Is the Un-Photographed Life Worth Living?


All of us at one time or another ask the same question: “Is my life meaningful?”

We fear the thought of an existence that starts on a birthday we celebrate year after year until we perish, leaving seemingly nothing behind. We struggle to find meaning in everything we do, however trivial.

And since we have difficulty defining meaning ourselves, we look to others to do it for us. What better way to validate what we do than to have it witnessed and appreciated by others?

A Witness to Our Lives

Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But it is also true that, for most, the unobserved life is not worth living.

It’s been that way since prehistoric man first scrawled on a cave wall in the South of France and said, “Look at me. I did this.”

Enter photography.

For the last 150 years, photography has added meaning to countless lives.

It would have been incredibly difficult for Gandhi, for example, to have made his life as meaningful without photography. His power was magnified by those photographers who brought us images of an almost naked, frail old man defying the biggest empire of his time.

Of course, Gandhi was an exceptional person. What about the middle manager with a wife and two kids who lives around the corner from your house? Where does he find meaning in his life?

Increasingly, he finds meaning in being photographed by friends, family and passersby — and ending up on Facebook, Flickr and Twitter. Who knows, he might even go viral — and his simple, ignored life might suddenly seem quite important.

What started with “look at me, I killed a bison” cave drawings has evolved to today’s “look at me, I learned to Jet Ski during vacation” Facebook photos.

Springing into Meaning

In between Gandhi and your neighbor in middle management, there are thousands upon thousands of lives that have sprung into meaning because of photography.

That man in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square. The Vietnamese monk who set himself on fire to protest the war. The man holding his bandage as he walked away from the London bus explosion. Or that woman who held her baby after an earthquake.

Or even Paris Hilton. What would be the meaning of her life without photography?

Fear no more the darkness of oblivion. Photography is here.


4 Responses to “Is the Un-Photographed Life Worth Living?”

  1. Life is worth living—photographed or unphotographed.
    I think your thesis statement is faulty. We photograph and are photographed and draw on cave walls not to receive our worth but to communicate. Yes, in this fast paced world we can get our strokes from being noticed and having someone talk about us or spread news about us through a photograph. BUT relationship is what brings worth to life. First relationship to our creator, or if so to the world around us. Second relationship to the people around us, than relationship to the country (citizenship) or the world we live in. When a person looses sight of the relationships on ones life that is when life seems worthless.
    I believe we as photographers have the power to bring a positive or negative light to a person or a situation. Therefore we need to be careful to do what is Good what is peaceable what is right and what is true especially when it is in our power.
    Remember the relationships in your life—that's what brings meaning to life.

  2. I do love what photography brings to my life. It allows me to express myself in a way that I never had before. This release is really why I do it. Having that outlet is great.

  3. I believe that everyone wants to leave something behind, for most it's their children, but some of us are not so fortunate. So, there is the struggle to write stories, and also make photographs that others might find hope or meaning in. Yet I personally am hardly recorded at all, except for a few weak self portraits. Instead I want the world to see, and feel something when they look at my images of other people moving through life. Then maybe those will have some worth and live on for a while after me. But life would also be worth living if I only wrote one really good short story and never made a lasting photo.

  4. I think what Paul is getting at is that there are so many of us in the world that have a hard time trying to figure out why we are even here. So we turn to our photography to find meaning in our life or so we can have meaning in our life. Is this pathetic way to live a life? Maybe, but I find it more pathetic if you go through life never even trying to find meaning in it. To find something to make "you" happy.

    The other point I am picking up in this post is that how many people come into this world and leave it and no one ever really knows anything about them. Like the kid in the third grade who was so shy that no one ever knew him and no one realized he didn't come back the next year. Or the old man who rides the same bus at the same every day and gets on and off at the same place, but one day he no longer gets on. Photographs of these people in a sense gives their lives meaning, it proves that they existed and they are not figment of peoples imagination. Does it give the person being photographed meaning in their life, probably not. Does it give the photographer meaning in his life, maybe.

    We all find meaning in our life differently and some of us take longer than others. Some never find it. - john

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