Why we photograph

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One of my reasons to photograph: because I see beauty of form in the mundane I want to share. I’m sure the man on the bicycle has passed by this building enough times that he didn’t pay it a second moment’s notice, though. Hasselblad 501C, 120/4 CF T* on Delta 100

This post is a continuation of the previous essay on the image making process. It’s a question I’ve often asked myself; rationale being that if I could understand the triggers that drove me to take an image in the first place – or perhaps not so much what drew my eyes to the scene, but held them there – I’d be able to make a more conscious effort at being aware of these things, and thus make even stronger images.

Firstly, let me say that personally, photography is almost a compulsive addiction. It something that I always feel I need to do; I get anxious if there’s any possibility of an interesting moment or scene going observed but unrecorded. I’m constantly looking out the window if the light’s nice – something I’ve got to be careful of doing too often, because non-photographers will think you’re just being rude. As a result, there’s almost always one or more cameras on my person, usually only separable by surgery. The funny thing is, even though I’ll see a huge variety of scenes, I don’t feel compelled to have a camera that can capture all of them; I’ll get jittery if I have no camera, but I’ll be perfectly happy with just 28mm – even though I’m seeing things at 200mm or beyond.

This leads me to wonder if it’s the image itself, or the production of the image that is what keeps me going: it could really be either, or both. Hell, I enjoy a good camera as much as the next guy – there’s no reason not to – but it isn’t the endgame, either. A good photograph is satisfying irrespective of the tool used to make it; but yes, I admit there’s more pleasure in getting it out of something that’s enjoyable to use – that way you enjoy both the image and the process. Undoubtedly there are people who photograph simply because they like cameras – and there’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever.

Obviously, it’s impossible to capture every single observable detail in every single moment all the time; in any case, there’d be far too much sheer information for you to process. Editing is always necessary to cull the mundane; but what defines the mundane? Why is it that some people can find plenty of interesting compositions in a location where others struggle to see even one? I think there are two reasons: firstly, the ‘threshold of normalcy’ varies from person to person; secondly, everybody has different triggers. To understand the triggers – in effect, the reasons why – we must once again look at human psychology*.

*So much of art is dependent on the interpretation of both the creator and the viewer – it’s a shame that people in the pursuit of either don’t spend more time trying to understand either.

The threshold of normalcy is defined by social, geographic and cultural norms. It’s the main reason why tourists are stereotyped as taking photographs of everything; the real reason why is because nothing looks familiar to them because it’s outside their comfort zone. (Whether any of these images have artistic merit or not is a separate matter.) Serious photographers do the same thing, but the threshold is lower; very serious photographers have a threshold that’s almost zero: anything is fair game, and with the right light or composition, can make a compelling subject. It’s the last bit that I personally aspire to: the ability to see something in any situation. Perhaps that’s why I’m always trying to photograph, or trying to see a viewpoint worth capturing and sharing.

When something exceeds the threshold, then it generally gets the viewer to sit up and pay attention. This is frequently accompanied by a desire to photograph or capture it to share with other people from a similar social/ cultural background; “look at this, it’s different!” is usually the message. The difference is created by the subject, or the scene, not by the photograph – or more specifically, it’s not the photographer that’s making the photograph compelling. They are merely serving the function of recorder, or ‘sharer’ – for want of a better description. A photographer with a bit more experience and skill may then push things a bit further by creating an image that is compelling of itself; using composition and light as a tool to create more of a difference to the norm.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here: there are situations in which people feel compelled to record and share (with ever-increasing emphasis on the latter in today’s social media age, frequently for bragging rights, it seems.):

  • Special public events – to preserve them for posterity, or to feel ‘part’ of something
  • Personal events – to share with friends and family. This includes birthdays/ weddings/ graduations/ visits etc.
  • Travel and vacations – to remember places been and thing seen; though one has to be careful that the entire time isn’t spent looking through the viewfinder or hunting for images. It’s a dangerous trap that I tend to fall into with increasing frequency: I travel to shoot rather than to travel and experience.
  • Because they have to – if photography is your job, but not your passion, or if you need to record something for later use – e.g. a copy of a document, a car accident
  • Bragging rights and compulsion – nobody really wants to know or cares what you had for every single meal, but maybe some people mind find “ABC&Co Accountants, Sri Ebenezer House*” entertaining
  • Because you like collecting and using cameras
  • Because you want to.

*I’m not kidding. It really exists in downtown Kuala Lumpur. But here’s the thing: would you believe me if I didn’t have a photograph to prove it?

The strongest of all the reasons is the last. It encompasses the entire list and goes further: there’s a desire to see and share something from a different point of view, with no ulterior motive. You’re not trying to show people how much money you have, or which stars you partied with – you just found something visually compelling, and want to capture and share it. I actually think despite initial appearances, this is perhaps the most selfless of all reasons to photograph; even though it requires a very selfish, personal reason to go out and do it, the end result is pure in its pursuit of art.

Of course, the ultimate is to be able to create so much of a different point of view that the subject doesn’t matter; what draws and holds the attention of the viewer is fully attributable to the skill of the photographer. Whether the scene is entirely a product of the photographer – say studio still life setup – or something ‘found’, the ability to create can be both liberating and crippling. Liberating, because you know that you have the ability to shoot wherever and whenever suits your pleasure; crippling because you feel that compulsion to always be ‘on call’ – it almost feels like a duty or responsibility, in some ways. We have to document life and what we see in the world – partially because we can, and partially because there’s so much out there which we see, but perhaps the majority of others miss or allow to pass them by. Just think of all the visually interesting things people with their eyes closed – or perhaps resolutely focused on something else – are missing out on!

At the end of the day, I photograph because I want to. No more, no less; and when I don’t want to, I need to know when to stop: if I don’t, then the output will suffer, and I won’t be happy with it – nor will my audience. There are days where the camera seemingly never leaves your eye, and there are periods – sometimes a week or two – during which I hardly shoot anything at all, partially due to lack of inspiration, partially due to being busy with other things. I do feel a bit of something – perhaps guilt, perhaps compulsion – that I should be getting out there and keeping the skills honed, but past experience has proven that these forced outings tend to be both hugely unproductive and extremely frustrating. If anything, they deepen the feeling of being unproductive. And on that note, I’m going to burn a roll or two because the light’s nice and I feel like it – creative feast and famine is a topic that I’m planning to save for a future essay…MT

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Comments

  1. Jordi P says:

    Just had a retrospective moment. This comment could be really about numerous topics… but at the end it goes for something.

    I intially was quite skeptical about mobile photography. But since I got this new phone I feel it has fullfilled my daily needs.
    I am a student, coming and going; and a reason to “why photograph” is documenting my environment. The people I am with in this very moment there, and what I do.
    I finished my last 3 months, and I could say that a project has finished. The academic year ends, It all disbands, and it comes back in a different way the next academic year.

    Photography has been the medium through I can take home snippets of environment, memories. I have grown with this, as the relatives my mom’s side I get to visit only every 5 years. I might have a slightly exaggerated impulse to photograph for keeping.
    “Worthless now but priceless tomorrow.”

    Well, and I think this creative push brought by mobile photography has made me pull the trigger for Medium format film. It has been a boon, as I got to shoot many daily things.

    • Relativity, too: that point was driven home for me again after seeing a recent Annie Leibowitz exhibition. On one hand, she produced work with a distinct style and excellent impact; her personal photographs were also hung – no doubt for contrast – and were pretty darn ordinary snapshots, but I’m sure of more personal value to her. They can’t be recreated, but the studio stuff probably could.

  2. Reblogged this on Scribbles and Snaps.

  3. Great essay, Ming: Thank you! I hugely agree and find a lot of comfort in the last two paragraphs about not photographing when you are not really feeling like it. I always thought it was just me who doesn’t get great pictures when I am not really up to making some.

    Your essay also prompted me to ask myself again why I photograph, and would like to propose this answer: “Because I love pictures to begin with, and I love making pictures (preferably ones I’d like to enjoy).”

    It could boil down to “I photograph because I want to”, but I would also like to explore how pictures (of reality) work, and I really enjoy contemplating what things look like in a picture … I just realize I might want to pick up this line of thought in my own blog one day.

    Making pictures because you love pictures – would you think that this is a ‘valid’ motivation?

    [You see, you really triggered something here - chapeau!]

    • Thanks!

      Yes, making pictures because you love to look at pictures – or some other property of photographs – is perfectly valid, in my book.

  4. “Because you want to”

    This is why I became a watchmaker, though I would argue that for me it was an even greater calling: it was because I had to. I now have the same feeling about photography. My interest has turned to a veritable obsession. Just as it was with watches, my initiation in photography has been through educating myself, hands-on experience with the hardware, and interaction with enthusiasts. Now I just want to take good, sound photos that stand on their own merit, (mostly) independent of the equipment used or processing done. I want my technique to be such that (as mentioned previously) something ordinary can be presented in a way that impacts and affects the viewer in an extraordinary way.

    I’m fortunate enough that I can earn a comfortable living as a watchmaker, and I believe that I do a job that is nearly always to the level expected by my employer. I do more than what is required because I believe that if I can, I should. The chances that a client will ever notice clean, even oiling, or that his hands are equally spaced and parallel to the dial are minute, but if I can do that, I will. I believe this is how I can make the ordinary something extraordinary in my job as it is at present – it’s as close as I can get to an artistic touch, even if it’s really just rooted in sound, proper technique.

    I admire your work and, just as importantly, the spirit and genuineness behind it. I truly believe that people who operate as you do (and as I strive to do) do and will succeed. The path to that success is rarely short or easy, but I have to believe that the reward in the experience of the journey itself is enough, with any financial or material gain accumulated along the way an added bonus.

    Wishing you all the best… I have some shooting to do :)

    • I can relate to the ‘had to’. There’s a compulsion in the whole thing that makes you do it even if you should probably be doing something else; it’s why I landed up quitting my day job in the end when it probably didn’t make a lot of sense.

      Some of us do appreciate the neatness of work – especially those of us who are photographing the damn things and then retouching at a size where a subdial occupies most of a 27″ monitor :) Trust me, I definitely notice these things…and it’s one of the things that makes the difference between a great brand and a superficial one for me.

  5. I read your blog a lot and it’s always interesting to hear your thoughts. Scott Kelby was asking Jay Maisel a bunch of questions, one of which was “what is your motivation to shoot?” Maisel came up with a two word answer: “it’s fun”. He did elaborate (something to the effect that you can say that you want to bring beauty to the world, etc, but if you don’t enjoy doing it then why bother?) but the underlying message was just that. It’s fun.

    With photography (or probably any other field), I think there’s a tendency to overanalyse things. When someone starts to take pictures then they are just delighted at being able to capture an image. But then some people start thinking too much and end up shooting test charts / brick walls and going through terrible agonies about how there is a minuscule bit of purple fringing at the extreme edge of the picture if you view it at a trillion per cent. That’s when you know that you’re in trouble :-)

    On “liking cameras”…while it is of course true that the person behind the camera is more important than the camera itself (and rarely have I come across someone who exemplifies this better than you: you seem to get great shots with pretty much anything), there’s something to be said for mixing up cameras. I trade in cameras all the time (rather than collecting them) because I find that when I get a new camera I shoot differently and get different pictures. In the last few months I’ve used and traded a D3S, then an M8, and now I’m playing with the Sigma DP2 Merrill (and thanks to you, I’m seriously tempted by the OMD-EM5). Araki Nobuyoshi has a quote to that effect; basically he says that cameras have “personalities” and thus you’ll shoot them differently. This is very different to making the mistake of buying an expensive camera because you assume it will make you a better photographer. Like a great driver who has a Ferrari for performance and an SUV for convenience but can drive both equally well.

    It’s also nice that someone will openly mention Ayn Rand. There are parts of the world where doing that can get you burnt at the stake! (I can see threads on it now: “If Howard Roark were a photographer, he’d use a Leica!” “No, he’d use a Hasselblad!” “You suck!” etc).

    • You can definitely overdo the technical analysis: eventually, you reach a point where better technical skills don’t mean stronger images. And this is probably a good point to stop. But I disagree that you can think too much about the content and message of your image, or the quality of light, or your intended audience, though. Actually, scratch the last one: if you are your own strongest critic, then audience opinion is merely secondary.

      Agree on mixing up cameras: I do it all the time, too. On average – not counting review samples – I’ll go through about a dozen cameras a year. This isn’t because I’m seeking the holy grail, I just get bored, and knowing that all the choices are past sufficiency…one might as well pick something that’s enjoyable to shoot with. The Fuji X20 I recently played with is a good example: it’s a lot more fun than the RX100, even if the image quality is several notches behind. I’d probably pick it over the latter for that reason, now that I’m in the market for a compact again (that said, the Nikon Coolpix A looks pretty darned interesting – and right up my alley with a 28mm lens!).

      That’s three calls for Ayn Rand: I think more than anything, she was a philosopher rather than a writer; I’m starting to think that perhaps the why – the philosophy – is just as interesting as the pictures, if not more so. :)

      Roark would probably either build his own camera, or use something technically perfect but fiendishly difficult to use – I’m thinking a large-format view camera with scanning back or Hassy ArcBody. ;)

  6. Hi Ming, This post appeals to me like no other so far – you have captured exactly how I feel and the reasons for me taking pictures (I’ll be featured on the Leica User Forum blog soon and I wrote about this in my own words there). Sometimes, when I go to work in the morning (corporate job in pricing and marketing intelligence), I debate with myself if I should take my camera. There are days when I take it with me but take not a single picture – those days are fine. But the days when I decide (for some ungodly reason) not to take it with me, I feel as if I’ve forgotten something precious at home. When I think retrospectively, I often find it strange that I would feel such guilt – after all, I take few pictures if any on normal work days. But it is the having the camera with me and imagining how a situation might look like photographed – that’s how my brain has started to work (who was the photographer that had said “I take pictures to see how the world will look like photographed” – that’s how I see/think/feel).

    Your writing and the idea of the selfishness remind me very much of the speeches and monologues in “Atlas Shrugged”. I just finished listening to it as an audio book and it is on my “To-re-read” list as soon as possible. I guess you are familiar with the book?

    Thank you for verbalising this!
    Cheers, KM

    • Thanks Konstantin. Do you also find it funny that you tend to see more images when you don’t have the camera handy? It’s a device that does more than record: it teaches us to observe and see.

      Actually, I mentioned Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead in another comment on this thread (I think it was this thread)…

      • Oh, yes indeed – I should have read through the comments! Fascinating! Do you identify yourself with one of the protagonists more strongly than with another?

        I do definitely see more images when I don’t have the camera (or when the camera is tucked into the bag – and here you might ask why the camera is in the bag when its rightful place should be in the hand – and that would be a great question indeed). What is even more scary is that sometimes I will have an Olympus PEN with me or something else that I am just experimenting with and I will long for having my Leica M9 with me AS WELL. Sometimes I feel like I should have all cameras I have with me (luckily I have far fewer than you probably do) and I will be compelled to take a picture with all of them. Granted, sometimes I actually take a picture with my M9 and also with my iPhone and I use the iPhone picture to share it online immediately. This picture for example: http://imperfiction.com/blog/2013/3/2/the-pope-in-the-news.html – I took both with my M9+Summicron 35 and with my iPhone sharing the phone picture on facebook and keeping the M9 one for the website.

        Do you find yourself swapping cameras from your bag often or do you go out with the specific purpose of testing how one particular camera works? Do you think the camera we carry determines HOW you would see the pictures around you?

        • Nope, I just enjoyed the philosophical implications of the books. :)

          There is that element of anxiety when you see a huge number of possible images in a scene and wish you had a superzoom of some description; I tried it for a while, and though I could make lots of great images, there’d still only be one (or worse, none) outstanding one. The camera definitely determines how you see – if you’re only carrying 28mm, you try not to frustrate yourself by looking for 100mm – and vice versa. I can pretty much pick up any camera and be fine with it (so long as it doesn’t have ergonomic or operational deficiencies) but these days when I shoot casually, it tends to be because I’m testing something…

  7. NeutraL-GreY says:

    This article encompasses everything that I have been thinking about lately. I am constantly trying to become proficient at “seeing” everything at all times and until I achieve this “seeing” will remain my passion and obsession. Cant wait for the creative feast and famine article.

  8. Great thoughts Ming. My favorite images are the ones with interesting light and composition, not interesting subject matter. Another blogger recently wrote (pardon the paraphrase) “Take extraordinary pictures of the ordinary”.

  9. “Travel and vacations – to remember places been and thing seen; though one has to be careful that the entire time isn’t spent looking through the viewfinder or hunting for images. It’s a dangerous trap that I tend to fall into with increasing frequency: I travel to shoot rather than to travel and experience.”

    Is an interesting point, but one as somebody who (working 60-70 hour weeks as a norm) only really gets to relax and get in a photgraphy frame of mind on holiday, I think that travelling to shoot and travelling to experience don’t have to be mutually exclusive. You have to be a bit phlegmatic sometimes – okay here I am and the light’s bad, well sod it, I’ll bag the camera and just enjoy the place; you have to have suitable equipment – oh no, I can’t go there, my large format camera and wooden tripod won’t fit in that tuk tuk; you have to have understanding travel companions – five more minutes, till the light from over there hits my subject, just 5 more minutes, please, but holidays are there to be enjoyed, not do be done in an approved manner, and I enjoy seeing the world through a viewfinder more than I enjoy seeing it with the camera. It also helps you to really look I think – people I travel with often see my pictures and say “oh, I missed that detail/ event”.

    • Photography period trains your powers of observation for sure – and I can relate to the part about experiencing things through a viewfinder, because it’s what I do. I feel quite lost when travelling without a camera. I suppose it gives us a sense of purpose.

  10. Thank you for not using any proverb/quote to explain why we/you photograph, really, thank you !
    I don’t want to know how many words worth a picture or if gear does matter (of course it does ! Except when it doesn’t)

    I’m not sure why i like photography so much, but i want to photograph. Part of it is the technic (i started 1 year ago, +/- a few days), down to quantum physic, part of it is about self-expression, but mostly it is “because i can”. I have a camera (or more) in my bag or around my neck every single day since 1 year. i’m practicing every day, i don’t shoot every day, but you don’t need to look trough your viewfinder to compose. However, unlike you, i can’t compose “wide”, my standard view is ~100mm. (when i use a wide lens i usually crop square)

    Square format is hard but very very nice. I’d love to own a digital 6×6 medium format (like an hasselblad V or a mamiya RZ, with waist level finder) but it’s too expensive …

    It’s technical, technical, and technical since 1 year. Now it’s time to change, i planned this long times ago.

    Your essay come right in time. Thank you :)

    • No problem.

      Hasselblads aren’t expensive. By an odd coincidence, I’ve got an extra chrome 500CM body (A12 back, finder, body, just missing a lens) which I don’t need – it’s in EX/EX+ condition and can be yours for $700 :)

  11. Great reflections on the art/craft. I’d also love to get your views on visual language and viual literacy :-)

    • We don’t have words to describe half the stuff we see – that makes things tricky. As for visual language and literacy, it’s the same as with normal literacy: most people use brute force to get the point across and lack elegance. It’s not that they can’t do better, it doesn’t matter/ isn’t important/ they don’t care.

  12. A good read. I think all of those reasons apply to me but above most of all it is because I want to.

  13. Great Read! You find beauty in common things all the time. :-)

  14. Great read! For me it’s definitely about creating a capture. The ability to capture a unique moment in the fabric of time. We are constantly bombarded by photons, while these machines we call cameras give us the ability to freeze the time and capture photons which in some cases have travelled hundreds of millions of miles, only to land on our sensor (or film) at the moment we press the shutter to capture an image. We control which ones will make it.

    This “chaos sampling” has always fascinated me.

  15. The idea of “sharing” as the most “selfless” activity deserves a whole essay on itself. There are highly contradictory bongs between self-expression and altruistic art, but that’s just one of the beauties of it!

Trackbacks

  1. […] form. Without this drive, you cannot make better images. In fact, you cannot make images at all. Understanding what drives you to photograph is also important to create more of the motivating […]

  2. […] angst, but rather a clarification of purpose. It isn’t quite the same as article on Why We Photograph from some time ago; it’s far more personal than that. On reflection, I think it’s very […]

  3. […] semaine j’ai découvert le blog de Ming Thein dont voici deux articles à lire : Pourquoi photographions nous [en] et le processus de création d’une image [en], un blog à suivre assurément. […]

  4. […] earlier article on why we photograph led me to spend a little more time thinking specifically about what it is about the photographic […]

  5. […] blog.mingthein.com […]

  6. […] writing the article on why we photograph and fresh off the back of several overseas trips, I wanted to share a few thoughts on travel […]

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