On Photography - Intent and Purpose.

Photography is used to ward off total oblivion.”
 Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things: Essays

Have been reading / watching / photographing, on and about photography, and watching a lot of photographs in the past couple of months. The following post is an attempt to put together thoughts based on diverse sources.  It is my attempt to provide some answer to the one question that bubbled up from my experiences.

What is a photograph a faithful record of?


A photograph helps preserve the object that it captures, as we all know. It is now a well-established truth of our society that our photographs will probably live much longer than we ever will, or can. Our photographs immortalize us, but at the cost of immortalizing much that is trivial in a global sense. There seems to be a concentrated effort behind the purpose of photography, but we see less intent behind photographing something. A photograph, or a collection, is specifically created towards a self-serving goal, but we hardly ever pick up our cameras with the intent of simple exploration – an exploration of senses, or expression. I think the truth lies somewhere in between these two words, or perhaps, it encompasses both?

Eternal life, through photographs, seems to be in vogue. We, as a society, may not even realize our subconscious, obsessive rush towards immortality, but the fact that billions, if not trillions, of images are created and then forgotten every day, is the proof of our struggle to accept the ephemerality of our existence. Photography has turned from a passive sport into an active, intimate, engagement – a sterile documentation, if you will, of our daily lives. It used to be that the intent behind photography was to show the viewer something new, something different that sparked a thought, a conversation, or most importantly, attention. A photograph was a pact between the observed and the observer – it helped preserve the existential dignity of the observed. But today, in our haste to create a newsworthy photograph, to compete with our peers in an obsessive frenzy to record, we have succeeded in dissolving the humanity of both the participants – our subhuman recorders deliver images and bombs with equal efficiency. Our shutters click incessantly, with nary a regard to what we “capture” -- Our hobby has become a living embodiment of that word! As if it were possible to also capture the sensations beyond the visible, audible, or such. We have succeeded in capturing more data, more colors, more pixels, more view, but somewhere along the way, we lost the intangibles, the feeling of awe, the surprise that a genuinely new image invokes within the viewer. To top it off, we have also completely discounted the viewer as an optional piece in this conversation. We record, we show, but we do not respect, or even expect, the presence of an observer.

As Teju Cole notes, photography can be a useful tool to reconstruct a communal, cultural loss. Future generations can rebuild monuments that have been ravaged by time, or worse, human prejudice. Future archeologists will not have to dig up information about the past literally, they would simply access it through the multitude of photographic records archived faithfully by mega companies, who shall profit from being in the business of bartering memories, or maybe they already are.

Similarly, on a more personal level, a photograph also helps legitimize the experience of the observer. “I was there” is no longer an experiential statement; it turns into a spatial assertion. One can pinpoint the Time and Space when this interaction occurred. Of course, reducing any human experience to one single moment is an onerous task! Works of art are born if this experience is somehow crystallized, or distilled into a single, appropriate moment. However, in a majority of cases, the process is merely reduction, compression – of time, of motion, of spatial arrangement, or even emotions. It is a loss on a double scale – the loss of experience, and the loss of expression.

As Maria Popova notes, “When everything is eternal, nothing is eternal.” So does this mean the end to photography, as a means of expression? I certainly believe that in spite of the popularization of the technology, original expression will find light. Almost all literate humans can write, but only a few become writers. The advent of tools to put letters on a page did not signal the death of literature. It certainly made the process of expression harder. There was so much noise around that to be truly heard, your expression had to drown it out. The 20th and 21st centuries have produced some stellar examples of writing that will outlive the cheap thrills. Similarly, while anyone with a decent device can create and store a photograph in the cloud for perpetuity, not every photograph will endure as a collective memory. As Nate Silver puts it beautifully - “The signal is the truth. The noise is what distracts us from the truth.” Maybe all that is needed to overcome the distraction is to find the intent within us, and our world. 


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