In this piece, Roger Tooth, Head of Photography at the Guardian, the Observer and guardian.co.uk, reflects on the idea of the camera club in the context of a national newspaper, 'open journalism' and online picture sharing fora. Here, Tooth situates the thinking behind the Guardian Camera Club, its initial aim of creating an online 'critting', or critiquing, service for keen amateurs and students of photography, and its role as part of the wider policy of open journalism at the Guardian. The practicalities of using Flickr as a submitting and discussion medium for the Guardian Camera Club show how contemporary amateur photographic practice is inflected by online community and digital sharing technologies. The Guardian’s experience of engaging with photographers and readers, or reader-photographers, online illuminates the position of the amateur amongst the different strands in the photographic community, as a new way of understanding citizen journalism in a national newspaper and website.
The Guardian Camera Club is based in the digital world - on the Guardian newspaper's website: guardian.co.uk. So no, it doesn't meet in a draughty village hall once a month in a southern English shire town. Members can live anywhere in the world. The name was supposed to be slightly ironic, but the irony got lost pretty early on as keen amateurs joined through the Flickr site.
The Club is aimed at anybody who is interested in photography, anywhere in the virtual world. We did have one meeting in a Soho pub one Sunday lunchtime which was an interesting encounter, but proved in some ways to be the antithesis of an online community: it was very local to the Guardian HQ and very London-centric.
Our original thoughts were aimed at students, but we seem to have very few as members or participants. I wonder if the ironically intended name has put them off: it just doesn’t sound cool! More likely, I think, students have their own work stream set by their tutors: possibly access to a national publication does not seem necessarily important until they leave their college courses.
We have about 12,000 members on our Flickr group, although we haven’t as yet done any analytical work to examine the number of people who constitute our regular, core contributors. About three or four members of staff are involved. There is a problem with enthusing staff members - everybody thinks it's a good idea as long it doesn't involve them taking on extra workload and picture editors are not naturally interested in writing - we have reporters and sub-editors to write, after all.
We started the Guardian Camera Club about three years ago for a couple of reasons. We were getting increasing numbers of photographers approaching us to review their portfolios, it was becoming very easy to contact a Picture Editor directly by email and I felt bad not being able to see all the applicants. I thought we could offer a simple service to photographers to show us some work and have a national newspaper picture editor give some sort of reaction in the form of a simple online critique.
The Editor of the Guardian is very keen for the paper’s journalists to engage with its readers - what we call ‘open journalism’ - which is a big part of our digital or online strategy.
The Camera Club seemed an ideal way for the Picture Desk to create some sort of online portfolio reviewing service and start to build a community around the Guardian’s commitment to great photography.
The Club’s activities have come down to a couple of key areas. We ‘crit’ members' general portfolios: we allow them to submit six pictures to us via Flickr. Any submissions we like, we make into a standard Guardian website gallery and add a critique in the standfirst introductory paragraph. This normally consists of two or three paragraphs at the most: we try to say something about each photograph plus a general summing-up of the work:
We also set monthly assignments for the members to attempt. Initially they were loosely based on the sort of work a newspaper photographer might do: portraiture, landscape, cityscapes, sport. Sometimes slightly more obscure subjects are suggested, like photographing a person anonymously, for example. As the months and years have gone by we’ve had to broaden things out a bit: self portraiture was a popular assignment, this month it’s ‘framing a subject’. We started making videos to introduce the month’s subject, for example, Edinburgh-based freelance Murdo Macleod introduced the topic of night photography Guardian staffer David Sillitoe explained his approach to photographing strangers:
We provide tips indicating how we think the assignment might best be approached to help the members. These monthly assignments were sponsored initially by Nikon. This allowed us to employ someone two days a week to edit the submissions on Flickr and build the galleries, but it introduced a competitive element which I didn’t really like. We had to judge a winner each month, and award a prize, which led to its own problems in finding judges not associated in any way with the Guardian and having to keep to strict terms and conditions. I felt the Club was more of an educational service and that’s why I’m still not that keen on the monthly assignments, however they can lead to some really nice, focussed work, like Maxine Moss’s self-portraits, for example:
When we lost the sponsorship and the prize-giving went with it, the members didn’t seem to mind at all, which was quite cheering.
The Club members’ submissions are via Flickr because we felt that we didn't really have a picture system big enough to cope with all the images. That might or might not be true, but we didn't want to use the newspaper's normal picture storage system or electronic picture desk, because of copyright clearance problems: sub-editors helping themselves to non-cleared images, etc. And Flickr seemed to be the answer to everything 4 years ago.
But there are problems with Flickr - it's too easy for people to dump images onto our area from their own space without thinking too much and getting images to repurpose from it isn't that easy. Also the lively discussion threads are not on the guardian.co.uk website driving up our vital traffic (circulation) figures. I’m afraid it’s also all too easy to get into rows with members on the discussion group:
Our members are pretty demanding and they really sense when we have neglected things. Summer 2012 was particularly difficult with the Olympics as well as staff holidays. It is quite stressful thinking up a new and original idea for the monthly assignment and there is a fair amount of production work involved, too. Everything we write we have to get sub-edited, which then involves another equally busy set of colleagues. I think the worst comment I have had about the project was that Guardian Camera Club was just a content generator!
One very big success that is still building is a simple free-association thread on the Flickr group which has now had almost 14,000 submissions:
Running Guardian Camera Club has made me think about people interested in photography outside the media industry. I used to think there was this mass of amateur photographers only after one thing: a job on a newspaper as a staff photographer. My experience with Camera Club has taught me there are indeed some people wanting to turn pro, but there is also a large group of well-informed enthusiasts who just want to pursue something that now sounds very old-fashioned: a hobby. I’ve just had an email from a member who is putting on a street photography exhibition with a few others. He says, “Thank you for running the club, I'd likely still be taking grotesqueHighDynamicRangelandscapes if I hadn't found it.”