I'm not a cultural anthropologist but I'd love to play one on TV. I do have some theories about humanity in aggregate that explain to me the vast differences in the way we think. The theories also extend to the reason some people hunger for the safety of the group while others prefer the practice of solitude and personal action, divorced from complicit coercion of the hive. People who study humanity say that for the first 99% of mankind's existence we survived in very small, family tribes and made our way in the world as nomadic hunter/gatherers. We ranged far and wide, ate mostly vegetables, fish and small animals and we spent time embroiled in adventure. There were dry spells and disasters but there was also plentiful free time and solitude. Most decision making was left up to the individual. You rested when you were tired and ran after game when you were hungry. And it was the hunters who were the early artists in places like the caves of Lascaux and Chauvet.
At some point our people experienced a split. Agriculture was discovered and with it the promise of a buffer from future hunger. Many grain crops could be harvested and stored for long periods of time to offer a hedge against the uncertainties of nature. Mankind had to choose between adventure and security. Between the individual and the group. Between shared sacrifice and autonomy. Between spirit and subjugation. Bellies were fully but diseases were more easy spread. The concentration of populations gave rise to hierarchies of privilege and control. And the world has been spinning out of control ever since. Our world population growth was turbo charged by the family farm and the community farms of the past 5,000 years. More offspring meant more hands to till soil and gather in crops. Now the patterns remain but the need recedes. The equation has turned and now the surplus of workers threatens to upset the whole apple cart.
On a global level you can argue that agriculture, geographic stability and the like are what led mankind to make discoveries and inventions and even art and music and I'm not here to argue which state of existence is better but I do strongly believe that, like a tendency to be left or right handed or a proclivity for adventure or conformity, that each human carries inside a genome or DNA for one or the other type of living. The farmers and stabilizers were, early on, able to concentrate numbers to create overwhelming armies which pushed nomads out of their territories. The farmers and grain accountants now far outnumber the hunters. But there still exists a part of population that finds it impossible to conform to a lifestyle that many more people find perfectly acceptable. Even preferable by dint of it's stability and security. They are farmers and, the modern analogy/permutation, office and factory workers. They are interdependent. Not just for food and shelter but also for thought and intention.
You hear the mantra all the time: "Team Work! Team Work! Team Work!" That means "Think together, sit together, eat together, band together." Great for building the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids or the Hoover Damn. Not so great when it comes to re-imagining existence and creatively re-ordering our existence. Which we are obligated to do with each new generation.....
And, as civilization continues to homogenize, the outliers and hunters seem more and more strange and different to the masses.
So, where am I going with all of this? I really believe that non studio bound photographers in general, and photojournalists and documentarians in particular represent the expression of the hunter/gatherer gene. And without them society and civilization, as a whole, would capitulate to their own self-serfitude. (I'm pretty sure I made that word up...)
Why else would millions sit at home, even on their days off, and watch TV? Why do the masses throng to the malls to buy the same stuff as everyone else? Why do they stampede out to the sports arenas to cheer on total strangers who they identify as "my team."? They do it because they've been trained from birth to depend on the mass, the hive, the extended tribe to provide purpose, organization and relative security. In exchange they surrender their creative freedom, their individual initiative and their curiosity.
Now, I'm obviously making sweeping generalizations because, of course, the mix of our genes is nothing if not convoluted and mixed up. We all have the species memory as stored in our DNA to function as hunters and gatherers as well as farmers. But within the general population their are propensities that are obvious and can be plotted.
We've become so interdependent that it's (nearly) impossible not to have a foot in the "Borg" quicksand. And it's the relentlessness of the campaign to snuff out dissent and opinion that scares me. Artists seem to be classified as "unusual" along with serial killers, saints and people who talk to invisible people on the streets. In American culture you are less likely to know about art history than calculus and, damn few people in our country are up to snuff in calculus. When we squish out the outliers we make life more emotionally comfortable for people who fear change and challenge because we eliminate scary, aspirational role models. When we lampoon artists or paint them all with a wide brush we are doing what we do with the monsters in fairy tales. We are trying to rob them of their power.
But instinctively we know that we need the outliers to push our society into continuous evolution and change. Without the Steve Jobs hunter gatherers we have only Scully's who measure and horde without moving the game forward. Without the Picassos we have only the status quo and blue bonnet painters.
Without Ferrari we'd have only Chevy Novas. Without Jeff Bezos we'd all be lining up under the lime green glow of the Walmart ceiling fixtures looking for the approved products. Without Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank we might still think our role is the vacuous documentation of cat whiskers and sunsets over suburban backyards.
Cities know they need art to survive. They need people to metaphorically walk in the desert for years and then come back to tell us what it's like. Someone needs to climb into rockets and let themselves be flung into space. And it's the same in the arts. Normal people flock to cities that nurture artists. Museum spring up eternal. Television and movies haven't replaced live theater. People still play musical instruments and artists still make paintings.
I single out photojounalists and documentarians because it's imperative that they operate outside the system in order to see it clearly and reflect their observations back to their audiences. They are the outsiders who report on the insiders to the insiders. They call mass culture on their foibles. And they do it with images.
But nothing reminds me of the legacy of our ancestors more than the urge to pick up a camera, put on a pair of walking shoes and head out the front door in search of individual adventure. To track down an image and later share it on the wall of a cave to remind everyone else that adventure is as important to our civilization as air and water. And you'll find plenty of both out there. That content is at least as important as the technology used to create it.
Is it any wonder we're fascinated and drawn to the smaller tribes and cultures in our midst? Like Rappers and Navy Seals and Athletes. (and by athletes I mean real athletes who challenge the clock or race against others, not a bunch of people who do gladiatorial teams sports for cultural mind control).
Tiger Woods is fascinating because he plays golf really well but also because he only plays golf, does it on his schedule and reaps the rewards for himself and a small tribe.
I think the sudden interest in this century in photography coincides with a breakdown of the consensus culture. People are resisting becoming part of the "giant team" because it seems to represent a walking death. The rise of entrepreneurialism really represents a repudiation of the mega corporation model and a harkening, a desire for the autonomy of our ancestors. The camera, worn on a strap for efficient travel, has become a symbol and artifact of our pent up desire to push away from the cloying crowd and rediscover what it means to make your own decisions about what is good and beautiful.
And even if you work for a big company at a "real" job you understand when you throw the camera over your shoulder and walk outside your front door to find adventure that this single act is helping you achieve a personal voice, a freedom of choice. To be a good or bad artist isn't the question. The real question is: Will you create on your own terms or will you capitulate to what society at large has to say about what's beautiful and what's not? The hunter gatherer would counsel you to smell the wind, read the signs and find out for yourself....
The more we bring art inside the corral the blander and weaker it gets.