Blurring Distinctions Between Taking vs. Making: Teaching Photography in a Digital Culture

exposure magazine
Jun 18, 2018 · 16 min read

In the age of digital photography and social media where photography appears ubiquitous, it seems anyone can be a photographer. In such an atmosphere, then, what elevates and remains constant about the photograph, and how do we teach our students amid the changing culture of the photograph?

Pets are an easy target as photo subjects. This one tells the story of a pampering owner and a happy dog. © 2018 Miranda Swope

We teach photography at the same university but in different disciplines and with different emphases: Photojournalism in the Communication department and Photography 1 and 2 in the Visual Arts program. We have a mix of majors and non-majors with different backgrounds coming to our courses, and sometimes students will have a spark of interest in the subject but a vague idea of what the courses actually entail. Many students have experience using their camera phones to take quick, easy-to-upload photographs, and are pretty well versed in sharing these across various social media, but this activity requires little deliberative thought by comparison to what they’ll be asked to do in a photography course. This led us to raise the question of what it means to take versus to make the photograph. Whether a student signs up for Photojournalism or Photography, we’ve noticed commonalities among our students that have led us to think more about the influence of the ubiquitous photograph and digital technology on student experience and expectations as they enter the classroom. We then presented a summary of our initial research at the April 2018 Photo History/Photo Future conference, organized by the RIT Press in Rochester, NY, which follows.

First, a little more about our courses.

The photojournalism course is taught online and is heavily focused on content. Course learning objectives focus student attention on what makes good photojournalism, what is the role of storytelling in photojournalism, and what is the function of photography in society. By the end of the course students should be able to describe the history, ethics, and legalities of photography; articulate, evaluate and construct meaningful quality photojournalistic content; and correctly use Associated Press style to write the photo cutline. Students are given photo assignments to direct their attention to basic technical skills and get them out of their comfort zone to locate human subjects and shoot many photos to get several best photos per assignment. No prerequisites or special equipment are required. This is a course designed for the novice to gain knowledge about the purpose and function of photojournalism, to take this insight into a variety of career spaces, and/or as a step toward understanding and creating photo documentary for personal or professional use.

Among the challenges for the beginning student is to get them to embrace that journalism is largely about people, human lives and social issues. It involves reporting and communicating story accurately, not just for oneself or a circle of friends, but to a broad public audience. Perhaps because digital culture has helped further enhance the barrage of images available in multiple locations throughout any given day, this course must stress the need for students to document real life and situations, objectively, and without sensationalism, and hopefully without cliché. To get students into the practice of documenting real situations, truthfully and honestly, they are also not allowed to use photo editing software until they first learn good composition, lighting, focus, etc., in the viewfinder. For the moment, as students new to photojournalism, they are to focus on learning the foundational rules of photography and journalism.

As students progress, they learn how to control the basics (lighting, composition) and begin to capture portraits that reflect the subjects. © 2018 Abigail McKinnie

Photography 1 is taught face-to-face and focuses on teaching foundations, technology, and basic photographic technique. Intent and content are dependent on the project’s focus, but key within the course, and while discussion of reception is present there is no concern of it extending beyond the borders of the classroom. Students upload digital submissions to the learning management system, for classmates and myself to view, but there is no online forum for “likes.” A digital SLR is required and students work exclusively with digital content and do learn photo editing in Photoshop, but there is not an emphasis on manipulation or collage.

Photography 2 is also taught face-to-face and is focused on a split between considering the role photography plays in contemporary art and commercial graphic design. Photography 1 is a prerequisite and both digital and film SLRs are required. Students work with digital content but spend time learning film and paper techniques. While considering the role of contemporary art, students build their own pinhole cameras, print on alternative materials, and focus on experimental processes. In commercial design photography, students focus on advertising that requires product, portraiture, and studio lighting control in both the physical and digital context. At this stage, publication and reception of the work is highly emphasized. Students may be using blogs, guerilla installation on campus, client productions, or submitting to exhibitions as formats for learning about intent and the audience reception.

In both Photography 1 and 2 courses, students are only allowed to make photographs in manual mode. The goal is that every choice (composition, subject, to each individual camera setting) is part of the process of making.

Of interest to us as we teach these courses, and strive continually to improve our teaching, is to consider the beliefs and practices students may bring to beginning photography courses and how the everyday practice of digital photography and posting to social media may influence student perceptions and choices about taking photographs.

This snapshot from early semester work is a useful teaching moment: to become something other than a snapshot, photo content must not only tell a story but interest the viewer. © 2018 Anonymous

The following questions guided our exploration.

How is photography mediated through cultural digitization?

Digital photography and the Internet provide the accessibility that allows for the everyday practice to take pictures, upload, broadcast, and receive feedback. There’s an immediate gratification in taking a photo, being able to check it, edit, delete or share it in text, email or through social media. Digital culture has helped to increase the ubiquitous consumption of photographic images that Sontag predicted in the 70s. The use of social media, for example, continues to rise — now at 69% of the adult population. An estimated 78% of 18 to 24-year-old adults polled use Snapchat multiple times per day and 71% of the same age group use Instagram throughout any given day, according to the Pew Research Center¹. Social media use in the U.S. for adults 18–29 was at 88% for this poll from January, 2018.

In Instagram and Contemporary Image (2017²), Manovich’s work points to a study of 16 global cities from 2012–2015 that focused on the content and usage of Instagram across cultures. Findings showed that a large proportion of users took pictures primarily of family and friends. In the Kodak culture of the 20th century, photographs were commonly used for personal pictures and storing memories (Hand, 2012³; Van Dijck, 2008⁴). This finding would indicate that the everyday use of digital photography and social media is much like its former uses before the Digital Age, and yet now, with a camera phone always on hand, the propensity to take and share photos, often of the more superficial moments of everyday life (lunch plates, café lattes, cute pets, selfies, sunsets) is much more acute. It is increasingly evident in our classes that we must ensure students take a step back and decide whether a moment is worthy of the capture, regardless of the “likes” or shares it might receive.

What elevates and remains constant about the photograph?

This is a question of value. It is part of a long history and debate about whether photography is art, representation or replication. The discussion raises questions about substance, meaning and regard. It signals a critical differentiation among types of photography and strives to address what is core to the value of the photograph.

A Foucauldian approach would have us study photography as an “archaeology of knowledge” that examines the networks of meaning, or discourses, that constitute photography as a subject (Bate, 2007⁵). This would include consideration of how these practices are framed, linked, contradictory, or inconsistent. Bourdieu (1990⁶) suggested the examination of photography involved aesthetic judgment and Sontag focused on meaning and perceptions of truth and reality. More recently, Mendelson⁷, in The Construction of Photographic Meaning (2007), said that interpretation of a photograph is neither completely learned nor innate, but knowledge about what makes a photograph a photograph certainly must enhance its appreciation. Mendelson provided a sociohistorical model by which the meaning of photographic works may be analyzed. This model examines all the components that go into making a photograph, such as the photographer’s intent, perception of and interaction with the subject; the subject’s perceived role and participation; gatekeepers or decision maker i.e., photo editors; institutional standards and expectations for content and style; and the viewer’s reception, interpretation and use of the photograph. This complexity of actions that go into making a photograph illustrate the social constructions and hence meanings that then shape the parameters for interpretation.

The proliferation of the photographic image, from within the workings of digital culture, may lend to a blurring distinction between taking a photograph (more snapshot) and making a photograph of substance. Further, the distinction between amateur and professional photography “seems anachronistic in an era when the most ordinary of everyday snapshots become the most iconic portraits of twenty-first-century politics (Hand).”

Students are learning new techniques, like how to shoot Bokeh, but are not always able to use in a way that adds meaning, even if it shows mastery of technique. © 2017 Kelsey Cleary

What do we as scholars and educators of photography do with technique, content and practice as we teach amid a changing culture of the photograph?

Photography, from the personal to the commercial, compels us to examine it closely because the practice of photography has much to reveal about the world around us. In fact, without rigorous analysis toward gaining a sense of visual literacy, both practitioners and audiences of photography risk giving it superficial treatment if we overlook an ongoing assessment of how photography impacts the social world.

For example, a fascination with cultural photographic means (i.e. memes) puts photography in a position that it serves to further a cultural moment, but it is often just misappropriation of others’ images. In a way, this form of the photographic image has once again become the “low” art form, a return to it as only a tool to support another construct. Many students even disregard most digital content that contains photographs as photography (in the elevated sense), but it still influences their mindset on what constitutes good photography. This mimicry of things they have seen on social media also factors in an unwillingness to fully consider or understand the intent of the original photographer’s image. If photography is not about recreating the ubiquitous, but rather about showing something new — this becomes more and more difficult to achieve in an age of mimicry, the proliferation of social media, and the strive for “likes.” What is prevalent and liked in the digital sphere has the potential to influence student photographs — our preferences are influenced by what other people like — and the viewer is removed from the process yet allowed control over what is considered quality.

Intentional photographic content is not merely a mechanical recording of the subject or object, but meaning is constructed by “a variety of conscious and unconscious choices” (Mendelson) made not only by photographers, but again, by subjects, editors, and audiences. Institutions both social and corporate establish practices, and support certain endeavors based on institutional ideologies. Photos are “part of a system of information” (Sontag⁸) in which meaning is constructed within complex configurations of how we understand and value the world. The student of photography is well advised to build a foundation of knowledge based on an understanding of the socio-historical construction of meaning, to make oneself aware of the connotative meanings and the broader social values and cultural concepts wrapped up in the practice of photography.

Background detail must intrigue the viewer, interact with and support the focal subject, and clearly advance story. © 2018 Anonymous

What differentiates taking the snapshot from making the photograph?

The snapshot refers to informal photographs that are by design assumed to be a quick, brief look at something. They typically require little forethought or invite much afterthought. They are typically created with little time spent contemplating the subject or content. Studies show that people remember less in the act of point and shoot photography than if they spend time in close cognitive observance with the subject (Henkel, 2014⁹). All those concerts where people are shooting footage through their phones rather than observing the action means they will remember less of the event than those watching. Likewise, time, observation and trust built with the subject are invaluable to building strong photographic narratives in photojournalism (TEDx Talks, 2014¹⁰). Clearly, observation is a key component in the creation of a photograph.

Our findings in the classroom are that beginning photography students need to learn and apply the foundational considerations of photographic content and intentionality. When the photographer purposely contemplates the subject, including composition, lighting, framing, angle, and so forth, the subject or content of the photo is elevated from the snapshot to the photograph, and we as viewers may then experience an emotive response and connection that a snapshot is less likely to provide.

For the photography 2 student who is assigned to use photography to create an advertisement, a snapshot approach may ignore the setting or purpose of the subject and rely on artificiality (that is not believable). For example, if the subject were photographed in a setting that did not allow for the foreground and background to hold context, the digital substitutions clearly would not add value and would instead create distraction. On the other hand, if location were considered prior to the act of photographing, background adds intentionality and value, and in thinking about context the student photographer adds meaning.

If consideration of background and lighting is made prior to shooting, students are able to create strong compositions for advertisements without it being a meme. © 2015 Chris Costello

In the early weeks of photojournalism, despite course rules to the contrary, students sometimes provide snapshots of their friends, either posed in a clichéd smile-for-the-camera moment or doing something innocuous like working at a laptop and looking at their phone. Their first photo assignment instructs them to go out and meet people they don’t know and photograph them either as interesting subjects in their own right or else doing something that conveys interest to a general viewer. Students must think about foundational considerations as mentioned, and most importantly clearly convey the significance, context and story behind shooting the photograph. If a photo is one that anyone could take, it is unlikely to draw interest from anyone other than the subject and photographer. In photojournalism the cutline often fills out the story and helps provide context, but if the photo is merely a snapshot, even a cutline will do little to provide meaning and interest. Photos that capture intentional details provide depth and help tell a story that will hold viewer interest.

In the early weeks of photojournalism students are cautioned against the “creeper photo” — a snapshot taken of someone who’s unaware they are being photographed. They’re taught instead to approach and engage with the subject, if nothing else, to get details to write a photo caption. Students are pushed to make the human subject central to their photographs. This is not always easy for the student new to photojournalism because approaching people you don’t know is an intimidating task, and yet, they are told to shoot closer to close the gap, so the viewer clearly identifies the subject as well, which helps eliminate the potential creeper effect, and illustrates a key aspect of photojournalism: function. Photojournalism is not for personal or limited use, not public in the sense of posting to class or for members of your social media group. It’s public as in published for a broad audience, that may by the way, be critical of your work and not necessarily “like” it. Photojournalism is reporting. It’s informational and requires accuracy and broad public consumption, and criticism.

Most students will submit at least one creeper photo early in the semester — — taken at a distance and without the subject’s awareness or consent. © 2018 Anonymous

In photography 2 students explore photography in advertising. They initially want full separation of the object they photographed from the studio location, instead choosing a digitally rendered background, and text within its own space, the very definition of what a meme’s appearance is. The pervasiveness of memes within their daily social media consumption comes through despite class conversations about considering background and space integration for text prior to photographing.

As a practice, snapshots don’t require the aforementioned characteristics of making the photograph. Snapshots are not limited by time. They’re easy to take, unlimited in number and often lacking the same value or substance of the photograph. The point is to say that while any student new to photography is naturally in class to learn what makes a good photograph, the current environment in which many of our students come to know and practice photography appears shaped by a photo culture in which the snapshot is the norm. But to be clear, this is not to say that we don’t also participate and embrace social media. Social media is a useful tool our students must also learn to utilize to its fullest in many of the careers our students will engage in. We are speaking to how we teach in an environment of the ubiquitous and pervasive digital culture of preconceived habits and notions about what it means to photograph, and for whom and what purpose.

How does digitization affect what we consider photography and how we teach our students?

In photojournalism, one inherent goal is that they will explore their capabilities beyond the everyday practice of taking snapshots for social media from a professional perspective with distinct rules and formality. They are instructed to refrain from taking photos of their friends, family and pets. When some invariably do this anyway in the first week of the course, it serves as a moment to stress that the primary purpose and function of photojournalism is to provide information to a public audience. In photography courses in the Visual Arts, students are encouraged to develop narratives or themes they might seek out, rather than simply capturing what they stumble upon in a day. Cultural digitization adds to a frantic notion of photography that one should strive to capture every moment and detail of each day, devolving us into the image junkies Sontag had predicted. In the vastness of today’s image world Sontag summarized the meaning of the photograph:

One can’t imagine the overture of Swann’s Way ending with the narrator’s coming across a snapshot of the parish church at Combray and the savoring of that visual crumb, instead of the taste of the humble madeleine dipped in tea, making an entire part of his past spring into view.

To simply snap an image of a moment does not make that moment real, but to truly create a photograph of that moment is to observe what is relevant, step into the moment to create intent, and execute a photograph that transports the viewer into the moment portrayed. To do this, the photographer must be a master of production through the intent, content, format and publication.

Students must learn to work on purposeful background detail. © 2018 Anonymous

Taking a cue from Mendelson’s socio-historical model for scholars and educators to teach photography, for us it is key to teach Foundations, Production, Content, and Publication. Students must develop a competency and repeatability of skill, and an awareness of the particular and distinct role of social media. A culture of digitization opens a space for the proliferation of photographic activity, and consequently, students are often well versed in taking photos but lacking in the foundational elements of good practice. While it is nothing new to suppose that students new to photography will have to acquire a conceptual basis of knowledge and the skills of photography, emphasizing photography as deliberative practice seems crucial to distinguishing what it means to make a photograph in the realm of digital culture.

Works Cited:

[1] Pew Research Center. (Feb. 5, 2018). Internet and Technology: Fact
Sheet. Retrieved from

[2] Manovich, L. (2017). Instagram and Contemporary Image. Attribution-
NonCommercial- NoDerivatives 4.0 International.

[3] Hand, M. (2012) Ubiquitous Photography. Cambridge: Polity.

[4] Van Dijck, J. (2008). Digital photography: communication, identity, memory. Visual Communication, 7(1), 57–76.

[5] Bate, David. (2007). “The Archaeology of Photography: Rereading Michel Foucault and The Archaeology of Knowledge.” Afterimage, 35(3).

[6] Bourdieu, P. (1990) Photography: A Middle-brow Art. Cambridge: Polity.

[7] Mendelson, A. (2007). The Construction of Photographic Meaning. Handbook of Research on Teaching Literacy Through the Communicative and Visual Arts. New York: Taylor & Francis.

[8] Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography. New York: Picador.

[9] Henkel, L. (2014). “Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour.” Psychological Science, 25(2), 396–402.

[10] TEDx Talks. (2014, November 17). Vesselina Nikolaeva: A photographer’s perspective on time, observation, and trust [Video file]. Retrieved from

Kathy Petitte Novak is an Associate Professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield where she teaches journalism, photojournalism, global film and culture, and media criticism. She is an award-winning journalist and long-time fine art and photojournalism photographer who has shown in galleries in Illinois and New York. She completed her Ph.D. at the Institution of Communications Research at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Her priority in teaching photojournalism is to encourage all skill levels to engage their enthusiasm for photography while learning the craft and function of photography in society.

Brytton Bjorngaard was born in Minnesota and has spent her life as a rolling stone, living in Oregon, Minnesota, Spain, Italy, Iowa, Washington, and now Illinois. She received her MFA in Graphic Design from Iowa State University and her BA in Graphic Design from Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. Brytton is an Assistant Professor of Visual Arts at the University of Illinois Springfield and previously held a position at Whitworth University. In addition to teaching, she is a freelance graphic designer and photographer. She got her start in photography at her local Ritz Camera Store in the photography lab, mastering both the one-hour photos and the professional print. Not only does she run a darkroom at her university, she owns close to 150 film cameras (just waiting for the time to get back to her personal photographic work). She has been teaching Photography for the past 8 years and it is her mission to get her students to not only have fun with photography while mastering the basics, but also to learn and appreciate the past aesthetic of film.

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The above essay has been brought to you by the Society for Photographic Education, as an article published within Exposure, its flagship publication. SPE is a nonprofit membership-based organization that seeks to promote a broader understanding of the medium in all of its forms through teaching and learning, scholarship, conversation and criticism. SPE has Affiliated Chapters with events and conferences in every part of the continental US, with Chapters developing internationally, and has been instrumental in fostering community and career growth among photographers, lens-based artists, educators, students, and the broader community of image makers.

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