The dying art of commercial photography

21st century brought with itself the digital revolution and abruptly reduced the human effort which was impelled into backbreaking works and the tasks which could otherwise take lots of human plus machine resources.

It used to be a slow process and of course time consuming, brought this whole lot under one click. Yes the digital revolution happened. This revolution also wrapped under its blanket the profession of photography as well.


The digitization or digital revolution although reduced the hard work, time, resources but it rendered many, who depended on this profession as the source of their livelihood, as jobless. And this is, as they say in photography profession, the focal point of our article.

Have you been to Pahalgam or Gulmarg or any other famous tourist visiting destinations in Kashmir? If you have, you must have seen people carrying the traditional Kashmiri dresses, the pots and a flower vase along with artificial ornaments and a professional camera in one hand of theirs asking you to click pictures offering you cheapest prices.

If you click pictures, you receive the printed version of your memories in almost no time. Yes, we are talking about the commercial photographers and commercial photography in particular.

Not the ones who you pay to get your portfolios done or those working with or as journalists. But the ones who click the pictures of ordinary people and earn livelihood by this profession, the ones who were popular especially during 90s.

Among such photographers, one is Abdur Rahman Wani. Wani, the man who witnessed the transfiguration of photography for almost forty odd years, from black and white to colored, from analog to digital.

Born in the village of Pahalgam, the beautiful hill station of Kashmir valley famous for its meadows, cold water streams, glaciated mountain tops, trekking destinations and what not that nature has to offer.

Just like other people of the village, Wani also became acquainted to the presence of tourists, locals as well as foreigners in his native village. It was in early 70s when Wani first became interested in photography and as he grew up this interest took the shape of passion. It was the time when foreign tourist visits were at its peak.

Among such visitors, one was Australian national, Terry Hollow. Terry Hollow who also happened to be a photographer by profession came across our guy, Wani. Wani tells his wishes and aspirations to Terry and Terry lends his support and asks Wani to join him.

Back then, Terry used to visit trekking spots around Pahalgam area, the nearby villages of tribes (Gujjars, Bakkerwals) and shepherds and used to take photographs of the same. Wani spent six months with Terry and during this time, Terry conveyed the art of photography to Wani. Even after going back to his home country, Australia, Terry kept sending the photography guide books to Wani.

In 1979, Wani started a small scale photography shop in Pahalgam. Tourism was doing good back then and tourists were interested in getting clicked in traditional Kashmiri attire. Wani and for that matter any of his likes were doing good monetarily as well as professionally. It was a time of black and white photography.

For Wani, business was steady for six years and in 1985, the color photography came to the market. It brought into existence color rolls, 35 mm cameras, color enlargers and all means of equipment’s and tools. The black and white equipments had to be sold at scrap value.

The good thing with color photography was that it could clearly exhibit whatever nature had to offer and Pahalgam was the best place to do so with its sceneries, valleys and meadows, snowcapped mountains, rivers etc. People became interested in capturing themselves in the beautiful sceneries which proved good for the business of photographers.

This also continued for four years and in the year 1989, QSS small optical color labs came to the market. With the launch of new technology, the older equipments again needed to be thrown out of the studios.

Many photographers who couldn’t afford to buy the new technology left the profession. The number of photographers who changed their professions went up to 80% of the total photographers in the area.

This was the time when armed rebellion surfaced up in the valley. It was the start of darkest decade in the history of valley. Tourism suffered, so did photography profession. But for Wani, this was not only the source of his livelihood, it was his passion as well.

He persevered the antagonistic situation and somehow managed to steady the ship. During the 90s decade, photography became popular among locals. Not only did they use to get their pictures taken by photographers, many of locals owned their cameras for which they had to buy the rolls and also get their pictures printed which was done by the professional photographers. This continued for almost two decades and during last 7-8 years, global digital revolution took place.

Photography was not the only profession that got hit by digitization but it was one of the affected and it got affected so bad that it rendered most of the commercial photographers jobless and eventually penniless. Earlier, photography used to be a laborious kind of job.

The process of printing a photograph in itself used to be a step by step phenomena. An analog camera used to capture the picture which formed an image on photographic negative (reel) which was then exposed to positive transparency (slide) and the image was enlarged and then finally photograph used to get printed on a printer.

The logistics that a photograph printing required consisted of a camera which also required detachable flashlight needed for dark conditions, a printing lab which required the space as much as one full room, a printer etc. somewhere deep down in your memory, you remember the same, don’t you? The revolutionary changes in the digital world, photo imaging DSC, medical systems, graphic systems, recording media and industrial products in photography profession made photography more easy, time and money saving, comfortable and the quality of photographs in high resolution and vivid pictures.

The invention that broke the backbone of commercial photography is that of the smart phones. People now no longer need to head towards photography studios, it is a matter of one click for the user. The creativities like selfies ended whatever was left in the commercial photography. People no longer need to get their photos printed.

They can easily store them in secondary memories of phones as well as drives of computers as well as separate storage devices. Which means people like wani are left with no work at all. But, some of them, Wani included, still continue with the same profession.

On being asked why he didn’t change the profession, replied that this is the only thing he knows. He has done this throughput his life. He cannot afford to learn different skills required for other jobs at the twilight of his carrier. The young professionals nowadays leave the profession shortly after realizing there is no future in the profession.

There has been a lack of care towards this profession. Otherwise the profession which was the ambassador of tourism for the valley would not have suffered so badly.

This finally leaves us with some questions as how long will this profession survive? Would the situation of commercial photography improve if the tourism increases in the valley? What is better the wallpaper of our desktop or the one that is printed and framed, one which is hanging by the wall? That is for us to decide at individual levels.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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