The world of photography isn’t a meritocracy, and we should be okay with that, argues freelance photographer and writer Ben Davis
What makes a good photographer? Is it technical mastery, a creative vision, an ability to stir emotion in the viewer? Maybe you possess all these qualities, but I bet you’ll never shoot a top-end fashion campaign or have your own book published. I imagine I’ll spend 40-odd years working as a photographer, and I don’t dare to dream I’ll get anywhere close to achieving career highlights such as those. Brooklyn Beckham – the oldest son of a free-kick specialist and Posh Spice – has done both, and before even leaving school.
If you’ve been on social media in the past month, you can’t have failed to notice articles from angry photographers mocking Brooklyn Beckham’s photography book, entitled What I See. People have been pouring scorn on the fledgling photographer’s pictures and captions, particularly an image of an elephant. Well it’s a silhouette of an elephant, as it’s framed against a much brighter background and young Beckham’s metering is unfortunately way off. But who among us didn’t make mistakes at as a young beginner? I did. And it shows it’s not down to what camera you use – Beckham has a Leica and a Hasselblad at his disposal.
One of the more popular tweets mocking Beckham's work
It doesn’t matter though. It’s not about capturing an award-winning wildlife shot, and we all know what an elephant actually looks like. What matters is that his book will likely sell tens of thousands of copies, and probably be one of the bigger selling photography books of the year. He has an audience, and people are interested in seeing his pictures.
Leading photographers have correctly labelled Brooklyn’s success as ‘sheer nepotism’, and it’s fair to say that without his celebrity his images would be indistinguishable from most other beginners. Fashion photographer Chris Floyd told the Guardian that Beckham’s achievements “devalues the skills and training of professionals”. But I disagree.
To be a successful photographer you don’t necessarily need to have a firm understanding of the inverse square law of light, or even actually know how to correctly expose a large backlit mammal. What you do need is to create images that people want to look at. And Brooklyn Beckham, although more through fame than raw talent, does that.
It’s just like to be a pop star you don’t need to be able to read music or understand the make-up of a pentatonic scale to create a hit. You need a catchy tune and a mass following. Brooklyn has 10.1 million followers on Instagram. I’ve got 535. Lots more people would rather see his photography than mine. But that doesn’t mean he’s depriving myself or more deserving photographers of work. There’s plenty more to go around.
There was uproar in the photographic community when Brooklyn landed a gig shooting a Burberry fashion campaign in early 2016. How much control he had over the shoot is up for debate. The more cynical critic might think the lighting, styling, posing, photoshopping and so on was managed by someone else, and Brooklyn just pressed the button. But I liked the images from that campaign, and just like the famous ongoing copyright case of the monkey who took the selfie, the picture belongs to whoever released the shutter.
But whether you like those Burberry images or struggle to believe Beckham was fully responsible for their creation, ultimately he was hired because of his ability to connect with an audience. That’s why any photographer gets hired for a commercial job. The client books them because they think their photography will help promote their brand and engage with their target market. Often a name trumps talent, but that’s true across pretty much all industries. If hiring Brooklyn Beckham will get more people to look at your pictures than hiring a fashion photography genius, then from a commercial point of view, Beckham is the better photographer. You might rightly argue that artistically he isn’t, but the thing about art is that it’s subjective. Facts aren’t. And the fact is that Brooklyn has a captive and adoring audience who want to see his photography.
It’s easy to be critical of his work and to dismiss his success as the result of nepotism, but that’s not his fault, and it’s not fair to hold his privilege against him. He seems to be taking photography seriously, and it’s pleasing that he wants to work. I imagine that given the circumstances it could be difficult to not follow a more destructive path.
Instead, he’s completed his A-level in photography, is interning with various fashion photographers to learn from them and his next step is to study photography at a higher level in New York. He has an amazing opportunity and I’m sure he appreciates how lucky he is, and I bet that in a few years’ time when he’s an established fashion photographer, he’ll be embarrassed by that elephant picture. But if that’s the most embarrassing thing from his teens, then he’s doing all right.
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About the Author
Ben Davis is an award-winning professional photographer with more than 10 years' experience in the industry. His internet home is www.cambridgeshireweddingphotography.com