Let’s talk about photography for a while. Not about how to take pictures or how to sell them, but just about photography. There has been a lot said, and written, about it in the past hundred years, and every attempt to define it in simple terms has failed.
Mostly because it has so many facets and usages that it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to make it fit in one definition. But an even bigger cause is that it keeps evolving. What was true a while back is challenged by new usages.
Photography in the Digital Age
Although it’s more than 100 years old, photography is still in its infancy. It is as much a new medium today as the day it was born. Without a clear and definite path to adulthood, it is being defined as it grows. We know where it has been, but we hardly know where it is going.
Who would have predicted even a decade ago that one of the most popular uses of photography would be to take a picture and then permanently destroy it seconds later (Snapchat) or that some of the most popular websites would be almost entirely made of photographs (Instagram, Buzzfeed, Icanhascheezburger)?
Who would have predicted that even the tools that allow us to create photographs would continue to evolve so quickly? Or that we would consume the majority of our images on a mobile device?
There are probably even more innovations to come in the next 10 years than those we have experienced in the past 20. If anything, the pace is accelerating. The only certitude we have is that we cannot, at least not yet, define photography.
What’s the Goal Behind Photography?
What we can do, however, is take lessons from its evolution and try to corner a partial definition. The way photography is evolving is giving us strong hints on what photography is, and, more importantly, what it is shaping up to become.
One aspect that has remained unchanged since its birth has been its core attribute of sharing. Whether it is a family event, a war, a landscape, a sport final, a hole in a pipe, a second-hand car, traces in the snow, even a cappuccino, every single photograph is created with the core intention to be shared.
The question then becomes why? Why do we feel the necessity to capture a moment and share it and not others?
Significance is the answer here. We see significance in that moment we capture and that is what we want to share. Not the image itself but the significance of the moment. What it means to us. And that significance comes charged with emotions: happiness, sadness, concern, pride, loneliness, thirst, hunger, anger, and every emotion in between.
Thus, by sharing our significant image, we share the related emotion. It is clearly seen in photojournalism or our son’s first bicycle ride.
In other words, we are attempting to transfer energy: The energy we felt when we took the picture. The same excitement that made us snap those frames.
We do the same with pictures we did not take. All those Pinterest, Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter posts that contain photographs are shared because we want to transfer the energy we got when we saw them to others. It made us laugh, therefore it will make others laugh. Energy transfer.
Every photograph that we take, and share, is energy transfer. We use photography to communicate the energy we originally felt. Great photographs do this extremely well (think of the classics) while others fail miserably. Still others might need additional insider information to be able to achieve their purpose (context). But all have the same role to play.
With that in mind, it becomes much simpler to understand where photography is heading. More and more, we are seeking to find ways to better service this need, either via the refinement of our tools or the development of our sharing platforms. Both stand to enhance how precisely we can transfer that energy.
Like written language, we all have a style we use to express that energy that is endemic to our personalities. We thus use the tools at our disposal to enhance our transfer, whether it’s filters, camera bodies, lenses or composition. Even paper support and framing is stylistic.
This energy transfer is well known in the marketing world. Marketers heavily rely on emotion to create an advertisement that will purposely provoke the recipient’s emotions. They also often use already charged photography to enhance their messaging, piggy backing on a pre-existing energy transfer.
While we continue trying to define what photography is as it continues to define who we are, it is important to understand its role in communication protocols. Photography has established itself as an undeniable conduit of human emotions that can transfer energy from one human being to another via both space and time. It is time to recognize that and put it in the forefront of everything we do from now on.