Does Photography Matter?

It’s a simple question, but it carries important ramifications. On a basic, reasonable level it is easy to answer “no.” We don’t need a photograph to live. But that answer barely scratches the surface of human experience.

The Vulcan Paradox

On a purely logical basis, it’s easy to identify what we need for survival. Food. Water. Shelter. Protection. We call these things basic needs for a reason. We know that we need them, and it doesn’t take a lifetime of learning to determine that. Anything beyond these basic needs are luxuries and comforts. Wants. And once we figure out how to identify or differentiate a need from a want, it’s easy to prioritize what to take care of first. The only problem: we’re not logical. Just ask anybody with a passing familiarity with Star Trek and they’ll confirm that, and perhaps wish you a long and prosperous life.

The first mistake here is that we’re only looking at external needs. We aren’t considering our internal needs. Our attempts at leading a logical life are all ultimately defeated by one thing: emotion. Our emotions are things with a unique foothold into our thoughts and behaviors. They’re intrinsic parts of our psyche. Any person who doesn’t feel emotions within our well-established patterns is thought to be suffering from a mental illness. Trying to completely divorce ourselves from our feelings is a certain path to madness: a futile attempt to escape human nature. It’s evident, then, that our emotions play a key role in our survival. But how?

Developing Memories

Pictures like these are often the last remaining mementos of our past.

In order to understand how emotions factor into the survival equation, we must also consider another core function of our brain: memory. The trouble is that most of us have a memory which is surprisingly volatile. In recent years, studies have been conducted showing just how unreliable memory can be. How, then, are we supposed to remember things that are important to our survival, especially when those things can become intricately complicated?

We use shortcuts in the form of concepts. Instead of figuring out and then memorizing how, what, or when, we focus on why. When we conceptualize ideas in our memory, we can simply feed context into one side of the concept and it will give us an evaluation. All we need to do is have experiences to form concepts, concepts into memories, and then memories to help us determine a course of action. However, we can’t experience everything. If we jumped off of cliffs until we figured out what an unsafe height is, we would be lucky to only suffer a broken leg or two! If each of us had to expose ourselves individually to the same danger to know that it is dangerous, then we’d quickly be in trouble as a species. Luckily, we aren’t lining up to fling ourselves down elevator shafts.

The Bigger Picture

When we form communities, we can learn from each other’s collective experience. We don’t have to have seen the danger with our own eyes. We can conceptualize dangers through another person’s experiences. As a community, we communicate to share our experiences to one another through the vehicle of storytelling. We mark our history through stories, allowing us to share our life’s lessons with our community. It began with oral traditions, then written languages. From our attempts to make the stories more memorable we have poetry and song. We magnify the importance of some lessons by encapsulating them in a fiction, letting a lie serve a greater truth of expression. And today’s society has an unprecedented reach, where any one of us can make our stories available for the entire world to hear.

At a basic level, these stories allow us to create artificial experiences as if we lived them ourselves. We form memories in response to stories just as readily as we do for our own experiences. Then we lend those memories an emotional hook, tying them in with our deeper, constantly-active subconscious for quick and instinctive access. When those memories are recalled, they bubble up to the surface bringing an emotion with them, so even if we don’t process the memory with logic or reason, we have that emotion there as a motivator to act.

Artistry creates meaning through craft.  

As a community, we’ve increased our chances of survival by preserving the stories of those who have come before us. Even after they’re long gone, our predecessors may help us through the memory of who they were and what they did. These stories in pictures helps us maintain an emotional connection to our forebearers. They tell us as a society where we’ve been and who is important in our lives. Stories help us love and help us cry. They make us feel.

Filling the Frame

Photography, like many arts, gives us a method of storytelling, but it can’t work just by itself. Photography as a craft is just collecting and recording light: a technical exercise. It’s only a small portion of the overall art which culminates into a visual method of storytelling. And even then, it’s not providing us with any of our external needs. This is why my passion—my purpose—isn’t simply writing or making photographs, it’s building story. Crafts and guidelines are simply mechanisms. By themselves, they are incapable of being meaningful or emotional. They’re empty containers waiting for meaning to fill them.

Artistry creates meaning through craft. By bringing an emotional level, a story, to what we create, we grant our stories life. We give our passions breath. The creation of stories gives us a memory that’s greater and longer-lasting than ourselves. All we have left to do is decide what our story will be.