On Becoming Useless

Kenneth Jarecke
Mar 4 · 4 min read
Just another useless image. Copyright 2021 Kenneth Jarecke / Contact Press Images

Looking for success? After trying everything else, you may want to consider becoming useless.

We’ve been seeing a lot of pictures of people holding signs lately. Which can only mean we’re going to see more pictures of people holding signs. As photographers, we are conditioned to respond to the marketplace, and today the marketplace of visual ideas is housed on Instagram. Pictures of signs are odd, not because we don’t agree with the words on the signs, but because we already have several places for words, one of which is the caption that goes directly under our pictures.

Pictures and words are two different things. They have different jobs. Pictures show, words tell.

Pictures are a place to communicate visually. If they’re done right, they say things that words have a hard time saying. They connect with an audience in a different way as well. A good pairing between words and pictures is a match made in heaven. They’re like a married couple working together towards a common goal. They don’t duplicate each other’s work, rather, they play to their own strengths and trust their partner to get their side of the job done.

I know what you’re thinking. What about that picture Margaret Bourke-White made of the bread line? That’s got some words in it.

And you’d be right. That image has got some words, and they do enhance the image. The difference is that her image doesn’t depend on them. Remove the words and the image is just as powerful. Without the words the image is iconic, with the words it’s both iconic and ironic.

Bourke-White took an advertising campaign and turned it into satire. That’s not easy. Advertising images are designed to enrich the people behind them. They’re expensive to make and propagate, but it takes money to make money, right? That’s why ads are useful.

Useful images are used. They sell bread as well as politicians. Useful images tell the story of the day, whether that story is news or a reminder to stop by the grocery store and buy some Oreos.

I don’t have much use for useful images.

Useful images are more like words than pictures. They are designed to tell you a very specific thing. So really, they’re more tell than show. They’re here to tell you it’s cold in Texas and the power went out. Then they’ll tell you people are boiling water, the snow melted or the power went back on. That’s all telling. Something that words can do better.

Pictures need to show you what it feels like to not be able to drink the water that is coming out of your kitchen sink, and that takes some real skill.

That’s why I prefer useless photographers and the useless images they make.

Traditionally, the best magazine photographers are the ones who are the most useless. It’s true. If the White House Press Corps shows up at the Tonight Show, the only people allowed to use the “artist’s entrance” are the magazine photographers. That’s true as well. I’ve seen it happen.

When I think of a useless photographer, I immediately think of Gilles Peress. The people in the useful photography business don’t have much use for him. When he makes a picture of a person holding a poster at a political rally, it does the opposite of whatever the poster was designed to do. With a push of a button, propaganda becomes satire. The useful becomes useless, or even worse.

When Tina Brown took over at The New Yorker, she put Gilles Peress and Richard Avedon under contract. What was she thinking? Maybe one could make a case for Avedon. The guy did sell a lot of clothes. But Peress, how many pairs of Jordache jeans did he move?

Tell me how useful these photos are that Gilles made back in 2001.

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/photos-from-the-archive-gilles-peresss-nighttown

There’s no reason for them to exist.

Wouldn’t a shot of someone wearing cheap plastic sunglasses in Times Square on New Year’s Eve have been more useful? Many photo editors working at useful publications are nodding their heads “yes,” and many photographers would be happy to oblige them.

Everyone knows what they’re supposed to do when it comes to being useful. There’s not as much guesswork involved. There’s no need for a brilliant photographer or an insightful editor when everyone stays on script.

Conventional wisdom tells you to flow with the current. Let the winds push you out in the morning and pull you back in at night. Of course, it can be a little crowded sailing that close to shore, and those waters are heavily fished.

The photography world is flooded with useful folk, and that’s fine, somebody needs to write good captions, but what if the key to your success is becoming less? Less accommodating, less predictable, less practical and less useful.

I’m curious if somebody might just find a use for a photographer like that today.

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Kenneth Jarecke

Written by

I'm a husband, dad, photographer, a writer (sort of), an occasional rancher and the President of The Curious Society. https://www.curioussociety.org

The Shadow

We publish inspiring stories about different topics for a productive and entertaining life

Kenneth Jarecke

Written by

I'm a husband, dad, photographer, a writer (sort of), an occasional rancher and the President of The Curious Society. https://www.curioussociety.org

The Shadow

We publish inspiring stories about different topics for a productive and entertaining life

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