A popular photo news website recently ran a post bemoaning the replacement of photographic gatekeepers with social media algorithms. The author of the post made the argument that gatekeepers kept a check on the quality of photography presented to the public and, as such, served a vital function in the photo ecosystem. The post went on to hold that while early in the Facebook era, some work of exceptional quality was seen by the public, as time moved on the quality declined precipitously.
Now, before placing the snowy white mantle of photographic virtue on gatekeeper's shoulders, let's take just a moment to look at the reality here. We are going to talk about "gatekeepers" in the past tense as their role in the ecosystem is significantly diminished.
First, we need to establish the roles that functioned as gatekeepers - very simply they were people in positions to control whose photography was presented to the public and whose was not. These roles included museum curators, commercial gallery owners, directors or managers, magazine editors, publishing house editors, photography agents, etc.
Next we need to establish the "loyalty" of the gatekeepers - this could be to the medium as a form of expression, to the individual photographers whose work they use, to the enterprise they represent or something else all together. You can bet your bottom dollar their loyalty was first and foremost to the organization that provided their paycheck. They may have had secondary or tertiary considerations but their primary consideration was to their employer.
So far no mention of quality here -
And finally we need to establish the gatekeeper's goal - This is the easiest to figure out. The gatekeepers goal is very simply SALES. That is it... in one word... SALES. Anything that gets past the gatekeeper had to have the very strong possibility of being sold to the public. For museum curator sales translates into increased patronage.
There is an inherent presumption of some level of quality but that is not the primary issue for the gatekeeper. The primary issue is sales.
It seems only natural that the gatekeeper would have become the arbiter of quality. They held the keys to the kingdom and the supplicant had to meet the definition of sales potential a person in that position might hold. And there was no set rubric for anyone to follow but often - and this was especially true for those approaching book publishers - the photographer would prepare a complete marketing plan with target audiences, etc.
With the advent of social media, there has been an explosion of photography available to the public. But how much of that work is intended to be "serious" work and how much is simply work that was intended to be the "snapshot" shared with family or friends? How much work that actually falls into the second category is promoted as if it is in the first? When it's online, it's available to the world and it would seem that if all of the work that is presented online is "serious" work then there are certainly increasing problems with quality.
So in meeting our responsibilities as consumers, we have to be able to filter that difference for ourselves. And that filter is entirely personal.
But there is also a responsibility that is incumbent on the photographer - and this is a responsibility photographer's should acknowledge regardless of level (beginner, advanced amateur, professional, etc.).
Each photographer is responsible to assure that any and all work displayed to the public either online, in a gallery setting, etc., is of the highest quality possible. This is not to say that the appreciation of quality won't grow over time, it certainly will, but this is no reason to accept anything less than the photographer's highest level of quality.
We don't need gatekeepers to meet this responsibility.