Saturday 27 January 2024

Why do we take photos?

 Trevor Watkins 11/01/2024

We used to take photos for the same reason that the rich commissioned portraits. It was a narcissistic quest for immortality, a visual representation of our place in history,  no matter how ugly, or irrelevant. To remind subsequent generations that we existed,  that we looked like this, that we had some influence in our brief time.


Nowadays we take photos because we can. Endlessly. Mindlessly. Often pointlessly. The act of recording images has been trivialised.  The awkward, stilted selfie replaces the carefully constructed portrait. The carefully posed family photograph, with no one smiling and everyone dressed in their Sunday best,  is a relic of the past, an anachronism. Rather like our modern youth, who know everything and understand nothing, we record everything, but look at nothing.


Why should we take photos?  To remind ourselves of happy or interesting times, and to share these images with others. To remember friends and relatives, past and present, near and far. To record important events such as a wedding, or a sports competition, or an award.


Social media has turned photo taking into an insane effort to live in the public eye no matter how silly or boring. Instead of grand achievements we record and distribute what we had for breakfast. We update our many followers with the most minute and vacuous details of our lives.  This is overweening narcissism gone mad. It is a form of mental illness. 


When I toured  Europe as a youngster way back in 1972, cameras were clunky and film was expensive. I could afford only 36 exposures. I was extremely thoughtful about what I photographed and who.  No doubt I missed many great shots. But those 36 photographs are amongst my most treasured possessions.  I often take them out and look at them just for the sheer pleasure of it.

The modern photographer drowns in a sea of mediocre moments captured without consideration.  When you have 300 photographs of your trip to the beach last weekend,  how can you find the one or two decent ones?


Modern tools such as Google photos can do truly amazing things - scary facial recognition capabilities, unlimited albums, intuitive search, easy sharing. And like most Google software, some truly dumb holes.  So there is no hierarchical tree, just an endless list of albums.  No tagging facility. No process to identify and remove duplicates. A clunky process for adding descriptions. 

Nevertheless, it is free and generally better than all its competitors. I have used it for years and have maybe 10,000 photos (no easy way of counting). Being somewhat obsessive-compulsive, I recently decided to organise all my photos. 


After 3 weeks of duplicate removal, photo straightening, description adding, I finally asked myself WHY? Unless you have visuals of the Kennedy assassination, your photos are not that interesting to others. In the past your parent’s friends used to impose their  “Our trip to France” slideshow on you  in exchange for a nice dinner. But you  quickly tire of repetitive shots of Notre Dame cathedral from 20 angles. Nowadays you don’t even get the dinner.


All those photos I curated so carefully are mostly boring.

Who owns your photos?

The South African POPI act

  • Any person may photograph any other person without their permission, in public spaces.

Black and white

  • You, if they were taken on your device by you. You are the copyright owner.

  • You, if they are on a storage medium curated by you (hard drive, memory stick, Google photos, your cloud account)

Grey areas

  • Google claims the right to use your photos stored by them. (Just check the “Images” section of Google search.)

  • Someone else using your camera?

  • The subject(s) of the photo? With or without consent.

  • If consent to use specific photos of specific people has been given, can it later be withdrawn? Whose responsibility is it to locate and remove such photos?


  • The owner of the thing photographed? For example, a secret design.


  • The social media platform you display your photos on?

  • The state, for certain classes of photos (military installations, child porn, compromising pictures of politicians)

Mental photos

Years ago I developed a technique for taking “mental photos” which I use regularly and have passed on to my own children. When you are in a happy or profound moment, put aside your camera and make a conscious effort to record this moment in your mind’s eye. Observe the scene closely, the texture of the light, the small distinguishing features, details of the background. Snap your mental shutter, expose your living film, cement this specific memory with care and deliberation.  Like old-fashioned film, you can’t accommodate too many of these “photos”, so make them worthwhile. When you get this right you can bring those images back to life in an instant. 


You are your own camera.







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