Why Photography is So Unabating and Frenzied Today


Back in 2014, Mary Meeker from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers announced that on a daily basis we were uploading 1.8 billion photographs on the web. These pictures accounted for just those that were uploaded on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, Snapchat and WhatsApp. It’s difficult to fathom the 1.8 billion figure. Imagine sifting through all of them! All these photographs exist somewhere, floating on the plethora of storage devices available to us today, on cloud links and in our phones. These pictures are also a visual record of the time we live in. Today, photographs are geotagged, and can be traced back to its creator, as well as the device that made it, and what time it was shot. Imagine a researcher being able to sift consciously and intuitively through these billions of shared moments, and build an accurate description of a time and place, thus creating a record of our collective history and culture. In a sense, digital photography is changing how history is documented and recorded. And all of this has been made possible because of how accessible and affordable photographic devices have become, especially the cameraphone.

But what is it that we’re exactly shooting? There is no one answer to this question. It’s literally everything that we set our eyes on… whether it’s the food we eat, the people we meet, the new clothes we purchase, the places we visit, billboards that have caught our attention, pictures that convey personal stories of struggle and triumph, photographs of various social, political and environmental injustices… the list goes on. Then there are also images made by other kinds of professionals in the scientific, medical and security fields, like surveillance photos, pictures of excavations, images used to study bodily functions… The list is infinite.

But I am specifically concerned with the photographs where the motive is not as pertinent as in the images meant for scientific, research or documentation purposes. Therefore, with regards to these pictures—When we see something, why do we feel compelled to make a picture of it? Why is it that we’re atuned to make a record of it specifically in the form of a photograph? What is it that’s exactly going on in our brain that makes us take out our phones or cameras and photograph the moment, instead of just experiencing it? Why are we photographically recording every movement or activity that may have no purpose at all? Are we really doing it to remember, and if so, how often do we go back to these pictures?

Recently, I came across an article by Wired that featured an interview with Marvin Heiferman. He is a curator and writer who has studied (and still continues to do so) the impact of photographic images on art and visual culture for museums, art galleries, publishers and corporations. In his book, Photography Changes Everything, Heiferman looks at the different ways in which pictures ‘package information and values, demand and hold attention, and shape our knowledge of and experience in the world.’ And he has explored this through photographs and short essays by a variety of individuals ranging from experts, writers, inventors, public figures, and everyday people. During the course of his research for the book, he approached neurobiologists and put forth this question to them—“What, perception-wise, is the difference between looking at a thing and looking at a photograph of that same thing?” They didn’t have an answer. In response, he went on to say this, “Why is a photograph powerful besides just recognising in the image, what neurologically connects this thing you look at on paper or on screen to what’s in your head. Those are really big issues when trying to figure out photography’s power. What is the power of images in terms of our psychological response to them? What images make you want to buy something, f**k something, vote for something?”

I had never thought of photography or of images in this way, and had so far looked at it from a personal and idealised perspective. The one question that came to my mind was this—Could it be that we are shooting so incessantly because of how we’re constantly being bombarded with a variety of visuals, every single day? Is there a connection here? Assuming that most of us are fairly active on social media, can you imagine the number of photographs that we consume everyday, or for that matter, when we commute back and forth to work, or when we’re watching television, or even while reading a magazine. Do these visuals, on a subconscious level, play a role in encouraging us to shoot anything and everything around us? The issues are different based on viewpoints and perspectives. But, I am going to leave you with these questions to ponder over.

This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Better Photography.