Why Do Some Photographs Move Us…


As a viewer, have you ever wondered why you love certain photographs over the others? What is it that moves us so greatly that the image becomes unforgettable, that we are driven to visit it over and over again? In certain instances, it’s possible to tell why a photograph makes us feel a certain way, or why a particular picture is great. For instance, Andre Kertesz’s images of still life are incredible examples of light and composition, like his photograph of the Chair with French Horn, 1927 and The Fork, Paris, 1928. But when you look at his famous image of chairs (Chairs in Paris, 1927), you will find yourself overwhelmed by its simplicity. That he was able to see extraordinary beauty in a modest object, fills you with wonder. I have visited the photograph numerous times, and to this day I don’t know what is it that draws me to the image. What exactly does the image project? Delight? Perhaps. We’ll never know. Kertesz himself had no specific reason for why he made the picture. In an interview with BBC, in 1983, this is what he had to say about the photograph, “Look (at) the composition. Absolutely modern. I have no idea this is modern. I feel this way, I did this way.”

Several scientific studies have attempted to decode why we prefer certain visuals over others. I have skimmed through a bunch of them, and while there may be some truth to them, I am hesitant to accept that our joy and relish towards a particular image can be split down to certain proven facts. I would like to believe that there is much more to this, and knowing that it is unexplainable, maybe for eternity, makes the search even more enticing.

In my previous edit note, I had spoken about how our photographs are also a result of our past experiences. That euphoria we experience when we see a moment unfolding, even though we are clueless of its origins. Robert Adams, in Why People Photograph, has penned down his thoughts as to why photographers feel this way. “Why is photography, like the other arts, have that kind of intoxication? And a quieter pleasure too, so that occasionally photographers discover tears in their eyes for the joy of seeing. I think it is because they’ve known a miracle. They’ve been given what they did not earn, and as is the way with unexpected gifts, the surprise carries an emotional blessing.” I suppose the same can be said of us, the viewers, of the joy of discovering or chancing upon a moment in a picture, one that we never had any hopes of encountering.

This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Better Photography.