The Point of Pictures

February 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

The premise for this piece hardly seems worth mentioning, yet it is the necessary starting place for this discussion: we take a lot of pictures these days. We take them on phones and on cameras and on webcams and on any other gadget that you could possibly imagine to attach photo-taking technology onto. And all of these devices are pretty much always around. And so we snap, snap, snap. While there is plenty to be said about technology changing society, its efficacy and ubiquity – especially in developed countries but increasingly everywhere else as well – there is also something be asked: what is the point of pictures?

The simple answer, I think, is that photos show things; they depict something. The invention of such a tool is radical, to be sure: the ability to capture an image and show it to people can introduce them to places, people and original subjects they have never before seen, this is remarkable. There is also the ability to show old things in a new fashion, another integral aspect of photography. That is the history of photos, and, I argue, continues to be photography’s primary aim. However, now that we all have the capability to take pictures we are compelled to take photo after photo of what is essentially the mundane. And I don’t mean mundane in the profound sense. The likes of selfies and food are baffling but what is even more confusing is the endless parade of what, I guess, is believed to be interesting subject matter. Moreover, almost in order to pretend otherwise, we dress these photos up as something more then their banal reality.

A quick caveat: though I do not understand selfies, I essentially have no problem with them. Nor do I take issue with sunsets and city skylines. However, I do struggle to see their overall point. If people want to feel better and need to post photos of themselves online to do so…then good for them, I guess? That being said, and there will be exceptions, I do not find selfies interesting or relevant (except en mass, a point which I will return to later). My main thesis in this article is to ask what is the point of pictures. And if we accept that their raison d’être is to show something, then why, for example, do we feel the need to add so many filters?

The chief offenders here are the likes of Instagram, though this culture is pervasive across many visual media. Obviously all photographs are altered in some way, I am not suggesting that professional photography should always have #nofilter; however, the always dressed-up filters added on applications like Instagram attempt to create, ironically, an authenticity to the world around us. By this I mean the thought that adding this or that certain lens reveals something new and true about our lives. It is almost a personal statement – ‘I know this isn’t ‘real’, but this is how I see it.’ This is, first of all, a false sense of individuality. There are countless photos of light through trees, flowers on pavements, old things in old places, wooden fences in abandoned backyards with knots in the posts that look like love hearts, ad nausea.

Two women who photographed an iceberg recently highlighted this absence of individuality in much of modern photography. When one of them won a competition the other accused her of plagiarism. They were in fact on the same boat, standing close together, and therefore took very similar photographs. And yet, in calling plagiarism there is a suggestion that the photographs they took were artistic, or, at the very least, unique. It may be callous to say, and there might be an iota of artistic talent there, these photographs are not art nor are they original. It is not artistic to stand on a cruise and take holiday snaps – sometimes beautiful though they may be. We are saturated with photos these days, photo-shopped or otherwise, of the same things over and over again, thus rendering them superfluous in terms of insight. Is it fun? Yes. Does it pass the time? Sure. But is this the point of pictures? No, I don’t think so. Or, at least, there is a greater quality within our reach.

There is also the of insta-nostalgia factor: adding filters to photos to digitally age them in one aspect or another. A way of collapsing signs of the past – fading, discoloring, and so on – with a present moment, the new picture. In so doing, the past and present dovetail into what seems to be an aesthetically pleasing picture, another illusion of art.

Side note: it is difficult to imagine explaining this to future generations – ‘why did you take a photo and then wash it out, dad?’ That is if we even have these photos to show in the first place. But let’s pretend we do.

What is the point of this filtering and digitally altering? In many respects it is to continue our delusion of individuality, as though we’re the only person to have photographed a cat and then added a ‘rise’ filter to it. We may pretend to ourselves that we know we are just another person in a sea of millions taking the same photos, but our interest in followers and likes belies an underlying naivety that we will one day be discovered or deemed to be original, validating our countless pictures of laneways accompanied by pithy comments. In many ways this characterizes modernity; educated people given the illusion of choice and acting as though they are individuals, all the while being caught in a highly regimented system…but enough political rhetoric. Ultimately, by easily adding a nostalgic element to a picture we set about trying to illustrate how different we are to others, even though the image we have taken is the same as everyone else’s.

While it is extraordinarily rare for an amateur photographer to expose truth and originality – two key characteristics of photography – unintentionally and collectively there are times when photos can be quite illuminating. A good example here is Rich Kids of Instagram. While these photos taken on a case-by-case basis may be nothing more than fancy photos, en mass they reveal an entire lifestyle. These photos become windows into this world and demonstrate a way of living that many of us can only dream about. The account shows us that there are people out their living extraordinarily decadent lives; of course, this comes as a shock to no one, however, these pictures show it to us in pretty little insta-sqaures; they expose us to people to be envied and loathed.

The mobile application that comes closest to fulfilling photography’s potential is probably Snapchat. In its (mostly) unfiltered, (often) unflattering, (relatively) fast-paced, and (arguably) ephemeral manner, it makes pictures important again. It imbues them with a sense of temporality mostly forgotten about these days; in an age when the digital library can come back and haunt us at any time it is nice to think that some photos simply vanish. Snapchat provides unfettered insights into people’s lives. Insights that are not posed, edited, or that anyone worries about – they will be deleted instantly (unless someone is a dirty screen-snapper) – and there can be countless photos of the same event, revealing changes over time; they show a progression, a story. All of a sudden these photos show something.

Photo taking is fun. It certainly helps to pass the time. And scrolling through newsfeeds and looking at photos is undoubtedly entertaining. But what is the point of pictures? I argue it is to show something original to someone else. I’m sure you could argue the beauty in the banal and the documentative dimension of everyday snaps, and I would argue with neither point. But I do question if our current culture is doing either of those things. So, instead, I challenge people to take photos of new things in new ways. Great photographers go to places no one has seen before and capture moments of truth – perhaps we are truly running out of originality, but I doubt it. We don’t quite have to be great photographers, but given our capacity, we should strive to be better. Otherwise, what’s the point?


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