Photography and citizen journalism…

Why do we photograph?

IS THE VIEW BETTER on the small screen than in actuality?

The sight of city visitors lined along Princes Bridge in Melbourne CBD, viewing the sunset through their camera viewfinders, raised questions about the role of photography in modern life: why is it that we mediate reality through photography?

Photography is as valid a social and cultural practice… as much as any cave or wall painting is of any preindustrial society.

I think the philosopher, Alain de Botton, summed it up well when he highlighted the importance of personal meaning in photography. He said we photograph even mundane, everyday sights because we were there and what we photograph means something to us. That is probably true for most, although not for photographers for whom the creation of the image is the main thing.

It is this that makes photography a cultural practice in modern technological societies. The camera, whether that in our mobile phone or a ‘real’ camera, is now a technological adjunct to our body and our brain, a means of documenting what we want to remember.

We photograph even mundane, everyday sights because we were there and what we photograph means something to us… Alain de Botton.

We outsource memory to photography, the camera in whatever form being the means of doing so. The photograph becomes the means of recalling detail, people and places. In doing that it triggers visceral feeling and the emotion we experienced being there when we made the photograph. It creates a technology-emotional connection, a hybrid techno-biological entity. As a sign outside MM Photos in the Sydney suburb of Randwick stated: “We take photos as a return ticket to a moment otherwise gone”.

It makes sense that photography is a cultural practice of modern societies. They are founded on science and the technologies it makes possible, such as cameras. Photography is as valid a social and cultural practice of those societies as much as any cave or wall painting is of any preindustrial society.

The ubiquity of cameras

There are other reasons that account for the ubiquity of the camera in everyday life.

We might make photographs to share with others, to show them what some event, some person, some place is like. In the days of film we did that through the photo album — a book of photographic prints — or a slide show made by projecting an image onto a screen by directing light through colour transparency film. Travel and other photographers would hire a public hall and attract a paying audience to see their slide shows. Now, we have social media, specialist photography websites, Instagram and facebook to do this. The practice hasn’t changed. The media of display has.

Documentary and street photography record history

There is documentary photography by which anyone can make photos of cities, buildings, people and places to record what they looked like at the time. This adds to the historic record.

‘Street photography’ is a subset of documentary photography. Some photographers say that street photography has to include people as subjects. Others say that people are not necessary and that architecture and other subjects also constitute street photography, making it analogous to documentary work.

Photographs are also made to educate and illustrate. Someone might photograph or video some process as a means of describing it. They also constitute the branch of journalism — ‘photojournalism’, the practice of reporting events in images.

The benefits

Other that recording people, places and events in our lives as a means of remembering, and its social role in contributing to the historic record through documentary, street photography and photojournalism, photography brings personal benefits to the photographer.

Photography becomes the technological link to the natural world and our understanding of it.

One of these is the technical challenge of making the photograph. This goes beyond the point-and-shoot snapshooter with their camera set to automatic. It is the province of the ‘serious’ photographer with some understanding of how cameras work and who can manipulate sensor sensitivity (ISO), shutter speed and aperture (lens opening) to craft an image, and who understands photographic composition. This records nuances of light and form and is the practice of fine are photography.

Another benefit of photography is that it makes photographers observers of detail, whether that is the detail of a building, of a person or a cityscape. Photographers notice the nuances of light and how it changes. They notice colour and how the quality of light affects it. They notice shape. This leads to an understanding of how things work, how they are constructed and how they change over time.

Landscape and wildlife photography acquaints us with nature and brings us closer to it through observation. Observation leads to understanding. Photography becomes the technological link to the natural world and our understanding of it.

Photographers line the railing to capture the sunset from Princes Bridge .

People on the bridge

Whether they were aware of it or not, many of those people lined up along Princes Bridge as that day came to a close were not mere voyeurs of nature as they made their images of the setting sun. Their photographing a serene display of nature might have been a means documenting it so as to appreciate it later, or to remember their being there on that bridge that evening. It was a means of recording something they knew was special.

For those with cameras other than that in their mobile phones, it might have been about meeting the technical challenge of recording the going down of the sun. For all, perhaps, their cameras were the devices through which they recorded something of sublime natural beauty, something that they were present at and that meant something to them.



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