We Shouldn’t Generalize… Or Should We?

Generalizing and stereotyping is viewed as a bad thing. But generalizing is a lot of what photographers do. We just need to be conscientious and do it right.

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One of the more fascinating aspects of photography is how our acceptable norms differ from the norms and accepted practices we live under during day-to-day life. The most prominent example of this is generalizing or stereotyping. Outside of photography circles, generalizing is offensive—and with good reason, because it’s so often targeted at race, gender, belief systems, and so on. It’s just not a good idea to assume that a stereotype actually applies across a broad group of people. Individuals are all different.

But in photography, a lot of what we do consists of generalizing. In fact, when done carefully and conscientiously, these generalizations very often work to our advantage. If you’re not sure what I mean, let me give you an example.

Other people are one of the most common subjects that we’ll photograph over the course of our careers. And oftentimes, these photographs aren’t generalized in any particular way. They’re portraits of a specific family or photography from a wedding—something that is meant to represent the people actually pictured in the photograph.

But not all photographs of people are meant to represent the specific person in the frame. Sometimes, we generalize, and the person within the frame is meant to represent a group of people. So let’s say you’re photographing a blue-collar worker in a particular profession. The point of this photography project might be to highlight the difficulties present within this profession, the challenges these workers face every single day. The person in the photograph becomes a representative of everyone in that line of work.

The same holds true if you’re photographing people from one of the world’s many cultures. Maybe you’re educating the world about this culture, or maybe you’re highlighting one of its most unique aspects. But it’s impossible to photograph everyone belonging to a particular culture, so by working with one person or several people, in that way, you are generalizing because those people become representatives of their culture.

These types of generalizations aren’t limited to human subjects, either. Photographers with environmental concerns will photograph trees that display symptoms of an infestation or a disease, and those trees become representatives for the entire afflicted forest. Images of mistreated animals tend to highlight such mistreatment to bring it to the attention of the public so that people are motivated to help stop mistreatment everywhere. These are all examples of the ways that generalizations can be a good and useful thing. The key is to wield these generalizations wisely. If you use them conscientiously, to tell a positive story about a certain group or a culture, to highlight the challenges that certain groups of people face, or to bring attention to an issue that needs to be solved, then this is an important kind of photography that can help make a difference to society. To approach it right, you need to do it not with negativity in mind, but with the intent to help in some way.