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Why does photography matter?
It’s a question that we all ask at one time or another. After all, why do we keep waking up at 4:00 AM to photograph the sunrise, when we could be warm and comfortable lying in bed? Why do we spend long hours tweaking our compositions and learning about photography fundamentals when we could be watching television or out with friends?
And some days, when we have no creativity at all and pressing the shutter button seems like the hardest thing in the world, we continue to persevere – but why? What is it about photography that’s so compelling?
What motivates us to keep going?
In this article, I’m going to share six reasons why I think photography matters. Hopefully, these ideas will help you find clarity and motivation – and will encourage you to capture images, even when it feels like everything is pointless and you should put down the camera forever.
Let’s get started.
When you ask people what possessions they would rescue from their burning house, one of the most frequent answers is a photograph album or a computer with all their digital images.
Interesting, isn’t it? We would grab photos over valuable jewelry, even in moments of panic.
This impulse to save our recorded memories is a powerful force, one that tells us much about the role of photography in our lives – and speaks to our constant desire to distill our most precious moments into images.
We preserve the important events and people in our lives. The ceremonies of birth and birthdays, marriages and anniversaries, holidays and new houses are all recorded because they matter.
Photographs are our personal story, a timeline of our lives filled with faces and places that we love. They are our story, which we can then share with others.
Ultimately, the thousands of images we take come together to form a narrative of our lives.
I remember sitting on a train as it passed a playground where children were standing at attention for the annual school photograph. In the front row sat the teachers, and behind them, hundreds of children were neatly preened and uniformed. For the briefest second, the entire assembly was motionless. We passed just as the photographer clicked the shutter.
Then, as if in slow motion, the huge group scattered as children escaped their enforced immobility. The neat rows dissolved and broke down into individuals who were kicking balls or huddled with friends.
None of those children realized that the photograph was probably going to outlive them. A couple of generations later, the school photo might resurface among old papers in an attic, and someone would search for their grandfather among the fresh, young faces.
Photographs matter because they freeze moments of our lives that pass unremarkably and which seem to have little importance to us at the time. The significance of a photo might not even be ours – instead, it might be for others who search for the person we once were or the places we once knew.
Each photo can be a small piece of a jigsaw that completes the larger picture of our lives.
Images are much more than a simple record. Photography speaks to the best and most generous part of our human nature – the desire to share what we find beautiful and interesting with others.
You only have to look at the multitude of photo-sharing sites to see this impulse at work, where millions of people share their personal, passionate, and sometimes quirky take on the world around them.
In other words, our images can share our lives with strangers. How powerful is that?
Photography allows us to express ourselves through an art form. We notice a beautiful landscape or an old man’s lined face and we want to capture it.
Each of us will have a different specific reason to take a photo, but we all want to create something.
However humdrum our nine-to-five lives may be, the creation of an image makes us an artist. It feels good.
Our images can express joy and sorrow, wonder and sympathy. Every human emotion can find a place in photography.
For many years, I never valued my photographs of overcast landscapes, because I believed there was no beauty in a land with muted colors and a leaden sky. I wanted the land to be alive with color and vibrancy.
However, the lack of color in a landscape makes you search for other things that often go unnoticed in bright sunlight. This could be the symmetry of hills or a tree standing out from a forest of thousands.
To expand this further:
I have suffered from depression for most of my adult life, and photography gives me a language to express feelings for which I can find no words. We have a miserably poor vocabulary for mental illness, but photography has allowed me to develop a visual language for some of my most difficult emotions.
Photographs can grab our attention and speak directly to our emotions. There are plenty of powerful photos – such as Nick Ut’s photograph of a crying Vietnamese girl whose clothes have been burned away by napalm – that can make us feel things.
On a more subtle level, photography teaches us lessons about a whole range of emotions. Grief has the power to wash away the brightness and color of our lives. There is no magic way to restore these. We have to be patient. But while waiting, we can search for the shapes and patterns that are still present in the grayness. They will lead us back to color eventually. During moments of great sorrow in my life, I have used images to express that hope of returning color.
Photography, at its best, is a powerful language that speaks to our emotions. It allows us to tell our story and shows others our framing of the world around us.
Hopefully, you now have a better sense of the different reasons people pursue photography – and why photography is important.
Now I’d love to know:
Why do you do photography? What motivates you to keep taking pictures? What is it about photography that inspires you?
Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Declan O’Neill is a professional photographer who lives in the South Island, New Zealand. He travels extensively, capturing the beauty of New Zealand’s extraordinary landscape. The photographs that accompany this article are part of a series entitled “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” which is dedicated to the memory of his sister, Ann, who died from Multiple Systems Atrophy.