-drawn or painted portraits and have a more lasting effect on the spectator than most recent photography. (Walter Benjamin, A Short History of Photography, 1931)

Eastman’s cameras, on the other hand, were small, light, and used roll film. The photographer was no longer confined to taking pictures of people deliberately participating in the act. The new small cameras now enabled the photographer to record anyone undertaking any activity. The photographer could seek to become the objective recorder of events, an individual witness of reality. The subject no longer needed even to be aware of the camera’s presence, since the photographic relationship had ceased to be dependent on voluntary co-operation. Instead the photographer now completely controlled the relationship and the subject could be framed, captured, taken and shot, yet remain completely unaware of their new-found existence as a frozen figure trapped within the boundaries of a photograph. The photographer became a consumer or reality; the world was there for the taking.

The new rollfilm also freed photographers from having to think before taking a photograph. Now they were able to shoot first and ask questions later; safe in the knowledge that the camera was waiting, ever ready, to pounce on whatever appeared before it.

Eastman did not invent reportage or candid photography; both had existed before within, and as part of, a larger practice. But there was no reason to assume that they would become the dominant way of photographing people. Eastman though turned the unequal relationship between photographer and photographed that lies at the heart of reportage and candid photography into the basis of a new photographic practice. His technical innovations disguised a moral re-evaluation of people and the way they relate. The Kodak is the direct ancestor of modern day Leicas, Polaroids and Instamatics, and while none of these cameras determine the type of photograph taken, or the method by which to take them, they are primarily designed with one particular mode of photography in mind.

This new photographic practice also produced a new kind of photographic imagery, of people in ‘informal’ and ‘natural’ poses. Because they were heralded as being the product of merely technical developments within existing photography, they appeared directly comparable to earlier images. HOwever, when faced with the new practice itself, the public resisted it:

Generally speaking it was not until the years between 1900 and 1914, when the requirements of journalism began to exert a certain pressure on photographers to give an impression of speed and urgency, that photography began to make feeble attempts to capture motion. The snapshot had been a technical possibility for years, but all the Kodaks and ‘detective’ cameras in the world could not by themselves have made photographers take the subject – and the beholder – by force or by surprise. The public…would have been shocked and disturbed by any such act of violence on the photographer’s part.

The older practice of photography, with its reciprocal relationships, became a marginal activity and thus allowed the histories of photography to be interpreted as a single unified history. But when people now talk of photography they are generally referring only to the industrialised practice developed by Eastman.

The new photography

Public resistance to reportage photography was overcome after the First World War. The advertising and newspaper industries welcomed reportage photographs because they appeared to show the world as it really was. Advertisements began appearing that used photographs of people behaving naturally in ordinary surroundings, not just as illustrations, but as factual evidence.

The new photographers were proponents of the New Objectivity movement, firmly committed to the view that photography was an objective medium. They used the new light fast equipment (eg Leica and Ermanox) to produce a new type of imagery. Thomas McAvoy, for example, first used a Leica against the explicit intructions of his editor-in-chief:

At an official reception in Washington, I defied him and took a whole series of photographs in front of my bewildered colleagues with their large cameras and flashes. Comparing my prints to theirs, the management admitted that my photographs were much more atmospheric and lively because, without flash, I had caught the guests unaware.

McAvoy became one of the four original staff photographers for Life magazine, and the Leica became the foundation stone of the new photo-magazines. Photography only attained its status as an apparently objective medium, though, by recording instants so brief that they rendered the subject defenceless against the speed of the shutter, whose click instantaneously transformed them into static elements within a photographic composition. This new form of photography reduced its subjects to a passive and malleable substance whose shape was determined solely by the photographer (and his co-author Chance). Thus, only when photography had gained complete mastery over its subjects and reduced them to objects did it come to be viewed as truthful and objective.

These new photographs contained traces, as do all photographs, not only of the subject but also of the photographer’s relationship and stance to the subject. Their seemingly unmediated appearance forces the viewer to regard the people contained within them from exactly the same stance and in the same way as the photographer. The viewer, in looking at the subject from the photographer’s point of view becomes their unwitting accomplice in the taking of the picture.

The reportage tradition often attempted to use photography as a means to achieve social change., yet paradoxically it was ‘socially concerned’ photographers who were responsible for legitimising the inequitable relationship between subject and photographer in documentary photography. Photographers such as Riis and Hine wished to show the victims of squalor and to expose appalling social conditions. Their photographs often made a considerable contribution to the removal of these conditions, yet it is precisely because they were so powerless that the poor were the first to be portrayed in this documentary form. Documentary photography allowed the subject no control over the form of their depiction and while the poor may have considered any help at all useful, its arrival on terms set only by others effectively reduced them to supplicants, and so compounded and institutionalised their helplessness.

Documentary photography became accepted by the general public on the assumption that its methods were as irreproachable as its aims. Unfortunately this was not so: documentary photography captured people on film as passive objects in a passive landscape by shooting them unawares and at great speed. They had no authority over the image being produced nor any determining role in its production. Standard photographic technique does not allow any reciprocity between photographer and photographed at the point when the image is taken. It operates on the basis of an unequal relationship and its use necessarily underpins and legitimises their inequality. Standard photographic technique is essentially an act of subjugation, in which people are inevitably reduced to objects for the use of the photographer: it is an oppressive activity and unusable as a means of liberation.

Constructing an alternative medium

It can be argued that giving someone living in one room with four children access to a camera is only a bitter joke, but we believe that the camera can be used as a revolutionary instrument. It can unite people not only with a shared picture of the world, but bring them together in the very process of taking pictures. Photographs can change a private experience into common awareness (Camerawork 13)

Questions concerning socialist photography are complex. We have shown that there are two disctint ways of producing photographs withe people: with or without the conscious and willing participation of the subjects. There are equally two ways of consuming the images: as souvenirs of events and people once known, or as evidence of events or people of which we have no direct knowledge. Those who have direct experience of the people or events depicted in an image form a ‘primary group’ who use of the image will be different from the range of uses to which it can be put by other secondary groups.

It is important to remember, in regard to socialist photography, that photographs are always used: their production is never an end in itself. Moreover, they are used by particular people in specific situations, as part of a wider process of communication. The way in which an image is produced and used is as important as what it depicts.

This might seem obvious, yet the implications are only now becoming apparent. Only recently has it come to seem sensible to question industrial processes (of which photography is one) not in terms of how they are being controlled but rather in terms of whether they are capable, even in principle, of being controlled at all. Nuclear power has brought this question to the fore: it has become obvious that a society that depends on nuclear power for its energy supply will be changed enormously by that dependence. Nuclear power requires armed security and secret institutional arrangements in ways that the gas board doesn’t. Control of radioactive materials cannot be decentralised, democratised or left to the ordinary citizen, even in principle. Nuclear power is not just a way of producing more energy, it is also a way of producing less freedom. It cannot do one without doing the other.

The issues raised by debates about nuclear power lie below the surface of all other large-scale industrial processes. All industrial processes produce social effects over and above those caused by ownership and management. The latter can be altered by negotiation or legislation or by workers’ action, but the former cannot. The questions raised by the debate over nuclear power are striking evidence that industrial processes are not neutral; they are determining agencies.

These questions should be central to any attempt to create a radical alternative photographic practice. Photography is both an industrialised process itself, and a major producer of raw material for the industrialised information industry.

Any alternative practice must therefore start from the very beginning by considering the equipment to be employed. The 35mm camera is designed to shoot the world with machine-gun rapidity; handheld and instantly usable. On the other hand the pinhole camera (and the plate camera) is designed to make one image at a time. It needs to be loaded, set up for each photograph, mounted on a tripod or fixed to a surface. The plate camera does not have a separate viewfinder: the image is viewed on a ground glass screen, where it appears full-size; that is, the same size as the negative that will be produced.

In contrast, a miniature camera is held right up to the eye so that the image forms on the retina: the camera appears as a transparent means of perception, rather than as a tool for the construction of images. Miniature cameras invite an oppressive relationship between photographer and photographed. Firstly the camera appears to disappear as a tool and reemerge as an extension of the photographer. This makes participation by the subject seem absurd. Secondly they seem to have no natural limit, in that they will take photographs in batches of twenty four, thirty six, or whatever. This, coupled with their ability to take individual photographs very rapidly has led to the practice of shooting many photographs and then choosing and cropping in the darkroom later. This makes participation by the subject impossible.

For these reasons photography has come to seem the domain of the photographer, who has become one of those professional experts whose activities go unquestioned through seeming unquestionable. The act of photographing somebody duplicates the power relationships that operate throughout our society: the powerless acquiesce in their own oppression because objection has come to seem outmoded, and the right to equal oppression has come to seem the best that can be expected.

It is interesting to note, in this context, that West Indian youth along with other groups who see themselves as oppressed, and the system itself as oppressive, are strongly opposed to being photographed by strangers. This is not simple paranoia; a suspicion perhaps that the photographer is a police officer. Rather it is the entirely accurate realisation by people fighting for room for their own culture that to be photographed by a stranger for unknown purposes is to be oppressed. To be shot for use as an object in a photograph is to be reminded of how little control you have over your own life.

To build an alternative practice, a convivial photography, it will be necessary to abolish this oppressive relationship. Co-authorship must be clearly established before any photographic practice can claim to be a ‘revolutionary instrument’: it is impossible to fight oppression by reproducing it. The ‘decisive moment’ must be anticipated and shared, through predetermined means by all the participants. The photographer must relinquish the role of director and share it with the participants, who may then join in the process of constructing the photograph. Images produced in this way are positive images: portraits of people prsenting themselves through the camera as they wish to be seen. These photographs become records of people consciously participating in a social act of recording, and can thus be read as constructions designed to communicate meanings, rather than as frozen moments allegedly revealing hidden ‘truth’.

Positive images do not reduce people to just one of their roles in society by capturing them unawares as they act this role out. Nor do they reduce people to the status of raw material, shaped by the photographer to make some point of his or her own. Rather they allow the subject to use the camera as a medium of communication and thus counter the camera’s tendency to stereotype.

Through co-authorship the distinction between photographer and photographed breaks down as the photographer retreats to the role of camera operator, making possible the photograph planned under collaborative direction. Whereas with miniature cameras the act of photographing an object occurs near the start of the process, in convivial photography it occurs near the end. Standard photography makes much of the darkroom: choosing from the contact sheet, enlarging, cropping, touching up. It is here that the photograph assumes its finished shape. In convivial photography there is only one negative and usually it is contact printed. The final image is, as far as possible, the same as appeared on the ground glass screen.

The crucial work is done before the negative is exposed: what is to be communicated is decided and discussed, and the frame composed to show this as clearly as possible. Only then, when all concerned are reasonably sure that the image is the way they want it, the shutter is pressed and the photograph made. A plate camera is not necessary for this: it can be accomplished with a standard 35mm camera mounted on a tripod. To do this, however, is to swim against the tide, to use the machine to do the opposite of what it was designed to do.

Positive images are well able to perform a valuable role within campaigns and other areas of socialist and community photography because they offer a means of expression that reinforces our ability to take purchase on our lives. The display of these images in, say, a housing campaign, is the simultaneous portrayal of people as individuals and members of a group, as well as a demand for better housing and an expression of strength. Picturing people as they chose to be pictured is part of a demand for change on their own terms, a portrayal of people who are fighting back against oppressive circumstance, and not resigned to the status of oppressed victims.

The distribution of photographs is as important as their production, and we must make certain that the method of distribution does not contradict the purpose for which they were originally produced. We must recognise that most distributed photographs carry only secondary meanings. The displacement of primary meaning by a continual bombardment of messages of marginal secondary meaning constitutes a major form of cultural oppression. It is this oppression that that engenders the isolated despair which is felt as political apathy and cultural dependence, and it is this which must be resisted by those working in this area of culture.

This resistance must take the form of producing and distributing photographs for known primary use, with the acknowledged aim of centring culture. People must be educated into demanding control over their images, not just by giving permission for the photograph to be taken, but for each subsequent use of the image. Radical photographers must provide release sheets for the photographed to sign, which list specific uses of the image for which permission has been given. We deny categorically that photographs of people belong to the photographer: they belong jointly to all whose who participated, to all the co-authors.

At every point the question must be asked: what is being communicated and why? If an exhibition is being shown to people not directly connected to it we must ask: have they nothing more interesting to do? We are not arguing here for parochialism. What we are suggesting is that groups meet through strength and not weakness: that they treat the borders of their experience with the authority gained from mastering its centre.

If photography is to be a tool for liberation it must help to oppose the fragmentation of culture. It must help to foster community in order that fragmentation may be resisted and culture may be centred. The ways to do this are made apparent by the changed relationships engendered by pinhole photography, the plate camera, and the deliberately constrained use of the miniature camera.

We are suggesting severe constraints on the production and distribution of photographic images: what is needed is less public photography. We are demanding a thorough review of photographic technology, and a conscious development of a different set of social relationships in the production and consumption of photography.

To oppose the dominant practice is to forge a new medium of communication, whose methods work towards furthering the control people may have over their lives. We must seek to achieve a medium whose social relationships are governed by a morality based upon people’s equal worth so that it may communicate not only messages about social action, but also induce feelings and sentiments congruent to that action.

The aim must be nothing less than achievement of a co-determination, in which we are able to determine the conditions of our existence as well as being determined by them. A photography that knows its place will know in which places it can liberate and in which it will necessarily oppress.

That will truly be a useful tool.