Andrew Reed Weller is a photographer originally from Cleveland, Ohio and now based in New York City. He is currently focused on printing from his backlog of images, loving people and cooking them tasty food, as well as taking care of an increasing number of plants. Andrew has traveled to 37 countries, with extended stays in Argentina, Thailand and Pakistan. At the moment he has no trips planned and his camera is gathering dust. You can read his interviews on Leica Camera’s blog here.
In “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” Victor Hugo speculated that the printing press destroyed architecture. Such a displacement in the name of innovation and progress may also be observed in any number of other transitions: automobiles rendering horse-drawn carriages obsolete, the impact of television on cinema, or tablet computers replacing paper. The name of the chapter where Hugo puts forth his hypothesis, “This Will Kill That,” can apply to any of these collisions of modern versus traditional.
In the case of the press killing architecture, Hugo wrote, “… during the first six thousand years of the world, from the most immemorial pagoda of Hindustan to the cathedral of Cologne, architecture was the great handwriting of the human race.” He goes on to examine the religious structures created in Europe during the Middle Ages. These edifices, using details such as sculptures, paintings, and stained glass windows, served the purpose of aiding the Church in relaying stories from the Bible to a largely illiterate population. Whether through a carving of the bloody body of Christ or a fresco depicting Heaven’s ethereal beauty, the features found in churches were a method of communication, a way for those with means and power (the Church) to inculcate a belief, or in this case a whole religious dogma, into the masses.
With the advent of the Gutenberg’s invention and the spread of literacy, more average citizens were able to create and access information, religious or otherwise, and the printed word became the dominant registry of humanity over architecture. Such a change in the dissemination of information led to a shift in the power structure, as the two elements are highly related. No longer was it just the Church that spread its version of history, but now anyone who could write and produce some flyers had the opportunity to gain followers and bring about significant changes in society.
The same sort of paradigm shift is happening today, in the form of the information exchanges that comprise social media. The ease with which we can document events, create and distribute content, and formulate and share opinions is, in fact, defining our current history as it unfolds. From Twitter’s effect on the Arab Spring to Edward Snowden’s leaks, it is clear that information and power are increasingly interchangeable.
Photography is, and has been since its inception, a significant portion of the content channeled into our own modern registry of humanity. The medium’s universal accessibility, claim to veracity, and communication efficacy make it more potent than a text in one language or a painting that can only exist in one place. And with its worldwide reach, enabled no longer by just the established media but now by any number of free and democratic avenues, photography is gaining yet more power to affect our lives.
The professional photography community, however, is hardly ecstatic over some of these new tools and venues for images. Just as digital photography took away the exclusivity of the photographer as practitioner of a difficult craft, now the internet has undermined the photojournalist as globetrotting interpreter of history. But as photojournalists mourn the loss of assignments, so too do a swath of people gain the ability to document their own history, to share their genuine experience, and to shout in whatever voice they choose. From any journalistic or power-based perspective, the photos I present here, shot over two years ago on film with an M4-P made in 1981, have already lost in their struggle to be valid. They depict nothing more than faceless, anonymous people and timeworn scenery that might appeal to a Western audience for their relative exoticism. But no story is conveyed apart from my own. As such, these images are just the travel log of a transient, detached foreigner making his way through Sri Lanka and India.
What can be posited while looking at these photos is that any one of the subjects found within them, armed only with a secondhand Nokia instead of a precision-crafted German instrument, now has the ability to tell his or her own story in a manner that I and perhaps no outside photographer could ever manage. Thus the power inherently found in image-making and image-sharing no longer lies solely with the professionals, but with anyone in possession of a simple, nearly omnipresent tool, and the will to click “post.” The question now becomes, will the internet-enabled smartphone kill traditional photography just as Hugo argued the press had done to architecture? There are no clear answers at the moment, as this transformation is still being played out month by month. I, for one, am trying to accept this uncertainty and to keep doing what I enjoy: making images of things around me and, sometimes at least, sharing them.
– Andrew Reed Weller