Why Photography?

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After a recent shoot, a non-photographer who was with us asked, “Now what, after you have taken the photographs?” Funnily, no one had a substantial answer to that question. Think about it. If you are a photographer – where do your photos eventually go? To flickr, or your website maybe. And how many people would see your photos there? Ten? Twenty? Hundred? If you are a non-photographer, when was the last time you stopped by someone’s photography collection and spent some time looking at it and feeling something inside? That one single shot that made you gasp doesn’t count. I am never a believer in judging a person’s ability by that one single award winning shot. So if you are a photographer, you really aren’t there to talk to your audience, and if you are the audience, you consume what you see with the same interest as you consume the stuff thrown at you on TV and radio. No, comments on Flickr don’t count 🙂

All this begs to ask the question – why photography? Why do we amateur photographers spend so much money (sometimes enough to buy a small car) on this hobby? Interestingly, it is the hobbyist who always wants, and yearns for the latest and greatest gear. If you look at your average professional photographer (the guy who does the thankless job of covering big fat Indian weddings) he seldom uses high-end gear. And why this sudden interest among the general population to buy DSLRs? There are couple of dimensions to this question from a personal, and general POV.

We are materialistic

The world today is by and large wallowing in materialistic pleasures. Gadgets are on everyone’s wishlist. Be it the latest mobile phone, or that new computer – if it has buttons to push, we want it. And why not? Technology is changing fast enough to keep the interest in gadgets alive for as long as we have money in our pockets. There is a new model always around the corner. And one moment after you’ve spent your money, you know you want to upgrade.

Things are just the same in the world of photography. The aesthetic side of photography most often takes a back seat. Just visit the DPreview forum. You’ll see people cutting each other’s throat over the best camera. I personally don’t get any kicks from stuff like mobile phones, or automobiles. But I confess that I get excited about using all sorts of photography gear. I am a heavy consumer of accessories, lenses, cameras, software…. I have owned four digital SLRs till now at different points in time. And each new camera is exciting. The only difference is that I am not after the latest and greatest. I am after the experience of trying something new. Like when I moved from the 350D to the 30D, I knew I wasn’t getting any improvement in Image Quality (IQ). But I knew I was going to be a owning a prosumer DSLR for the first time. And from the 30D to the 40D, I got my first taste of a larger LCD, Live View etc. Then it was the 5D which blessed me with the Full Frame Nirvana. So it wasn’t a surprise that I moved from a three year old FF to the newest FF, the 5D Mark II, in 9 months.

What has all this gear lust cost me? A lot. Needless to say, I have spent a lot of time and money pursing this art. So why photography, really?

We want to be entertained

“All art is quite useless”, proclaimed Oscar Wilde way back in the late 1800s. I knew this quote even before I knew photography. I still believe in the truth of that statement, but I know that if nothing, art entertains. It entertains the consumer, and the creator. If not, there will not be movies made, books written and music sung. Entertainment is on everyone’s mental diet.

I love the whole process of taking a photo. I feel thrilled every time I take the camera up to my eye and click the shutter. I still rush back home to download photographs onto my computer and wait impatiently to see what I have captured. I remember the long wait during the days of film, and the excitement of seeing the develops after returning from the photo studio. The source of all this, is probably my love to create and be creative. When I was little, I used to dabble with electronic gadgets and try to make something. A motor spin, or a LED glow. Unfortunately, my creative abilities were suppressed in my formative years due to the pressures of growing up in an Indian middle class family. So now I am living the dream of being a creator with a revengeful enthusiasm. So much so, that by now I have very few friends left, and my social life is non-existent. But photography is a permanent buzz in my head that keeps me entertained, alive, and ticking. It also helps keep the responsible, bread-winning alter-ego of mine alive. Because bread-winning and being responsible is boring.

Ok,  you probably get the drift. What now? But there is a catch.

We tend to forget why we do what we do

As often the case, over a period of time, life takes over and we tend to forget why we do what we do. Ironically, the general population takes photographs to see them later, and dwell in some nostalgia. But we photographers don’t have that opportunity. When I see the very first shot I took with a digital camera, the bad quality of composition over-rides the memory of how it felt to take that photo and instantly see it on the LCD behind. And not just that, I have even lost almost every photo I had taken with my first P&S camera – the one I purchased after saving for so many months and using with so much enthusiasm. Why? Hard disk crash. Bleh.

The thing about art is that the final product never belongs to the creator. It belongs to the audience. Once a movie is made, it is no longer in the director’s hands because he cannot do anything with it anymore. It is for the audience to watch, dissect and applaud or reject. The painter sells his art and it then leaves the studio to hang on a wall somewhere where people stop by, take a look and feel something inside (hopefully). Of course, every artist expects what he creates to fetch money. But life is a b*tch and not everyone gets their due. Let me not digress.

So photography too, like any other art, was meant to follow the same lifecycle. Photographers are supposed to sell their prints, and hopefully sustain themselves. Wait a sec. Did I say print? Whoa! Print! When was the last time you printed your photo? Or gone to a gallery show and interacted with the artist. I know what you are thinking. Why should I print my photo when everyone can see it on a computer? This is where photographers at large have forgotten why they are doing what they are doing.

Computers as a medium to see photos is ok for vacation photos and memory’s sake. But it is not the best medium to feel the joy. Doesn’t the experience of watching a live concert feel better than listening to some crappy mp3? Isn’t theater still such a strong medium, and very surviving the onset of all kinds of multimedia devices? Similarly, the best way to experience a photograph is by seeing a print. Because that also means that you are most likely going to meet the photographer, talk to him or her, and experience something richer than what Flickr can provide. And that is why traditionally photographers had gallery shows. To meet their audience, to share the joy, and to hopefully sell a few prints and make money. Unfortunately for me, in spite of my interest in this art, I cannot name 3 galleries that hold art fairs in this city.

Don’t shoot the messenger

I am not all against new mediums. I do appreciate the push-publish power that the internet has brought us. But of what use is this publishing convenience if it does not have a knowledgeable audience? The internet can only be an aide to existing mediums, and the audience would embrace this medium with responsibility only if they are already in tune with the lifecycle of art. I remember a well known professional photographer, an NRI, who wanted to set up a go-to website for fashion photographers in India. He wanted it to be a database of fashion photographers, models, agencies, make-up artists etc. Nice thought, but I had to remind him that business in this country is conducted largely behind closed doors and through well established contacts.  Can you name one well known studio in this country that you can hire via a website?

Fashion aside, regular photography is treated as a commodity item by  and large in this country. The consumer can bargain on the price of a photograph or a photographer’s services and end product. This stems from the fact that the masses are not only by and large insensitive to art, they are also frugal. This frugality always hits stuff like art which you cannot quantify. The only time an Indian family is not frugal is when someone is getting married. And that’s why you have wedding photographers who charge a bomb. But then again I wonder why they provide the final goods as non-archival prints and DVDs. In case you didn’t know, DVDs available in the market are not guaranteed to last more than a few years. Same with the case with prints, unless the whole process is done using archival medium.

The answer?

The good news is that because photography satisfies my creative needs, I also get a chance to learn and grow. A sure sign of learning is when you not just rest on past laurels (which I don’t have anyway), but seek new ways of doing old things. Sure enough pressing the shutter isn’t rocket science, and cameras are getting smarter every day. But the aesthetics of this art form is too vast to be explored in one life time. As for the rest, I guess I have to be patient to wait for the trend to change. Because of some of the observations I have made earlier, I have a clear distinction between what I want to do for a living, and what I want to do after I earn my living.

A good friend, who studied design academically, always maintains that India is in a transition, and is seeing a shift from being a passive, insensitive consumer to discovering new ways to be entertained, seek originality, and spend money. Time will tell if that is true, but until then I will continue to do what I am doing till the spark fades because I am mostly driven from within. It is to satisfy this deep desire, I take photographs.

I may not have really answered the question, “why photography.”‘ In fact, I think I have deviated quite a bit from where I started. But I wanted to stress on a few points in this article, which I hope I’ve been able to get across. And last but not the least, the general public tend to think that photography is a glamorous thing.  Because there is a certain lure of fame associated with this art, it is very attractive to both viewers and (wannabe) shutterbugs. This is true even to the extent that many a photographer, especially the young amateur breed, sleep cosy at night knowing they have fulfilled peer expectations of  ‘longer (the lens) the better’ or ‘size (megapixel, that is) does matter’. Some even dress up and go to the field like commandos, ready to shoot wildlife with cameras that do justice to the original military phrase, “spray and pray“. Photography indeed gives such folk a chance to become macho and/or popular (at least in the eyes of their friends) . They also keep social networking sites alive by putting up their photos and generating discussions around their awesomeness, which is equally amusing to watch. And in them, you have no secrets of “why photography?” 🙂

As further reading, I recommend Ganesh H Shankar’s article – Photo equipment buying patterns for Nature Photography !

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