What’s the Point of Taking Pictures? By Paul Schofield
Paul Schofield has written a few pieces for the site in the past, so when he offered up this discussion I was happy to be able to share it with you all. I have thought a lot about this lately too, so it is interesting to see how other people feel about why they are taking pictures. Check it out.
I’ve been taking pictures for twenty-five years and until recently I’d never seriously asked myself why I bother. I mean, what is the intended end result of all the effort and investment that goes into producing my pretty modest output of photographs?
It’s possible to over-think these things, of course. I take pictures because I enjoy it, so why worry? I like using cameras (especially old ones with knobs) and realised some time ago that it’s only really for me anyway. As a well-known blogger recently put it, ‘No one gives a shit about your pictures except you.’
Occasionally, the wife says something like ‘Oh, that’s a nice one, darling.’ And maybe one day the kids will appreciate some of it. Perhaps they’ll end up introducing their father’s undiscovered photography archive to the world. ‘For decades, he worked tirelessly in all weathers with no recognition from the outside world, except for that time he got 129 hearts on Tumblr for a grainy picture of some caravans’.
But the end result does matter. It influences how I approach my photography and how much satisfaction I get from it. Even if it is just for me, I want the finished product to be right.
I’m not talking about process here. Process is what gets you to the end result and is partly influenced by what you want the end result to be in the first place. It’s nothing to do with style or what you shoot, either. I know these aspects are all interlinked but this is just about outputs – what you are left with at the end.
The need to understand exactly what it is you are trying to produce seems almost too obvious to mention but I can’t be the only one who’s taken this point for granted. With photography, it’s easy to get distracted by the gear and go anal about details like chromatic aberration, pixel density or hand-made leather straps, basically to lose ‘focus’.
For what its worth, this is my simplified list of the main options as far as end results go. It’s not definitive; it’s just my list:
1. Nothing – Images stay on the devise or the computer and never see the light of day. Exposed film seldom if ever gets developed (aka ‘doing a Winogrand’). ‘Nothing’ is a more than acceptable outcome if you just enjoy the process of picture taking. A tragedy IMHO.
2. Online – Images are posted online and shared with the world, forever, on various social media platforms, blogs, portfolio websites etc. The end result is the ability to share work and exchange feedback with a global audience of like-minded enthusiasts. Many (perhaps most) people’s photographic output exists in the digital environment and rarely, if ever, ‘lives’ in a physical form. I don’t mean to imply any criticism here – it is what it is. Without Instagram, for example, some people wouldn’t take any pictures at all.
3. Prints – Any photographic print regardless of quality, whether it’s produced in a darkroom, with a high-quality inkjet printer or self-service at Boots the chemist. This one obviously has lots of potential variations in terms of process but at the end of the day, a print is a print and for some it is still the ultimate photographic artefact.
4. Photo Zine – Self-published photo zine, usually produced as a limited edition, run off the photocopier or printed by a specialist firm. Again, there are many possible variations in process but the basic outcome is still the same – a zine, a mini-book, call it what you like.
5. Photo Book – Ranging from self-published print-on-demand photo books a la Blurb to high quality limited edition photo books. Lots of potential overlap with 4 above. Most of us are not worthy or wealthy enough for the high-end option.
6. Competitions – It could be the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition or the local photographic society annual award. The outcome might be a Highly Commended or zilch and you might or might not get your work displayed in public but its still an end result.
I’ve deliberately left out the various end results available to professional photographers assuming that most of us are unlikely to break into magazine, editorial work or solo exhibitions. No reason why that sort of thing shouldn’t go on the list, though. I suppose you could also add things like printed mugs, T-shirts and beer mats but I think the above should cover it for most non-professionals.
So, this is how it stacks up for me at the moment.
One of my main photographic aims is to get good candid shots of family life, moments that mean something, not group set-ups of people with Christmas hats on. I think of it as one big on-going documentary project and I take it seriously. My mind-set used to be that family stuff somehow wasn’t ‘proper’ photography but now I see it differently.
The end results I want are a well-edited (and backed-up) archive of family photographs, the occasional good quality print to hang on the wall and the occasional one-off family photo book. The editing bit is important. I am pretty ruthless about it because I don’t want to be swamped with crap photos. I just want to keep the ones that work and know where to find them.
My other photography is increasingly about finding the opportunity to shoot whatever happens to be in front of me. Holidays and breaks can be a gold mine as well as quite frustrating. Last summer we had a magical fortnight in Seville and I managed several partially realised mini-projects. If only it had been a month!
Anyhow, what I’m looking for nowadays is material that I can turn into a limited run photo zine. That is how I primarily want to share my work. I’ve done two in the past so I’m no expert but I’m addicted to presenting my work in that way – I like the idea of producing a tangible object that people can pick up and flick through. And immediately discard, perhaps. I’m OK with that. Ultimately, I’d like to find a way of producing them so cheaply that I can afford to give them away.
At some point, I’ll need an online presence again but the purpose will be to promote and distribute this type of work. As a 45 year old, the internet is not a part of my DNA. Posting work online is like throwing a glass of water into the sea – as a photographic end in itself it feels unsatisfactory. Just saying, that’s all.
This leads into photographic process but that’s another story. My current set-up probably won’t be my last but it’s the one I’ve arrived at after at last deciding what I want to produce.
Thanks to Paul for sharing his thoughts and feeling on his photography. This very much mirrors how I am feeling lately.
How about you? How are you feeling about your work and why you shoot? Share with us in the comments.