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Why Do We Do It?

I've written extensively here about some of the technical aspects of photography. I hope you would agree with me though that cameras and lenses, Photoshop and color management aren't all ends unto themselves but are instead in the service of something more. I want to spend some time this week to examine just what that is, at least for me personally. There's a good chance it may well resonate for some of you too.

First off, I enjoy being out in nature. Always have. But if that's all there were to it, I could make my travels much easier by leaving the camera gear at home. Fully loaded, my camera backpack weighs over twenty-five pounds. It's great exercise of course, but clearly I carry all of it in order to use at least some of it. Some of the best images are made in fleeting moments and having the photos to look back on brings back fond memories.

Others don't share those memories though, yet often find enjoyment in good images.

Camera equipment is very limited. There's no way it can encompass the entire experience of being somewhere. Although a lens is round, it creates a rectangular image. Round or square though, it crops reality as part of doing what it does. Whether it is arbitrarily or completely premeditated by the photographer, it unavoidably crops.

But it crops not only what we see, it crops what we feel. The end result of taking pictures is a flat image, whether it is composed of ink dots per inch printed on paper or pixels per inch on a computer screen. The power of a well composed image seems to transcend the medium in which it is presented. I believe the experience of looking at such an image touches something within the viewer that was already there more than it does directly transmit something of the photographer's experience. It serves to reconnecting the viewer to some innate, dare I say primal feeling of connectedness with the earth.

I wrote some while back about the dilemma facing someone learning about photography: should they concentrate on learning technique or composition? Like practicing the scales on a piano, many photography teachers advocate mastering aperture and shutter speed as the proper foundation for the student. But that treats photography purely as an academic discipline at the expense of its emotional impact. Given that today's cameras feature an array of automatic features, there's a lot one can do with a camera without even needing to fully know how it works. Tapping into the enjoyment of taking pictures provides the drive to continue learning to improve. The technical details will come in time. As with those simply viewing good photographs, the connection is with the feeling. Everything always comes back to the feeling.

So, to return to the original question: why do we do it? Is the feeling enough, or is it in the service of some goal? If we truly value the great places that inspire great images, I think the emotional power of what we do should be, at least in part, aimed at preserving those great places, large and small. It's all too easy to get caught up in this modern world and lose touch with our ancestral connection with nature.

I recently attended a lecture by writer and environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams, birding expert David Allen Sibley and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge photographer Subhankar Banerjee. All three share a commitment to preserving wilderness but have done so through their own respective mediums. I know Subhankar and admire what he has done. Leaving Boeing where he worked as an engineer, he financed his own travels to Alaska, a far cry from his native Calcutta, India. His quest to document the beauty hidden at ANWR and the surrounding region culminated with critical acclaim for the publication of his book Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life on the Land in 2003 and the ongoing use of his work in the fight to save the refuge from drilling. Many people will never visit the area themselves, but his images have the power to connect with something in the viewer anyway.

Not all of us have the ability to take on such projects, but each of us does have the ability in some way, large or small, to increase people's awareness of what nature has to offer. Indeed, whether we realize it or not, this happens automatically every time people people view an image that shows what they may have missed or forgotten about in their own busy life.

Date posted: December 25, 2005


Copyright © 2005 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Related articles:
Technical Skills versus Composition
Shooting Quickly versus Thinking More
Wherever You Go, There You Are
Drive and Inspiration
Resolving The Conflict Between Objectivity and Subjectivity
Stopping Time: Why We Take Pictures

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