I’ve been teaching my first documentary photography workshop in a while, notably since the ever more crushing presence of things like instagram and tiktok, and also since the pandemic began. The participants are a mixed group of photographers – some of them quite accomplished travel photographers.

I realise that I’m now looking at visual creativity from a different angle than before. Part of it is undoubtedly the ever greater role social media apps now play in defining not only what images we look at, but also how we look at them (and consequently how we value them).

The hiatus and relative introspective mode of the pandemic has allowed me fresh perspectives. All photographers are affected by trends, and always have been. And I find nothing wrong with being inspired by those who have gone before or even are our contemporaries. It’s part of the way civilisation works. Yet nowadays the power of the subliminal ‘norm’ has reached an absurd level of dominance on the visual lexicon of photography.

Both the act of making photographs and viewing them is now so facilitated (perhaps facile is a better word) that even the most astounding effects and visual accomplishments become banal in about 2 hours: the time it takes for them to be plagiarised to death. That’s how easy trends are set with this plethora of algorithms and other applications of so called artificial intelligence. The higher the number of likes, the greater the scale of plagiarism. And it all fits in our pocket.

But if in documentary photography we take away the formulaic templates, suddenly we’re lost. What should we should we shoot if we aren’t just to repeat the cleverness of others who got so many likes? What would it mean if we just copy, no matter how well we do so? Both now and in past workshops I found it curious how some of the participants who had great ‘travel portfolios’ got a bit lost when they had to choose their own subects and create their own visual narratives. I might be wrong, but this seems to be a particular challenge for many Asians: in many things we are used to learning by example: inculcated deep down in our psyches is the “virtue” of toeing the line, following the ways of our parents and forefathers, of not transgressing the norms of society.

We end up focusing on the result, and the result ends up dictating the process of how we see and look at things. But this runs counter to the spirit of documentary photography. This discipline of shedding light on realities and aspects of those realities that most viewers are not aware of depends on our own voyage of discovery. It’s not about showing clichés, no matter how well packaged. The process dictates the result.

In Buddhist psychology, true perception is a very fleeting and difficult thing to achieve. We have so many preconceptions and prejudices even before we arrive, then once we meet with situations we might have a shift but we still superimpose and project. In this context, the challenge of documentary photography “to photograph things simply as they are” becomes immense.

There is no question that personal style, approach, choice of subject matter will come into it. But the key to documentary work is for the photographer to push themselves beyond their preconceptions and prejudices, to learn to observe. What did we actually see? I’m deliberately avoiding the word ‘objective’; it’s too much of a minefield. Yet we still need to learn to recognize what we see. Sure we each have our own point of view, but we need pull out empathy and understanding out of our tool kit first before we start dithering around with our camera equipment.