Why do we take pictures?

One way or another it seems we’re all battling to have our voices heard – or images seen – amongst a growing hubbub, a throng of vulturine media. Competition is taking its toll on many established pros. New ideas don’t stay new for very long; fresh approaches aren’t fresh at all once you start digging and conservation photography, that very laudable idea that visual imagery can contribute to societal values, has in some cases, become the latest photographic bandwagon: a trendy claim to justify self-indulgence. It’s all so damned difficult.

So where is professional nature photography heading? Well, that’s probably a subject for a six-part blockbuster blog, and even if I knew the answer – which I don’t – I’m not sure it addresses my current thought processes. So let’s just stop and think and strip it all back to basics.

Reading David Noton’s piece in a recent edition of Outdoor Photography, I was struck by the simple truth that our pursuit of photographic trophies – those images you can hold aloft and shout about – really isn’t the end in itself but the means to the end. Without the drive that all photographers have to some degree, to secure the images we want, in all likelihood we wouldn’t find ourselves stood on a coastal headland at daft o’clock or freezing your wotsits off in a Scottish blizzard or being so close to a bear that you can smell its rancid breath. These experiences are the real trophies; these are the memories that will etch themselves on your soul for ever – the camera is just the excuse for being there.

So is it just about having fun? In some cases most definitely but I’m not yet 100% sold on that notion – perhaps I just don’t wear frivolity very comfortably. That said, my perspective has changed in recent years. Photography allows us, perhaps forces us, to see the world differently and certainly the experiences I’ve been afforded from standing behind a camera, have shaped what I think, what I feel, what I am. As I reluctantly approach the half-century mark, I’ve learned that the most valuable asset I own is not my image archive but my memory archive, the one stored in my minds eye.

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8 thoughts on “Why do we take pictures?

  1. For me, wildlife photography at least, more than likely fulfils my primeval instinct, even need, to hunt. I mean, I couldn’t think of anything worse than pulling a trigger, but I’m guessing that pressing the shutter release invokes the same physiological responses. The killer shot. And of course, the two disciplines share many of the same skills.


    I certainly don’t get the same pleasure from photographing landscapes, or indeed people. And it probably is because there’s no hunting element involved. As a species, we only survived because we were able to hunt. So it follows I guess that just as a bird is born with the need and ability to build a nest, we are born with the need and some ability to hunt. In our case though, thankfully for those we hunt, we carry cameras not guns.

  2. Pete
    Always compelling articles, entertainingly written and thought provoking. I’m fortunate that my memory archive tends to be clearer, sharper and more colourful than my images!

  3. Pete,

    You’ve hit the nail on the head. I can remember so many wildlife experiences when I never even got a photo – the camera was just the excuse to be there. These memories will stay with me forever.

    Maybe that’s why I’m so happy to take the photos, but struggle to motivate myself to process them!

  4. Hello, Pete. This is, perhaps, one of the most important issues I might point out in order to “find a path”. Not making photography my main activity or my way of living, it is certainly what keeps me up with all the mess around daily work and, somehow, gives me strenght to proceed.
    Besides what you pointed out (the excuse to be there), which is exactly it, let me just add something else – the opportunity that photography gave me to meet people, some other places, cultures, ways of thinking and, of course, as you say, “forced” me to see the world in a different way… not better, not worse (and unfortunately sometimes worse) but surely in a different way that also allowed me to (re)think some ways of “living”.
    The human factor is, with no doubt at all, the best that photography gave me. I am not putting the majestic Golden Eagle or the fantastic Red Squirrel behind, but they can (and hope they will) be there for a long time and I still can go photograph with you for some place else. Right?
    Being able to get along with some new people, among with taking great pictures is, of course, the two-in-one factor. And sure… an excuse to be there! đŸ˜‰
    All the best,

    RĂºben Neves

  5. I can only concur with the earlier comments. Whilst any photo taken might be the end result of an experience with the camera, it is the experience itself that lingers. Whilst I love heading out into the woods or the lakes with a camera, it is the people I’ve met, the places I been and the things I’ve witnessed that will stay with me.
    To put that into some kind of perspective, I’ve got thousands of images sat on hard drives at home, most of which will never ever see the light of day again. My memories of trips I’ve taken (local or farther afield) are never very far away.
    Photography has given me the opportunity to see what’s around me with a new pair of eyes. Things that have been on my doorstep all my life, but never seen, have become visible. I like to think I’m a bit more aware of what’s around me these days!

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