6 Reasons Why Photography Matters

6 Reasons Why Photography Matters

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 which 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.

1. Our photographs tell us what is important to us

When you ask people what possessions they would rescue from their burning house, one of the most frequent answers is the photograph album or a computer with their digital images. When in panic mode it’s interesting that we would probably grab photos rather than valuable jewelry. This impulse to save our recorded memories is a powerful force which tells us much about the role of photography in our lives and our constant desire to distil our most precious moments into images.

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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 share with others. The hundreds of images come together to form a narrative of our lives.

2. Photographs are part of our legacy

Once I remember sitting in a train as it passed a playground where children were standing to attention for the annual school photograph. Across the front row sat the teachers and behind them, hundreds of children neatly preened and uniformed. For the briefest second the entire assembly was motionless. We were passing just as the photographer clicked the shutter. Suddenly, as if in slow motion, the huge group scattered as children escaped their enforced immobility. The neat rows dissolved and broke into individuals who were now kicking footballs or huddled in friendship groups. None of those children realised that the photograph was probably going to outlive them. A couple of generations later it might surface among old papers in an attic and someone would search for granddad among the fresh young faces. Photographs matter because they freeze moments of our lives which pass unremarkably and which seem to have little importance to us at the time. The significance, however, may be for others who search for the person we once were or the places we once knew. They can be small pieces of a jigsaw that complete the larger picture of our lives.

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3. Photographs allow us to share and to communicate.

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 Flickr and a multitude of photo sharing sites to see this impulse at work. Millions of people sharing their personal, passionate and sometimes quirky take on the world around them. Our images can involve a world of strangers in our life. How powerful is that?

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4. Photography makes us artists

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 reason to do so but, essentially, we 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.

5. Photography is a complex language

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 landscape because I believed that there was no beauty in a land with muted colours and a leaden sky. I wanted the land to be alive with colour and vibrancy. However, lack of colour in a landscape makes you search for other things that often go unremarked in bright sunlight. It could be a symmetry of hills or a tree standing out from a forest of thousands. I have suffered from depression for most of my adult life and photography gave me a language to express feelings for which I can find no words. We have a miserably poor vocabulary for mental illness and photography has allowed me to develop a visual language for some of the most difficult emotions.

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6. Photography has the power to move us

Photographs can grab our attention and speak directly to our emotions. Nick Ut’s photograph of a crying Vietnamese girl whose clothes have been burnt away by napalm embodies the power of a single image. At a more subtle level, we can learn lessons about a whole range of emotions. Grief has the power to wash away the luminance and chrominance of our lives. There is no magic way to restore them at will. We have to be patient. But while waiting we can search for the shapes and patterns that are still there in the greyness. They will lead us back to colour eventually. At moments of great sorrow in my life I have used images to express that hope of returning colour.

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Photography, at its best, is a powerful language which speaks to our emotions. It allows us to tell our story and show others our framing of the world around us.

Declan O’Neill is a professional photographer living in the South Island of New Zealand.
site: www.newzealandlandscape.com

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Some Older Comments

  • Harinath.D July 30, 2013 03:56 am

    Nice one i loved it.

  • Susie March 6, 2013 05:00 am

    I love your love for pictures and yes they do matter

  • Joy August 29, 2012 01:15 pm

    Declan, Your words and photographs speak to a starved dimension of one's soul which is neglected by the busy round of daily life. It gave me so much pleasure to contemplate what you were saying and let the atmosphere captured in your photos re-awaken some sleeping emotions again.
    Surely there are few people who are lucky enough to escape some form of depression at some stage in their lives, especially those who have experienced new situations, loss of loved ones and/or great changes to their normal lives? You are so right to point out that there are times when our language does not seem to have the range of descriptive words to express exactly what we are feeling, which leaves one confused and 'stuck' emotionally. How wonderful to have the skill to create photos that will do this communication for you.

  • Troy Smith August 29, 2012 12:28 am

    Reading your article I'm reminded of my Grandmother. My Grandparents had several boxes of old photographs, my uncles and us grandchildren would go through them and ask about who these people were and where were they taken. In the year before my Grandmother passed she would go through the box pick up a photo and rip it in half then throw it away. We would ask why and she would respond, "I don't know who this is and you don't either, we don't need to keep it." It saddened me, it didn't matter who was in the picture, it captured a moment in someone's life, a moment of history. I just hated to see them thrown out.

  • R T Hale August 26, 2012 08:27 am

    WOW...What a great artical and great photos as well. I sometimes wonder why I waste so much time and money taking pictures...now I know, Thank You.

  • Elizabeth August 25, 2012 04:27 am

    My family (not immediate) is very religious and from NC. They won't let me take their pictures, they just don't believe in that. I still don't understand why and it hurts seeing them grow old, knowing I won't have any photos of them. I know I will always have my memories and those are the best but photos are wonderful and very addictive. Everywhere I go I see photos begging me to take them.


  • James Field Photography August 24, 2012 02:40 pm

    Thanks for sharing. I think we photographers are incredibly lucky to have a career with so much potential for fulfilment and meaning. I love it.

  • Kathy Rushing August 24, 2012 05:20 am

    Thank you for sharing so transparently. Beautiful images.

  • t w August 24, 2012 04:30 am

    Thanks Declan, I began reading with scepticism but by the end you'd reminded me there's nothing wrong with talking about the emotinal aspects of what we (me being at the most amateur end) are seeking to do.

    Really nice piece and of course love the photos

  • Keith Burton August 23, 2012 10:42 pm

    #7 - It's Fun!

  • Jack Clarfelt August 22, 2012 11:56 pm

    Declan O'Neill is an artist with both imagery and words. His article invoked an immediate emotional response, as did the comment above by Albert Ward. Thank you Declan O'Neill.

  • Tom August 22, 2012 09:29 pm

    Photos tell a story from the past . Just think what if they had photos 2000 years ago!

  • Roslyn Elms August 22, 2012 08:50 pm

    A wonderful reminder of how our photography nourishes our lives. Beautiful photo's and insightful story. Thanks Declan

  • Francisco muniz August 22, 2012 05:31 pm

    This is the reason i became a photographer, this is the mos important, meaningful and my favorite photo, its about my two daughters, my family is alway been my inspiration.


  • Albert Ward August 22, 2012 05:05 pm

    I cannot agree more. I grew up with a grand dad that loved photography. He even had his own lab not to mention all the other gadgets he had. He took photo's of literally every occasion and today even though he is not with us any more, when the family gets together the first thing we do is to go through all the photo albums and look at slides he made. And you know what, we "see" him in every photo and slide! Today, because of all those precious memories, I am now the family photographer taking pics of every occasion etc. And even though some of the members in my family calls me the "paparazzi", they appreciate it always when I give them photo's I took.

  • Mikhail Anand August 22, 2012 03:13 pm

    “I love the people I photograph. I mean, they’re my friends. I’ve never met most of them or I don’t know them at all, yet through my images I live with them.” – Bruce Gilden


  • Roslyn Elms August 22, 2012 12:57 pm

    Really beautiful and evocative images, and a real reminder of the nourishment we gain from taking the moments of our lives and capturing them in a meaningful way... Thanks Declan - just lovely.

  • Raghavendra August 22, 2012 12:50 pm

    The art of photography is real simple by eyes and very trouble in taking a perfect shot; I agree that our eye is the best in all aspects but photographs showcases the moment and that’s how photography lives forever.


  • Jai Catalano August 22, 2012 09:40 am

    I took a photo a day of both of my kids. I was able to find an artist to write original songs to them both. It was such an amazing experience and had photography not been a part of my life those 730 days of moments that I captured would just be a faded memory.

  • Scottc August 22, 2012 08:42 am

    Well made points, funny how easy it is to forget why we started photography in the first place.

    I also agree with the poster above, what generates emotion for us is the real reason we click.

    Sometimes it's just a favorite place.


  • Steve August 22, 2012 06:19 am

    I find the best photos are the ones we feel emotional about