Why We Photograph

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October 19th 2010
Published: October 19th 2010
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1: Canadian Summer Camping Trip 297 secs
This blog was originally to consist of a blow by blow rendition of our trip from Vancouver Island over to Jasper and down to Banff. However, it needed an angle if it wasn’t simply going to be, “…and then we went there…” The angle hit me right there at the end; in my anxiety, my purpose and my excitement at finally seeing Moraine Lake, and capturing its image. This ‘angle’ hijacked the entire blog, and inevitably even the title; Why We Photograph?

I take photographs to bolster my own ego, to make me look good, adventurous, to make people envy me, my lifestyle. I take pictures of the people and places that serve that end, that show the exciting places I’ve been, my skill as a photographer. Yet I only know what other people will appreciate seeing by looking at other pictures in brochures and magazines - those images that are highly regarded by others become the benchmark, my goal. I am recreating their interpretations of the world, possessing them for myself and then exhibiting them as my own. For they are my own, it is I that have travelled there, I have captured and now I share that moment in time, directed by me with the blessing of societal notions of what is aesthetic, representing an ideal as defined by the culture in which I live.

But by focusing on the unique and exotic, aren’t I contributing to the public’s incomplete and, therefore, distorted impression of what life is like; reaffirming stereotypes rather than breaking them down? By solely documenting ‘the happy times’, or the ‘beautiful’, there is no ying and yang to make the whole, no balance that completes the true story; aren’t we shortchanging ourselves? Even fairytales have their ups and downs. Perhaps I should explain:

Next time you look through someone’s photo album, be it a scrap book, Travelblog or on Facebook, think of a title for it, and you’d probably come up with something like "My Wonderful Life" or "See how I’ve Lived!"

We want other people to witness our lives. To prove we exist. If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around does it make a sound?

About a year into my travelling career over a decade ago, I had an epiphany; even if I travelled for the rest of my life I still wouldn’t see a fraction of the world before I died. This made me feel uneasy, but then I reasoned I’d make a go of it and at least knock off a few of the highlights, and perhaps have some fun and learn a little along the way.

In the movie Perfume, the lead character Jean Baptiste obsesses about the fleeting realm of scent; a domain that leaves no trace in history, “He would learn how to preserve scent so that never again would he lose such sublime beauty”. Sales from Japanese manufacturers, which make up more than 90 percent of the world market, are running at around 100 million cameras a year. We can capture the facade of beauty through photographs and preserve for posterity. When I hang up my boots I want those reflections, my highlights, by my side to help me retrace my history. Though looking through my mom’s “bad” pictures of our trip I’ve realized that my “good” photos will likely trace a history of my photography rather than tell a story of my travels, as hers did.

Every month three billion photos are uploaded onto Facebook. Not one of those photographs is enacted in a social vacuum; they conform to scripts played out millions of times.

People will mimic the photographs of others they believe portray a certain message. They will act them out from images seen in magazines, newspapers, on the TV or internet. We insert ourselves as actors onto sets that have already been acted upon, we ourselves the directors, however unoriginally pre-choreographed our photographs may be. We decide which direction to point the camera and when to push that button. So in this sense, we are producing images for ourselves and for a future audience. The photographs we take portray a message of how we want ourselves to be seen in the world.

Different tourist types on different trips will take their pictures in ways to reflect an image of them and showcase to others their style of travel. They may construct a place to conform to their predetermined vision of a place that bolsters the image of how they wish to be seen there. If a tourist decides that what he wants out of his holiday is to experience two weeks of pampered relaxation in paradise the pictures he subsequently takes and brings home to show to others will reflect that image. A honeymoon will show the couple locked together in marital bliss, in romantic settings, befitting the couple’s image of themselves to the world.

Off the beaten track destinations may portray certain hardships, and emphasize distance from civilization by editing out the trappings of modernity; far removed from hedonism or romance, but still with an eye on the aesthetic and exotic to balance out the hardships, lest an image of sadomasochism be portrayed, one that may question the traveler’s sanity in the eyes of the viewer. A holiday with family or friends will portray the camaraderie and shared experience, strengthening and bonding the members in eternal friendship. This list goes on… Photographs produce memories, they are constructed such.

And then of course one has local people and scenes performing their own roles for the camera, portraying them in a manner in which they would want themselves or their culture to be seen, or in ways they believe the tourist wishes of them. Cultural displays, folkloric dancers, Roman legionnaires at the Pantheon, Chinese villages authenticated by the government. Having no more than a superficial, guidebook-written, preconceived notion of how these people live doesn’t arm the photographer with the necessary experience to determine whether one is witnessing something authentic. But then of course the tourist may know that what he is viewing is staged, but because it reflects a preconceived notion of what he expects to find he knowingly laps it up.

The camera invented most of the sights we are expected to see. We want to bring back the stereotypical images of the places we have been; Scottish Kilts, Hawaiian Hula girls, American Indians feather headdress, Middle Eastern camels, Australian aboriginal didgeridoo. The practice of combining these elements in the composition of a single picture has become an increasingly popular tendency in today’s travel photography; the clogged women standing in front of a windmill, the American Indian and his teepee. Through our images we conform to preexisting stereotypes; for if one were to take a picture of a Geisha girl eating a hotdog in front of the pyramids, people would think it were a parody, even if it were reality.

It is this selection of images that shapes reality; where we choose to go to take pictures; what we take pictures of; what pictures we delete and /or modify, what pictures we then choose to show our parents, our colleagues, our friends, post in a blog or put on Facebook.

People spend obscene amounts of money on cameras, endlessly replacing perfectly workable sorts in that never-ending search for more megapixeled-optic zoom-ISO’ed HD. How else could we share our pics on that 52inch 1080 Flat screen? How and why do we Photoshop images to look better? We want the places we’ve been to look ‘better’ ‘sharper’ more ‘real’, which makes our experience seem more enviable and makes our skill as a photographer shine through. Or is it that we are simply tortured artists who want to create the most beautiful image on canvas?

In most photographic domains, including those associated with tourism, a redundancy appears in the content and composition. This repetitiveness is not random; it is institutionalized and identified as convention. People read books and take courses on how to take better pictures - but by whose standards are we learning and conforming? Is there some aesthetic reality out there; the image of beauty, for which we only need to be trained to seek and capture. Or is “beauty” dependant on our cultural understandings of such and therefore we are merely appropriating and internalizing that which is considered beautiful by cultural norms at that time?

These pictures conform to pre-existing notions of reality, rather than that of the reality which is encountered. Very rarely do we take pictures of the mundane, the domestic or the unattractive, thus reinforcing the myth of the perfect (or at least, near-perfect) holiday. This gives a false impression of the holiday experience as one devoid of domestic activity and routine, aspects of everyday life from which many people are trying to escape when traveling or on holiday.

I never took any pictures on the bus in the Panama City morning rush hour, sat next to people hurrying to work for a day of labour in jobs they probably hate yet need to maintain in order to pay the rent and put food on the table, whilst I’m dressed in shorts on my way to another day of whimsical leisure and I realize just how completely removed I am from the world in which I am travelling. I never took pictures of my local grocery store in Seoul, the electric generators in Sudan, the traffic in Vancouver, the toilets in China, the used condom on the floor in our hotel room in Kazakhstan. Bringing home to me the idea of places as commodities to be consumed rather than as sites of contradiction and multiple realities; if I were to photograph these moments I would appear pampered, vulgar, and voyeuristic to others, and myself. So I go to a temple and photograph that, or ‘life’ in a colorful market, rather than a factory or a commuter bus.

Everyone knows there are beaches in Thailand, mountains in Nepal, lions in Africa, and camels in Egypt. We may go there for those very reasons and whilst there we photograph what has been photographed a million times. Is it to prove to ourselves that these places exist, prove to others that we have been there, or that we have no other way of relaying the myriad things we have experienced and seen, so we re-cast the typecast?

Yet even when we are actively searching for those images that already exist in our memories of places these images are further constrained by the structure of particular attractions or sites, which have been designed for the needs of the photographer to be able to capture that perfect image. Sometimes the architect has created such a wonderfully beautiful iconic image as in the case of the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, the statue of liberty, the Sydney opera house etc. They can be photographed from almost any angle and the viewer can recognize them as such. In other instances the image is so inimically associated with that particular shot, from that particular angle; as in the case of Machu Picchu, Spirit Island, and Arlington Row etal; that the photograph needs to be taken from “that” spot else it just ain’t Machu Picchu.

On this trip through the Canadian Rockies, national parks were so proficiently designed for tourist masses to roll up, park in huge lots, walk 500 metres on paved paths, take that picture, and climb back into the car onto the next stop. Someone has already taken the decision on which highlights we need to see, where the viewpoint is built, and what pictures we will take. We happily oblige their decision and their taste.

Pierre Bourdieu may well be overstating the case when he claimed: “...unrepentant photographers exhaust themselves in the laborious quest for pictures. Finally forgetting to look at what they are photographing, they travel without seeing and never know what their cameras are reproducing for them.”

In Canada’s national parks you’ll know when there’s something interesting to look at because there will be a line of cars haphazardly parked at the side of the road. This time it was a brown bear. We’d already consumed quite a few smaller black bears, but this would perhaps be our first up-close encounter with a grizzly. The assembled tourists excitedly claimed he was right there in that forest. Leaves rustled, branches moved; he was on the move; and the camera-toting mob - we among them - stalked the rustles down the road. A quick glimpse of his rear had the cameras out snapping and then he was gone. Minutes later he reappeared, brashly exiting the forest, right there in a grassy clearing full of dandelions less than 20 feet from the road.

People clambered over each other to take his picture, closer and closer they crept, cameras bleeping, flashes flashing. God only knows what the bear made of all this. What is for sure he was damned HUGE and he’d have taken everyone had he wished. Cars now literally screamed to a halt to join the spectacle, ‘irrational’ was a word that came to mind, quickly followed by ‘mental’! If it weren’t for cameras, photo albums, blogs and Facebook, would people even be getting out of their cars?

These weren’t isolated cases; we saw it again and again. I’m amazed YouTube isn’t littered with videos of hire cars crashing into photographers being eaten by bears to a flurry of flashbulbs! But seriously, if that bear had attacked someone, however mildly, rangers would hunt it down and shoot it because it had become a menace to the photographer. There is something unjust about this modern-day form of gunboat diplomacy, exacted upon wild animals in their own habitats, to ensure the right to photograph.

Worse yet, we were clipping along on the highway one late afternoon when Jennifer eyed a wolf off to our left-hand side,”Bag it!” I yelled from the confines of the back seat. In safari mode, Jennifer made a screeching deceleration for the most elusive of our Canadian “Big 5”, flung open the door and sprinted across the highway in pursuit of a rare sight indeed. Scrambling up the embankment, she pursued not one but two wolves, who promptly vanished into the forest. Now I haven’t much experience with wolves, but I’m pretty certain that chasing them around armed solely with a camera is not the smartest thing to do.

What is certain - she was motivated by the same thing that made me jump the railings at the Grand Canyon, knowing full well people fall to their deaths ever year trying to get that shot. The same thrust that dragged me out of bed in the dark to capture for eternity the sunrise on Torres del Paine, Mount Bromo, Angkor Wat, Bagan da da da… It’s what drove me to futilely stalk chimps through the forest in the rain, recklessly speed up the mountain in our car to catch the sun setting behind Monument Valley, and cram the whole family on the back of a motorcycle taxi in Yangshuo before dusk set in. It’s cemented me to the beach in Burma in a tropical storm attempting to capture the forks of lightning stabbing at the shore. It’s obliged me to dodge bullets in Palestine to document resistance, and to flirt with a stint in a North Korea labour camp taking clandestine shots of unauthorized subjects. In fact, retracing the history of all my travels, there seems to be a single culprit tying all my footsteps together….

The photograph made me do it.

Additional photos below
Photos: 20, Displayed: 20


19th October 2010

Your family is beautiful!
20th October 2010

Gotta Love Social Reproduction!
I've come to the conclusion that the underlying plot of every travelogue ever written, published or filmed is "Great western explorer overcomes dangerous and challenging journey into this exotic place and brings back story as proof!" We're all just traveling across the world with Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, only with different technology and different cultural sensibilities about what is entertaining and proper for the folks back home. If I knew the answer to WHY that is, I'd have myself a great dissertation topic. ;)
20th October 2010

great blog!
Gripping, original, honest and extremely well-written, thank you!
20th October 2010

hi Kiva here is Manuel from Portugal,can you please said to your father,nice one for all lovely photos. all the best to you guys !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
21st October 2010

why we photograph
Well, it is not easy to take a bad picture of Jenny, Kiva or Mandalay but the rest... wauwwwwww!!! Now I have your camara so I hope to be a little closer to how you take pics. I look forward anxious your next post and your next destination!!!!! By the way, do you have anything to tell me? :)
21st October 2010

Aspiringnomad, Nice entry about photography. I think one of the reasons why people choose to frame their photos as they do (in terms of for example leaving the electricity wires out of a photo taken on an adventure holiday to show its 'remoteness') is because as you say photographs produce memories and so, if personal, not only capture the visual but may also try to capture what it felt like to be there. As such leaving out the electricity wires might not only be because of magazine pictures or impressing friends but because while it might be more visually accurate to leave them in, the resulting image would reflect the feel of the place less - but then you could also argue that society tells us remote places have no electricity wires which is not always true, and that therefore the photos reflect that rather than our own ideas. ...just thoughts... It's funny you know, once I travelled without a camera on the idea that I wanted to 'properly experience' the places and not be slave to it. It was through Malaysia. To be honest, I regret that. It was an interesting experiment but I think the idea is to take pictures and enjoy that process (hopefully with creativity and hopefully to capture the moment, the feeling of being in the place (that would be my ideal)), and have the self-discipline not to be enslaved by the camera too much. Anyway, I enjoyed this entry. Cheers.
23rd October 2010

world view
Even if the reasons for our photography are entirely self motivated and serve to make us look good, don't for a moment believe that you aren't also benefiting others, for the sharing of the world through your lens provides people with an opportunity to see things they may never otherwise see. I personally get much insight and inspiration from your photos so thank you.
17th November 2010

great blog...i know what you mean about sugar coating everything. i like to keep my blogs honest and write about how i really feel about a place and add the negative things that happen too...otherwise it just doesn't seem real! i haven't been reading all your blogs (sorry!) but clearly i missed you guys having another baby!! congrats! how is it traveling with 2 of them now?
28th December 2010

Just returned from a month in India and took 3500 photos but none as good as yours. Wow! Nanoose Bay, BC, Canada- across from the city of Vancouver, Canada
12th January 2011

Blog of the year 2010
Congratulations! :) This blog was nominated one of the best of 2010, in the North America/writing category. ''It's not often that a blog is s original, interesting and well-written that it sticks in my mind for a long time after I've read it but Aspiring Nomad's Why We Photograph certainly did.'' http://www.travelblog.org/Topics/27154-1.html
12th January 2011

magisterial force of nature
Don't mess with my beauty
4th February 2011

Blog of the year, 2010
Congratulations again! :) This blog was also nominated one of the best of 2010, in the North America/photography category.
3rd April 2011
Why We Photograph

Fantastic photo;-)
10th May 2011

I'm inspired...
It's been super hard for me to read and finish through people's blogs... but yours I just couldn't stop reading until the end... I agree with your opinion about photography... I think sometimes when we travel we seem to forget why we came there in the first place since we're too distracted with our cameras trying to capture that perfect picture of that perfect moment, either taking the pics for ourselves or to show others that hey I've been there too! When I lost my camera on my 3rd day in los Cabos I felt as if a part of me was missing... but what i realized then was out of all the places I've been so far... I've never appreciated anything as much as I appreciated Cabo only because I was free from my camera... I had nothing to nothing to click and snap... i didn't relied on a device to capture the moment cuz I have no choice... so I made sure to capture every single moment with my very own memory and hope it sticks there for a long time... hence I was able to come back home as a different person... I experienced their culture and lifestyle in my brief stay there... but then again.... I love taking pictures for the sole reason that one day I can look back and tell myself that I've been there... so I got a new one right away :D Amazing photos! I'm a fan!
2nd January 2013

The photograph made me do it..scary but often true..often rewarding...hopefully. Also reminds me what I really saw, so my memories are forever. If the photos are also truly part of what I really saw...all the better.

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