Learning from Photographic Mistakes

Activity: External talk or presentationInvited talk


An invited presentation for an international conference organised by a new Hungarian research centre and journal for the study of Everyday Photography, in conjunction with the Moholy Nagy University of Art and Design, Budapest:

My talk begins with a single photograph. It is a modest effort; a portrait where a finger has encroached in front of the lens, and the subject’s feet are all that is visible. A glossy colour print, developed by a high street processor, it is typical, perhaps, of amateur photos in the 1980s, as described by their critics: hapless snapshots, produced on simple-to-operate equipment and printed by the million.

I came across this photo when researching the archive of a major competition staged in Britain on 14 August 1987, organised by a cancer charity. They hoped everyone in Britain would take a photograph of everyday life on one ordinary day. The amateur submissions, accompanied by a pound donation, would be judged by professionals and assembled into a ‘family album of the nation’. The finger-in-the-lens photo didn’t make the final cut. Instead, it joined the c.50,000 rejects that were deemed too ordinary and too amateurish: the blurred and over-exposed, the out-of-focus and indistinct.

Yet for me, among the c.50,000 photos I surveyed in that archive, it stood out. It made me laugh and it impressed me with its self-consciousness. This was not only an example of an amateur photo taken on one day in 1987, but it was also a photo about amateur photography. Its erroneousness became symbolic, and its submission to a competition showed the awareness of its maker. It provided a counterpoint to the critiques of amateur photographers as unthinking button-pressers unthinkingly reproducing clichés.

There was another element, too, that intrigued me. In the top right-hand corner, the photo-processor had applied a Quality Control sticker signalling the print’s inadequacies. Ostensibly offering technical guidance aimed at improving camera mastery, the sticker is revelatory of photo-processors’ judgements. These betray aesthetic and moral values, revealing the motivations of the industries that sustained commercial print photography by reinforcing norms and modelling behaviour.

In my talk, I use this single image to discuss wider frameworks in everyday photography. I argue that the ‘bad’ photo - where the subject cannot be seen - might not be a failed photograph, even though I rescued it from the ignominy of a reject pile. It is a photo that tells us about cultural expectations of success and error, accident and intention, wit and ambition, personal experience and business strategies. It offers photographic lessons and mistakes we can learn from.
Period2 Nov 2023
Degree of RecognitionInternational