Thursday, 25 February 2010

Why do people take pictures?

I've been on holiday.  It's been amazing.  There have been adventures across Europe with people of at least 4 nationalities.  I have made a lot of bread and muffins and stew.  There has been history and music and charades and poetry and culture.

The film camera I had been wanting to use to record it all started sulking on day three.  I was sad.  Instead, I fell back on my trusty little digital that I've been using for ages, my iPhone, and a Holga (not developed yet).  I was disappointed not to be able to take some nice black and whites, but there were compensations - like the shot above.  I was pleased with it.  It's not in focus. You can't see anyone's face. Bits are over-exposed.  But I think those are the things that make it more interesting.  You have to work at it.  The colours and the shapes are pretty.  It has movement.  Admittedly, a lot of this was chance and I had to take a few shots to get one I liked.

I guess people take pictures for different reasons.  *I* take pictures for different reasons.  If I'm posting a recipe, I take pictures of the dish for illustration or direction - recording-type purposes.  If I'm taking pictures when I'm out, I want more than just a record of what I saw - unless what I saw was worth it all by itself.  I want a capture of a moment or a place or a time or a mood.  I want thought not just a picture.

This piece of graffiti was on the wall beside one of the gates to the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and was one of my favourites of the whole trip (it means 'Silence! We're asleep!', or thereabouts).  I guess the shot is a record, but I thought it was an interesting enough subject in itself to justify my taking a picture of it.  It really needs some trimming to remove the fence on the right, which is a distraction, but I don't think it really detracts from the interest of the subject. 

The second shot, of a road in Pompeii, is a bridge between 'record' and 'arty', I guess.  It is a record of me being in Pompeii, but I was also trying to find a way of capturing some of the essence of the day - the light, the fact that I was standing on the same road that people had used 2000 years ago before the looming mountain blew her top, the emptiness of the place and the scale of the tragedy.  Taking pictures of every piece of coloured fresco left behind on the walls wouldn't have had any of that.  Besides, most of such things are fenced off and badly lit - photographers taking pictures for postcards can get in closer and light things properly and take far better shots than I can of those things and their work is on the internet.  I could take the picture anyway - when I'm using a digital camera, it's not like taking pictures costs me anything - but what would it achieve?  Would I ever look at it again?  Unlikely.  Would anyone else? Maybe I'd show something particularly exciting to other people, to give them a flavour of what I've seen and pass on my enthusiasm, but they aren't going to want to see 50 shots of bits of ruin.  I'd be bored - why would any of my friends be any different?

Every tourist has a digital camera.  That's a given.  A really hefty proportion of them have digital SLRs.  I'm sure a lot of them do think about what they are pushing the shutter for and why, but the vast majority of pictures I saw being taken weren't ones I would have wanted to see afterwards.  The instinctive 'see something famous or ancient or beautiful; quick push a button and move on' I find faintly offensive - especially when the subject genuinely IS ancient or beautiful.  Where is the reverence?  Where is the appreciation?  In Pompeii especially, you're looking at somewhere thousands of people died.  That's a big deal.  I went to the Musèe D'Orsay while I was in Paris.  It contains some of the greatest masterpieces of European art of the last 200 years.  It's a fantastic experience, even crammed as it was the day I was there.  At every picture, there was a bundle of tourists taking pictures.  Clickclickclick.  WHY?  What purpose does it serve?  How is your little photo, with its bad angle and reflection and other people around you, remotely doing justice to this work?

Don't get a better camera.  Take better pictures.  Ones that make the world more interesting or add something, not ones that reduce it.  Enhance.  Appreciate.  An aim for life...


  1. Oh subject close to my heart and questions yet unanswered. I await a holiday improved by cameras present, least of all digital cameras. It is precisely because it costs nothing that accords such thin value to the resulting images. Those who drift through weighty and historic landscapes grazing snapshots as a strange therapy are settling for a shallow experience of life and this phenomenon begs a why.

    I experience and observe these~
    Photography is a busy-ness which hopes somehow to justify illgotten leisure.
    Photography is the evidence to corroborate a case in tick-box tourism that considers the world as a cosmic list of sights to have said you have seen before you die.
    Photography is very physically, very practically a shield of glass, plastic and tertiary technology to hide behind.
    Photography is a mode of power, taking from people the dignity of the right to represent themselves. Acutely I felt in North Thailand an anger at the patronising superiority that photography allows the photographer that mocks the poverty of the poor in reducing their suffering to an impersonal image of romantic squalor seen through the small end of 300mm of zoom.
    Photography is an escape from the present, never being fully now. In taking the photos you are not here but rather already mentally at home retelling, here manufacturing events for a future appearance on a mantelpiece there, second-handers labouring for the good opinion of others.
    Photography is a substitute for beknownness and eases the anxiety of dislocation.
    Photography is lazy story-telling, pornographic in its detail and dishonest in its claim to objectivity implied in its technically perfect representation. Lazy story-telling that will give us to forget other means of recording, other media for representation, other less instant and more slowly learnt crafts of drawing and poetry.

    "I'm sure a lot of them do think about what they are pushing the shutter for and why.." I'm less sure. Perhaps I weight "why" to heavily, or I am too frank in my own understanding of my "why" motives. Sometimes I take photos because it pays, more often for the affirming ooh that a narrow depth of field can elicit. Sometimes to celebrate Our story, more often as an exercise in self-pity and nostalgia. I would be interested to know why tourists think they take photos, what eventually happens to the untold zillions of eiffels towers and leaning towers and miscellany. So much time is wasted, so much technology invested, so many possibilities for for the glory of profound personal relationship are exchanged for an image.

    Apologies that I, having hoped to contribute something further, have not found anything more to extend, defend, rephrase or otherwise in my ventures in agnostic metaphors. Defeat or a draw if indeed it was such, but it was not such, but I should concede that my boldness oversteps a thoroughness in coherence in metaphors ventured. Apologies.

  2. I agree in part wih everything you say, I think, but not wholly. It would be arrogant of me to castigate everybody who takes pictures for not thinking about why they do it - if I myself try to use my photographs as a means of appreciation and reverence as far as I can, why shouldn't others? I might believe that I am better, more respectful, more thoughtful than some - maybe even many - of the see-click brigade, but there are clearly others who care about their subjects and have an eye to create an image that adds something to their subject rather than strips it away.

    Looking at photos I've taken myself is always going to be nostalgic - for a moment and a place and the people who are there. But looking at things other people have taken is not usually a nostalgic experienc. I like to see history in photos, but that isn't nostalgia quite. It depends a lot on the picture. The best photos, like the best of any artform, will demand thought and appreciation. They will ask you to see the world in a different way. Request that you see something from a different angle. I love photographs that show me something I wouldn't have seen for myself. That's not negative. It's not exploitation. It adds and doesn't detract from the wonder of the moment. Taking one of those pictures, and I'm not sure I ever have though I try almost as often as I click a shutter, helps one to apprciate what one is looking at. It forces a focus and a thought process that one wouldn't necessarily have otherwise. But people aren't usually thinking about adding, they're thinking about taking it home with them.

    One of the main reasons I love my manual film cameras is that you can't just push a button. There's a ritual you have to go through before you can take a picture, and then you have to work for your shot. There is no computer between you and your image - it's simple physics and chemistry. The images at the other end aren't the result of some automated process. There is a romance to them, and there is an emotional attachment. Digital most definitely has a place, and I like it a lot, but I want to be able to use it like I use film. I want the connection that I can have wih a subject with film.

    I take very few photos of people except friends for events etc. Any photo of people reduces them, whether they're poor or not. It's a habit I'm trying to brak actually, because I do think that facets of people can be valid. Which reminds me that reduction happens as much in the eyes of the person looking at a photo as it does in the lens of the photographer.

    ...garbled post, written on an iPhone in the appropriate surrounds of the Camera Cafe outside the British Museum and surrounded by antique Leicas and Nikons...

    I had forgotten you had headed off to Asia, too. Thank you for the pictures you emailed. How long are you away? I hope it's all going well.