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Fast Food Nationazine

September 27, 2009

Okay, this post is a direct result of a comment from none other than the turbo driving photographer, writer, traveler Jennifer Spelman. You can see her pictures right here……Jennifer Spelman.

She wrote me a note and made a comment about wanting to make literature with her images, as opposed to the supermercado check-out-line publications. I thought that was a damn fine analogy.

It also got me thinking about other analogies, which is the best way to pass the time, that or bingo, whichever you land on first.

I read somewhere that Americans eat fast food an average of twenty times per month. Now my first reaction was, “No frickin way.” I had intense visions of bloating, my gut spilling over my belt and not being able to see my feet. I felt pounding, high blood pressure between my ears, and I also had visions of my doctors face and wondered what it would be like to spend a lot more time around him.

My goal here is not to condemn fast food. My goal was to shine some light on this as an analogy.

Why do people eat fast food? I’m sure there has to be several million people stateside who get up in the am and say to themselves, “Oh ya baby, today I’m going to BK.” And you know what, there is nothing wrong with that.

But, I also think for those “twenty-times per month” numbers to be correct, there has to be a lot more going on. I think when people eat fast food, there are many other factors involved. Overworked, overstressed, overscheduled, a tinge lazy perhaps……potential reasons. Hey, guilty. I’ve done it.

I don’t eat fast food very often, but when I have, and when I look back, there always seems to be a reason why that really doesn’t have anything to do with the food.

Ever get off an American highway exit? What are you faced with? What are you faced with at 11pm?

Ever have ten minutes to eat?


Kids in the car and they need their fries habit attended to?

Ever have an intense desire to get that damn decoder ring?

Okay, my point here is that outside factors determine the output, far more than the actual content. Sound familiar freelance photographers?

Ah ya, Dan, here you are finally arriving at your analogy. Fast food and photography have a lot in common these days.

Much of the photography we see is nothing more than visual fast food. This imagery passes across our eyeballs but never reaches our brain. Empty calories anyone?

Ever have an assignment with an editor, assignment editor, reporter and perhaps someone else involved in the fray. What happens with the images? They get pushed and pulled and preconceived and suddenly they are just in the middle. Splat.

At times it feels like people are not even interested in good photography. People seem to want middle-ground content. Nothing offensive, something they have seen before, something they think they are supposed to do, something that has become the expected, etc. Visual fast food.

The problem is, great food takes what? Great ingredients, fresh we can say, and time? Let’s say the fresh ingredients are “personal vision.” How many photographers have that? And how many know the the warm, safe comfort of those fast food ingredients?

And we can link preparation time, with food, with time in the field, or studio or wherever else photographers work. How much of this do people have today? I can remember getting a three-day, editorial assignment and other photographers thinking that was incredible! Three days!

What I’m saying is, what do we expect? If we continue to play by these rules, cheap ingredients, no preparation time, then we will continue to get a massive dose of mediocrity.

I was handed a news magazine last night. I haven’t followed the news magazines for years, but viewing this baby I was shocked.

No wonder they are in trouble. I thought I was handed one of those advertising supplements that comes in the junk mail. It was so busy, so filled with nonsense, postage stamp images, and no clear design, I didn’t know it was a news magazine until I looked at the cover. And even then I had to stop and say, “Wait, what am I looking at?

It was just fast food. Perhaps there was nutrition buried in there somewhere, but I would never find it through all the plastic packaging. I didn’t read a single thing because I couldn’t figure out what was editorial and what was advertising. There was no clear story, and the images……safe, expected, styleless.

The story about the Middle East had the requisite guy with RPG. Check.

The political story had the requisite guy at podium. Check.

What a total drag it was to see this. Of all the people working in the Middle East, THIS burger and fries was the only thing you could come up with?

Of all the people working in DC, THIS $.29 taco was your master plan?

This is visual fast food people, and you know what, it’s no wonder it ain’t working.

It’s time we demand more, or just quit pulling up to the drive through.

The photographers I like have their own restaurant. It might only have four tables, but you know what, I know the food is good. They have been open for quite some time and have a chef with vision who only works with the freshest ingredients.

I’ll save my money, schedule more time and make sure when I eat out, I stop here and not at the fast food joint. Maybe I won’t eat out as often, but I think the experience will be far more enjoyable.

I’m a big fan of questioning our motives and what we are doing, and why. Next time your in the field, regardless of your genre, ask yourself, “What am I doing?

The answer should be crystal clear, and the answer shouldn’t take longer than a millisecond to come to mind. Vision, direction, style, purpose, etc. This is what we should be about, not “Well, I guess I’m supposed to do this.”

And, if you are sitting there reading this, thinking to yourself, “Well, I’m not thrilled with what I’m shooting but……my clients aren’t complaining.” UGH, my personal favorite comment of the plague of mediocrity, then take a time out and regroup. Life is far more grand than this, and your ability to work as a photographer should be far more enjoyable than this. And realize, maybe you shouldn’t be working as a photographer. What’s the point if you are only providing a prison meal?

And before you got thinking I’m some photo-czar, think again. My heart is oozing writing this because I’ve done this same damn thing, and not too long ago. But, I’m at the breaking point, and in a good way. I’m not gonna do it anymore. Ever. I’m at the point where I’m totally okay with saying, “No,” each and every time I am presented with the fast food option. I’m frequently doing it now, but I can imagine a time in the very near future when I do it 100% of the time. And yes, this future time is complete with unicorns and cotton candy clouds.

I apologize if this sounds harsh, but I think it is time to really speak freely about photography, which doesn’t seem to happen much in the industry outlets. I’m sure advertisers don’t want anything like this crossing their pages, so I get it. But really, photography deserves better.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. David Wissinger permalink
    September 28, 2009 6:11 pm

    I have a very traditional corporate job that I enjoy very much. I have been doing it for a long time, I’m good at it, and it carries the considerable charm of paying all of the bills my family and I rack up. My world of unicorns and cotton candy clouds also has me in it as a full-time photographer. Fun! Freedom! Creativity! It’s on my mind that I could actually do this when I retire from the corporate world, and that time could come when my kids are finished with college, roughly 10 years hence. I’ve made a few stabs at professional photography. Professional = getting paid…I know there’s a whole universe of debate about that but…another time.

    My professional efforts have been embarrassingly mediocre. The images are technically fine…but when I look at them I wonder who took them. There’s nothing of me there. I’d go so far as to say that there’s nothing much of anything there except a well exposed and composed image. Kind of like the ones you see in the “how to” books. So I’m realizing that what Dan is talking about here, the kind of photography that “freezes” the viewer, like the Mennonite images freeze Dan, take time. Years? Sure, why wouldn’t they? My approach toward my imaginary world has changed…I’m inching my way toward it instead of leaping. I think that’s the only way to get there because right now my photo time comes in tiny bits, not big, beefy chunks.

    Thanks for the post, Dan. You’ve given me some reassurance that I’m on the right track.

    • September 28, 2009 6:23 pm

      Well I can’t emphasize enough the time restrictions and time demands that are put on us these days. It used to be that photographers, especially doc shooters, would spend years on projects. It still happens, but not to the degree it once did. I see young photographers getting shows and book deals from projects that were done in short order, so I don’t think the feeling is there that work needs to be drawn out. Some of these projects are great, but many are simply projects that are touching on some hot element within the market, and are not projects that will hold up over time. But once the show is granted, or the book printed, no one seems to mind.
      I think as you get better as a photographer you know what you have and don’t have. You can sell hard and still make something happen with a body or work, but inside you kinda know it isn’t where it needs to be.

  2. Leigh permalink
    September 28, 2009 7:34 pm

    To sooth your soul and get a glimpse of some people who get what’s missing from 99% of photography out there check out:

    Driftless Stories From Iowa by Danny Wilcox Frazier

    • David Wissinger permalink
      September 29, 2009 5:24 am

      Leigh, thanks for the link. That’s some fine work. By that I mean it’s beautiful photography but many of the images are not easy to look at. But you want to anyway. I love to discover work like this.

  3. September 28, 2009 7:53 pm


    I was thinking of this body of work when I was writing this post. I agree. I like this work a lot. I think Robert Frank wrote the forward. I like the face he shot what he knew, and there is a level of connection that I really love. Good call.
    I would love to see this work as a box of prints, just to really see what he did. I like some of the multimedia stuff, but find myself wanting silence when I’m looking at this.
    Maybe the book is on the way?

  4. September 28, 2009 7:54 pm

    Wait, I see there is a book. My bad.

  5. September 29, 2009 4:42 pm

    Thanks for the link. Empty calories indeed! The trend extends beyond cuisine and photography. It could be considered a trademark of the time we live in. Discretion – who needs it? Quick and mediocore will do today, thanks. I suppose it’s like anything else in life, there will be a pendulum swing. Right now we happen to be way out on the extreme arc – barraged by some much information, the ability to be choosy has been lost.

    Your quest needs a motto, maybe “Changing tomorrow’s pants today.” 😉

  6. September 29, 2009 4:54 pm

    I’m supposed to change my pants?

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