World photography: changing perspective

Thanks to advancements in technology and more affordable equipment, more people than ever are trying their hand at photography. takes a look at the international competitions looking to celebrate the work of amateurs and professionals alike, and asks whether the digital age has had a positive impact on the art form

Everyone’s a photographer nowadays. Taking pictures has become a habit, like scratching an itch. Smart phone in hand, we constantly document our lives and the world around us, uploading images – good, bad and indifferent – and distributing them to friends, family and the rest of the world via social media. But just how much of an impact has the digital age really had on the art of photography?

“There’s a barrage of images, but I’m still a big believer that photography is a talent you’re kind of born with,” says Tim Paton, director of London photo agency Balcony Jump and a judge of this year’s Sony World Photography Awards. “It’s like playing a musical instrument – you can practice and practice and get OK at it, but some people just pick up a guitar and can play it immediately. Same with photography – you can spot those guys who just effortlessly make great pictures.”

Huge impact

The World Photography Awards, which recently announced its 2013 shortlist – having received 122,000 entries from 170 countries – is open to amateur and professional photographers. And while Paton is a strong believer in the maxim that you’ve either got it or you haven’t, he’s happy to concede that digital technology has had a huge affect on the craft of taking a picture.

“You can buy a camera for, say, £300 (US$450), stick it on auto and take some beautiful pictures,” he says. “So the technical side of things has changed in the digital age. It’s certainly easier to get a good-looking picture now.”

It’s partly in recognition of this growing number of photographers that the Taste of Travel competition, currently showing at the Royal Radisson Hotel, Dubai, was launched. “We wanted to connect with the huge photography community in the UAE,” explains competition judge Georgina Wilson-Powell, editor of Lonely Planet Traveller Middle East, the publication behind the competition. “I was surprised by the quality of the entries. Out of 400, I’d say at least 100 were professional-looking images.”

Mohamed Somji, Director of Gulf Photo Plus, the Dubai-based organisation responsible for GPP2013 – a series of events and workshops for photographers which runs from 1-8 March – and fellow judge at Taste of Travel, is delighted by the number of unique images he's seen taken by amateurs. “I always like images where the photographer has taken what is a seemingly mundane scene and shot it from a different perspective,” he says. “A photograph that makes you go, ‘Aah – I never saw it like that’.”

Somji believes that photography in the Middle East is currently enjoying unprecedented growth for a number of reasons. While technology, and specifically the increasing affordability of DSLR cameras, has been important, he also cites social media and Dubai’s vibrant event and business scene. Art, too, is playing its part.

Form of expression

“With the art scene having taken on a life of its own in Dubai and Doha, and photography being the most accessible of art forms in Saudi of late, this has been a catalyst for more people engaging with photography as a means of expression," he says.

And photographers of all calibre are being supported at the highest level. The Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Maktoum Photography Award (HIPA) was launched in 2011, and the second winner of this international competition will be announced in March. Established in part to show Dubai’s ‘commitment to support art, culture and innovation’, HIPA recently featured on its website an interactive panoramic view from the top of the Burj Khalifa, taken by photographer Gerald Donovan.

That particular panorama is made up of 70 separate images and was a major technical undertaking. The Taste of Travel competition’s winning photo was rather less complicated. “I had just stepped off a small boat onto one of the islands in Lake Tana, Ethiopia when I saw this image,” explains Dubai-based photographer’s assistant Leila Cranswick. “It was around midday, when the light is usually too harsh, but this one somehow worked.”

Cranswick is a digital convert and confesses that the move from film has made her “more lazy”, because she knows that “if an exposure isn’t perfect, I can fix it in post”. It’s a commonly heard refrain that, as Tim Paton at Balcony Jump sees it, sums up what is good and bad about the democratizing effects of digital.

“The arrival of affordable Photoshop has been key – it is just cheaper and easier to do all that post-production work on your pictures,” he says. “The digital age has made it harder to spot a great photographer because you’ve got more stuff coming at you. Ultimately, though, I think it’s been a good thing – but the industry is still finding its way through it all.”