What’s the point in taking pictures?

/

by Bellamy /

6 min read


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.

Picture 1

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.

Picture 3

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!

Picture 4

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.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/128322202@N05/

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.

Thanks
JCH

27 comments on “What’s the point in taking pictures?”

    chase February 17, 2015 at 3:09 pm / Reply

    This could be a really cool section to continue. Have people submit stories of why they photograph, what are their goals etc. Maybe if people have certain goals there will be comments for suggestions? If that does happen though I think I have a pretty good story to share.

    Mark February 17, 2015 at 5:04 pm / Reply

    Hmmm… I have 90 rolls of ‘nothing’ ‘doing a Winogrand’ in the freezer. Keep meaning to process it, but always go for more film instead. Now, I look at the stack and think -that’s going to cost a packet to get developed. Like a typical man, rather than deal with it, I will procrastinate and buy more film to avoid the issue a little longer…

    Jenquest February 17, 2015 at 5:35 pm / Reply

    ge in my life. I also enjoy editing it all afterwards to keep the collection of prints tight

    Carsten February 17, 2015 at 5:57 pm / Reply

    Interesting read. Recently, I have become interested in “contemplative” or “mindful” photography and I have wondered whether this might be my personal answer to why I shoot. I am interested in mindfulness exercises and photography. Combining the two seems like a fantastic idea to me, and it does give me a reason to go out and take pictures – at least for a while. I do it for me, i.e. I can silence that nagging voice in my head telling me “it’s trivial, it has all been done before” whenever I am taking a picture that has been done hundreds or thousands of times before.
    Maybe one day my motivation will be a different one, but currently I find this approach appealing.

      Paul Schofield February 18, 2015 at 12:46 am /

      I can’t think of many other activities that absorb me in the moment like photography does. You’re right – it is almost like meditation sometimes

    Aivaras February 17, 2015 at 6:35 pm / Reply

    Thats very good to discuss the basic motivation for shooting. It got me thinking, why I do it myself. I will support chase opinion – section worth continuing, stories why people are motivated to shoot could be even more motivating that good pictures.

    Neil Thain-Gray February 18, 2015 at 6:24 am / Reply

    Hi Paul & Bellamy, nice to read such an honest and modest article. A refreshing change from all the ego, bluff and posturing that dominates the online photo community! Nice images on Flickr by the way Paul, keep doing your own thing!

    Tom Higgins February 18, 2015 at 10:40 am / Reply

    Wonderful article, and one I have always wondered about. As I looked back over 50 years of my own photos, it became apparent that I do take them for myself. I still occasionally spend an evening and go thru them and am amazed at the memories that return. I would really love to see why other people become motivated. In my instance it seems that I have been drawn to strange road signs or a dichotomy in plain sight. and apparently no one that I know sees them until they are shown a print

    James Mod February 18, 2015 at 9:21 pm / Reply

    I have a list, but basically what it all comes down to is therapy and escapism.
    You can call it art when you’re in a good mood, philosophy when you hate your job.

    Daniel February 18, 2015 at 10:48 pm / Reply

    Hi, Paul. I think most of us can relate to this, or at I do. I just recently joined Instagram by request of other people and I was surprised how much it affected my photography. Never have I been taking pictures of mu lunch – until now! It used to be all for myself but I felt almost – how do I put it – obliged to finally share my work with others. Because what sparks me usually is other peoples work. I’m sure there might be someone who gets the kick out of looking at my stuff.

    Anyway, enough with the babbling. I really enjoyed the read – AND the pictures! Thanks for sharing!

    Daniel

    Ned February 19, 2015 at 1:50 am / Reply

    Indeed, a very thought provoking article, many thanks Paul and Bellamy.
    After 40 or so years of producing slides and prints, I blamed my current dissatisfaction with photography on the move to digital.
    Now it is painfully clear that through life changes, it is the “why” that is the cause of the dissatisfaction.
    So at the very least, the article has cured any possible GAS.
    As to what will fill that void? That is much more difficult to answer.

    Pete February 22, 2015 at 6:57 am / Reply

    I think photography is an interesting medium and have often wondered ‘why’. My take on it is that we are almost trying to capture time, contain it, the moment becomes something we can try to hang on to. But photography is also distracting us from what we should be absorbing. People at concerts taking photos lose the experience at the expense of capturing that moment and that in some small way this applies to all photography, maybe it’s a distraction from true experience?

      Paul Schofield February 22, 2015 at 5:43 pm /

      I think it’s about getting the balance right, Pete. Sometimes I leave the camera at home or take very few shots. But mostly I find that photography helps me to appreciate things more. It makes me take a proper look.

    Ged Forkin February 22, 2015 at 6:20 pm / Reply

    Thought provoking artical.

    I’d be interested to hear how you produce the ‘ photo zines’! I really like that idea. I often produce PDF books for this purpose

    Thanks for the artical

    Paul Schofield February 23, 2015 at 4:28 pm / Reply

    Ged

    If you’ve already know how to lay out and produce a pdf all you have to do is find a printer – like inky little fingers or xyz. It’ surprisingly cheap

    David gleave March 12, 2015 at 7:00 am / Reply

    i agree with what you say about an ongoing archive or documentary. In your case your family. The photos are great & you have chosen a subject that is easily accessible to you. I’m sure you already know him but check Alain Laboile’s work. Yours reminds me of that.

    Rikard March 12, 2015 at 7:17 am / Reply

    Interesting read about a subject I have also been pondering. I have decided to post less online (unless it’s sharing with friends and family). Also I’ve started to explore the “trade book” option at blurb. Decent quality at a low price. From now on I aim to photograph more project oriented with the goal of producing a series of 6-10 prints or a zine/book.

    Bruce Benedict March 12, 2015 at 7:44 am / Reply

    Thanks for the excellent article and the platform upon which to share it. I’m 57 and only started taking non cell phone photos in the last year. I am not expecting to be “famous” but DO expect to improve each day. I love this website. Thanks!!!

    bill purvis March 12, 2015 at 7:03 pm / Reply

    My blog is a journal where I share my photographs and interests.

    ordinal March 13, 2015 at 6:05 am / Reply

    From talking to other people I know who’ve taken up photography and have by now mastered the basics, this is really common—I certainly entirely sympathise. “Why the hell am I taking all these pictures? I can’t pretend it’s for practice any more, so what do I expect to get out of it?”

    Without some sort of goal it all just feels pointless… in a way, examining more takes the fun out of the activity in itself. (I applaud the Lomo crowd for their concentration on the experience of taking pictures and how the shots reflect that, rather than on abstract criteria attached to the end results.) Without a project it just isn’t enjoyable any more, and it can be hard to create projects.

    Personally I’m exploring “one lens/one film for a year” at the moment, mostly to tell me things about myself, and also working on a few mini-projects about gentrification and urban development. I tried the mainstream photojournalism style for a bit but ended up disliking the whole thing.

    George T April 23, 2015 at 3:20 pm / Reply

    I remember seeing a documentary about a well known American photographer (I don’t recall who it was).

    He was asked why he took photographs, his simple answer was “To see what the world looks like photographed”

    Jack H May 6, 2015 at 6:31 pm / Reply

    “Posting work online is like throwing a glass of water into the sea”

    I love this, i think its one of the main things i like about film, and i don’t think i’d have thought about it unless you said this! Great Article.

    Cam S. August 4, 2015 at 11:17 pm / Reply

    After reading Paul Schofield’s article – What’s the point of taking pictures. I thought well, what’s the point of this article anyway. Possibly to get ones opinion. I myself take pictures because I like what I see and wish to remember it in my lifetime. I don’t necessarily intend to become famous or have a picture that will generate world fame or put me in a posterity position. I take them so I can remember the event or the person I have captured at that moment in time. Paul does have some good points here. Let’s face the real truth here. Why do we as people exist at all. I mean, what is the point of it all. Man exists, man wrecks the earth. Man eventually becomes extinct. Then what. Is it possible that somewhere in the eons of times something is going to come across these pictures and think. Now what the heck is that. Now here is a good thought for all this taking pictues. We as people simply take pictures simply because we like it or we like to take pictures so what is the big deal. This of course is just my thoughts at this moment in time. Maybe at a different moment in time I will think differently but for this moment, this is how I feel. I take pictures because I like to. End of discussion for the moment. Have a nice day & remember, take those pictures as in another moment, things will be totally different.

    Xavier Aragonès August 11, 2015 at 4:05 pm / Reply

    You are talking about the MIGHTY William Eggleston. :)

    Xavier Aragonès August 11, 2015 at 4:06 pm / Reply

    Sorry, my mistake. It was Garry Winogrand.

    Matthias Winkel October 9, 2015 at 7:03 pm / Reply

    Good article! I could go Freud on my photography and my point of view would be different from every week. Sometimes I’m all ‘doing it for myself’, no one even should even care of my pointless pictures plus I have a whole other profession with a steady income. Sometimes I have the ‘143 hearts’, someone askes me for a picture they wanna publish and I have a small exhibition. It can go from zero to Egglestone. I have some months with the worst pictures ever while hoping to be the next Vivian Meyer – then my brain starts to function again and I come up with great ideas and results without even wanting them to be published – I’m just satisfied for myself.
    What always stays is the nice feeling when going out and taking pictures. It’s just a nice thing to do. It’s healthier than smoking but more expensive. Both addictive and in the end you question yourself why you do it. After taking pictures for the last 15 years I still don’t know why I’m doing this. Maybe I know next week.

    Paul Schofield December 6, 2015 at 4:11 am / Reply

    That’s a very understandable reaction!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *