I'm not a platypus

I have grave difficulty thinking about more that one thing at once. I can’t use age as an excuse (31); it’s just difficult to focus clearly on multiple things simultaneously. My girlfriend is a corporate secretary, as such, she is a central “hub” for her organisation. There are always three people handing her stacks of papers while the phone is ringing and the German businessman wanted cream but the Dutch man wanted his black. (And she is doing all this in Czech and English and Dutch and German!) Thus, she is bewildered when I can’t seem to comprehend what she is saying if I am typing or reading when she says it. I can focus intensely, but I have a shallow depth of field.

However (on almost every assignment) I am called upon to shoot video, stills, record audio, etc. I am beginning to wonder if this multiplicity of tasks is not detrimental to the quality of my work. For one thing, and this is no small thing to consider, one must carry a lot of stuff to do all this (though, its certainly getting more compact as technology improves). But that is not my essential concern; I just don’t know if I can dedicate the mental space to such simultaneous activity. I have, though this may seem strange to people who haven’t done it, difficulty shooting multiple film formats at once. I’m occasionally called upon to use both 35mm and medium format on one shoot. I can compose in squares; I can compose in rectangles. But, to think together in both squares and rectangles runs my brain round in circles. Extrapolate this out to shooting video, stills, and audio all together. Each requires a different mindset; combining the three (for me) sums up to a negation. It’s not that I completely break down and can’t function; it’s more like reversing the polarity of one speaker in a stereo set. The sound is still there, but the substance of the music becomes somehow hollow and disconcerting.

There are clinics…I mean workshops to help photographers do this sort of thing (see here) and I’ve seen some wonderful photo-essays combined with audio. There is certainly a rich vein of possibility combining these mediums. However, I’m concerned that everyone is called upon to be a generalist. Each of these fields can take a lifetime to master. This is somewhat cliché, but true: a photographer can use a camera with a normal lens for his or her whole career and never fully expend its potential. I’m afraid, by calling on everyone to become a media producer (which is what I have been calling myself), media buyers will dull the eyes and ears of many fine artists. Say an editor calls me up tomorrow and wants to send me to Zambia to cover a story; she wants me to do stills and audio. What if I am a very capable still photographer but tell her that I don’t do audio? She may then go looking for someone less skilled who fits the bill technically. How does this alter the artistic and business decisions of working artists? How does it change the character of what we do? (In addition, hiring one person who can sort of do both in order to reduce costs will, inevitably, damage the state of affairs for well qualified people who do just one. How do we stand up and say, look, if you want quality in this situation, you need to send two people?)

I don’t mean to diminish the people who are doing this very well. But we seem to be headed full speed into an age of diversified (or unified, depending on how one defines it) media age. I’m not talking about the technology itself here, these are just tools; I’m concerned that craft may be lost. There have been many laments about automatic everything cameras and how they suddenly make everyone think he or she is a photographer. Well, that’s just silly. Nothing about auto-focus will give someone the capabilities of a great photographic artist. And perhaps, for many working media producers, the ability to combine multiple media has given them new freedoms of expression. But, what of us who sincerely want to dedicate our energies toward one particular medium? Will there be work for us (as journalists) or will we become hold-outs of a fussy speciality?