On Photographic Futures by Solana Cain

“What I want to see more of in photography’s future, and within the larger media industry, are contributors and content that is more reflective of this world’s great diversity and the variety of human experiences. My photographic future places less importance on the gear photographers use and more emphasis on who is behind the lens.”

In order to muse on photographic futures, we must consider what’s come before and where we are now. As photographers, we strive daily to freeze time and capture moments. We work to create visual records we believe are worthy of preserving. The digital revolution that’s occurred since I first held a camera is remarkable—we’re no longer forced to be patient while labs develop our rolls of film, DSLRs have incredibly precise autofocusing, Wi-Fi enabled memory cards allow photographers to transmit from the field, drones have given us a literal bird’s-eye view, and so forth. These advancements have enabled photographers to walk with more gear, achieve better exposures in challenging light, capture sharper photos of fast-moving subjects, and record colours in all their vibrancy. In my job as a photo editor for a daily newspaper, I get to see live photography from across the globe at the click of one button. We’ve come a long way. 

So, what lies ahead in the future of photographs? Will we have photo albums filled with holograms? Maybe we’ll be able to take photos by simply blinking. Who knows? The possibilities are expansive and increasing every day.

The introduction of this digital technology has made it easier to produce a high volume of photographs, but it’s also fair to say we’ve decreased the time we spend with individual images. My hope for the future is that our relationship with the medium deepens. I hope we’ll turn our cellphone cameras around more to capture our communities, archive the mundane parts of our lives just as much as the extraordinary moments, and increase our contributions to citizen journalism. I’d like to see people become more comfortable having their portraits taken just as they are, because their very existence is beautiful. I hope we get back into the practice of printing photos and displaying them on our walls—although, for the sake of the environment, I also hope we can develop a more environmentally friendly way of processing and printing photos.

The ways of approaching photography are changing as well. When I started out in photojournalism, I was taught to shoot like the photos I saw published. I tried to master other people’s mastery because that’s how I thought you succeeded in this business. I think many of us believed that you must follow the standard and emulate those that came before. My photographic future is invested in autonomy—for photographers and for subjects.

What I want to see more of in photography’s future, and within the larger media industry, are contributors and content that is more reflective of this world’s great diversity and the variety of human experiences. My photographic future places less importance on the gear photographers use and more emphasis on who is behind the lens. 

Valuing photographers that come from different backgrounds is beneficial from a social and commercial viewpoint because people will engage more when they see themselves accurately depicted. World Press Photo—arguably the most well-known documentary photography contest—saw 4,315 photographers from 130 countries enter 74,470 images in last year’s competition, and 80% of entrants identified as male. There were no stats available regarding racefrom 2021, but a 2018 State of News survey carried out by World Press found, again, 80% of 5,202 entrants were men and 52% identified as Caucasian/white; the next largest groups were Asian at 19%, then Latin American at 10%, and only 1.4% identified as Black. Incorporating diversity behind the camera needs to be just as important as photographing diverse subjects, otherwise we’ve failed to achieve true representation—not to mention the content will be fair, nuanced, and layered. Women, people of colour, differently abled, and non-binary photographers can access spaces and establish trust that others simply cannot. 

I am working towards this future in my own way. Since the pandemic started, I have increased the time I spend mentoring emerging photographers. The shift to working from home has created more time in my schedule, and I strongly believe that early career photographers need support and encouragement now more than ever considering the lack of opportunities since the global health pandemic took hold. A year into COVID-19, Jimmy Jeong, a British Columbia-based photojournalist, launched a photojournalism mentorship program called Room Up Front. I remember thinking the program was aptly named, as I can recall trying to cover news events as a photojournalism student without knowing how to get myself past the “old guard” to make my photos. As a young Black woman, I often didn’t see anyone who looked like me while on assignments—so when Jimmy said he wanted the program to be run by BIPOC photographers who intimately knew the realities of working in this industry I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of. Together, as mentors, we were going to look backwards at our own experiences while pulling up the next generation of BIPOC photographers. Collectively, we made room, and so many of our mentees thrived. 

One issue I often watch my mentees struggle with is, when the idea they have has been done before. They hesitate and doubt themselves. To that, I tell them, it hasn’t been done by them before: not from their perspective, with their voice, or informed by their lived experience. My photographic future would be that we accept everything’s been done before—and that’s okay. Rather than looking to reinvent the wheel, we need to encourage new photographers to tell it again. Like a song that’s been covered countless times, every singer puts their identity onto the track and the same can be done by photographers. Take this very campus: every student who walks up and down Gould Street sees it differently, experiences it differently, and has something different to say about it. All these experiences are valid and should be shared. I still want to hear the story from your camera.

Emerging photographers should also realize the incredible power they have right in their pockets (or bags). The onslaught of social media opened the editorial gates. You no longer need to impress a photo editor to get your work out there. A simple hashtag amplifies your message to the masses. A geotag lets me and other editors know exactly where you are and what you’re seeing. I firmly believe you can carve out your own spot, with your own photographic style, in this industry. It’ll take determination, but I urge you to photograph the stories that speak to you. That mean something to you. Capture the photos how you want, in a way that appeals to you, then find and build your audience online. Learn from and be inspired by those who have come before you and laid the groundwork, but don’t fear breaking traditions. Don’t weigh yourself down with a quest to find a completely “original” story. Just start shooting. 

As the world emerges from over two years of sheltering at home (if we were fortunate enough to have a place to call home), this moment in time is pivotal. People are craving content and are connected more than ever online. Issues of race, gender, equality, representation, reconciliation, and ultimately freedom are more than bubbling to the top—they’ve exploded. Grasp this moment. Tell your stories. Your perspective matters. My photographic future is seen through your eyes.

Solana Cain is an independent curator, journalist and photographic professional. She is a graduate of X University School of Journalism, and the photojournalism program at Loyalist College. Solana is a photo editor and currently holds a position at The Globe and Mail.

Image Credits (from top to bottom): Tom Wolf, Rahim Perez-Anderson, Christina Oyawale, Maria-Sofia Guevara, John Delante