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Democratisation?


June’s issue of the British Journal of Photography includes a feature on the use of DSLR’s in video production and argues that the development is leading to a democratisation of film making.
Now I am on seriously dangerous territory commenting on this issue. My track record is not good. In September 2008, when Canon announced the 5D MkII, I questioned the relevance and purpose of including video capture in the OCA student forums. Tutor Joe Fox, who clearly understands these things better than I do, disagreed and argued that this was just what newspapers want – the ability to send photojournalists out with one bit of kit to capture both stills and video. And so it turns out. Apparently Canon now believe that 40% of 5D sales are motivated by the video capacities. And I can see the point when I see the quality of the close ups in the interview Mark Lomas filmed of Jacqueline Wilson. (For the those interested in the technical details the close ups were captured using a 70-200 f2.8 which gives fabulous depth of field when opened wide but at the cost of requiring lightning fast focusing if the subject is moving.)
So is it a democratisation? If by that we mean, it is easier for more people to make and distribute watchable videos, I don’t think so. The examples used by the BJP do not actually support this thesis. I would be happy to accept that there is change going on. The barriers to entry are now much lower; the kit even before DSLR’s entered the fray was getting less expensive and digital editing is clearly easier.  The real driver of democratisation has to be distribution and that is where the likes of YouTube and Vimeo have had a far bigger impact. However video production still takes time and while it doesn’t require full BBC location crews, time always costs someone – even if it is only in lost earnings. Which is why the best quality content on the web has often been made for a client.
What video capable DSLR’s are doing is making it possible for photojournalists to become film makers and while this doesn’t come with the lovely warm sounding tag of ‘democratisation’, I think this is more important than has perhaps been realised so far. Having access to film makers enables newspapers to monetise their content. It doesn’t take much web experience to learn how to filter out banner advertising on static web pages. After a while you just don’t see them – and advertisers know it. Put an advert in front of a web video and it is rather more difficult – you sit there expectantly waiting while the virtues of product x are extolled before you can see the video report. Papers like the Guardian and the New York Times which are investing in video are doing it because it offers an alternative to the paywall model being adopted by Rupert Murdoch’s Times. If DSLR’s are a key facilitator in that process maybe they are serving democracy in rather a different way than envisaged by the BJP.


Posted by author: Genevieve Sioka
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3 thoughts on “Democratisation?

  • The democratisation of the arts, particularly image making, is something that has been heralded almost since the beginning of the photographic era. Ever since Kodak announced “You press the shutter, we do the rest” conservatives have prophesied the end of art, and progressives, like Walter Benjamin, have heralded art by all, the demystification of the art object and the end of the concept of talent (see his “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction”. The 20s and 30s of the last century saw the rise of many Workers art, particularly photography groups worldwide; The Workers Film and Photo League in the USA, groups based on the magazine Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ)in Germany, in Britain the Workers Education Association and Mass Observation lead to a range of Camera clubs and the like. However, a review of the entries into any amateur photography competition will show that the universal availability of good quality, affordable cameras does not guarantee universally good, in aesthetic terms, images. Yes, hidden ability is sometimes revealed, particularly in eras of restricted education, but as a re-reading of Benjamin with this in mind indicates, the true democratisation is predicted only in a changed, non-Capitalist, Socialist, Anarchist or what ever, but certainly ‘truly’ democratic society. it seems that what we have found is that photography and latterly digital video has made the creative process available to all but that the output is still dependant on ability and awareness (talent?) and that ideas based on the concept of Cultural Capital (see Pierre Bordieu et al) are needed to explain this.
    “What video capable DSLR’s are doing is making it possible for photojournalists to become film makers” is perhaps the nub of the matter. Video recording made it possible for the TV companies to cut the size of news gathering crews (potentially raising their profits/lowering their losses and putting numbers of technicians out of work) with a minimal loss of quality (some say) and the ability to use one person for both stills and video extends this trend for the proliferation of libraries, news agencies, TV production companies in the age of digital broadcasting. The logical conclusion to all this, at least under our current ideology, is the total hegemony of the ‘citizen journalist’. News and TV agencies will not hire journalists at all but simply use camera phone images, still and moving, obtained for free or nearly so from passers by for the momentary glory of a credit (This image of the back of the head of the Queen launching the latest replacement for Trident is brought to you by Fox News and supplied by Mr Albert Snodgrass of Railway Cuttings East Cheam). Democratisation might be the excuse but higher profitability is the motive. De-skilling (see Harry Braverman “Labour and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century”) is the sociological term for it and is general trend of Capitalism.

  • I’m also on sticky ground here because although I read the articles it was some weeks ago and I don’t have them to hand. However, am I not right in thinking that part of the focus at least was on the making of feature films. In this context, democratisation may well imply that the small, independent film-maker has the opportunity, with suitably equipped DSLRs to achieve a high quality of output at a fraction of the cost of hiring expensive film cameras. My son has recently played a small part in an indy film (unpaid, and I doubt that an Oscar is on the cards!) in which the entire footage is being shot on Canon 5Ds. He was quite surprised but I, having just read these articles in BJP, wasn’t.

  • I am with your first para Peter but I have to take issue with your closing sentence. I remember reading Braverman many years ago and while his analysis might hold for a time in the twentieth century I am not sure it is generalisable beyond that – indeed the requirement for photojournalist to have both still and moving image capturing skills is surely a move in the opposite direction?
    Your recollection is correct Stan that part of the focus in the BJP was on feature film making. One of the areas where I think we would all agree is that the technology has decreased in price so significantly that there is no longer the obvious quality difference between Hollywood feature films and independent productions. Now all you need is a bit of kit, a family member and some imagination to create your show real (http://vimeo.com/hd#8166366) Oh and some imagination.

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