Why Do We Take Photos?
Updated: Oct 2, 2019
Since the turn of the 21st century and emergence of the digital era, our collective photograph taking has skyrocketed into the stratosphere. The better picture quality, virtually unlimited storage and the associated ascension of Social Media has undoubtedly had a profound impact on our photography habits, BUT have our underlying needs to capture our memories changed?
A Very Brief History of Film Photography
The place to start is with our 'image likeness' preservation history. Even before photography aristocrats — only they could afford it — were sitting for their portraits.
Photography traces back to the Camera Obscura (pinhole camera) in the 1500s, but really came of age in the mid-19th Century when the relatively low cost of daguerreotypes (lithographic sketches) — and reduced sitting times — led to a rise in the popularity of portrait photography, over painted portraiture, among the newly affluent of the Industrial revolution. Photography was then opened up to the mass-market when Kodak’s Brownie (so called for its compact, rectangular shape) became commercially available, at the turn of the 20th century.
(19th Century painted portrait, daguerreotype camera & print, early 20th Century camera)
(Early 20th Century film, first Kodak Brownie camera, and me 60 years later still using one??!!)
First only in black & white, a new era of color photography was introduced from about 1935 when Kodak introduced Kodachrome film. It took a century for film camera technology to improve and expand into a range of types: instant (Polaroid), disposable, point-and-shoot, rangefinders, SLRs etc.. .
The Digital Photography Revolution
THEN as the world hurtled towards the 21st century and Y2K, Kodak introduced the first digital camera.
(First Kodak Digital Camera, popular Canon Sure Shot, Single Lens Reflex cameras go digital too)
The change from developing and storing images in film to breaking down bits of pictures into 0’s and 1‘s, radically changed everything about our relationship with our photos: how we store, view, and organize them, and 'enhance' the images post-development! This HAD to be the fastest new technology uptake ever... AND one might have expected to be saying...
..."and the rest is history"!!
BUT along came the smartphone. In 2007 Apple launched the first i-phone. Fast forward a short (in the history of mankind) decade or so, with manufacturers focused on improving the camera function in some way, with each new version — better storage, image resolution and/or cool new image-enhancing features. Apple’s annual i-phone roll out, up to 11 (with the odd C, S or X thrown in), boasts their 'best camera yet'. Smartphones are now striving to compete with professional cameras to get similar results, but with the ease of just a few taps!
Why are we taking thousands more pictures?
According to Statista, a leading provider of market and consumer data, there are over three billion smartphone users around the world today and 100’s of billion photos & video clips are posted to Facebook, Instagram, and a load of other Social Media platforms, every day. Of course, many more stay put on our phones or make it into the cloud. So how many image files are there flouting about?… I’ll let you do the math!
With our phones with us at all times, no constraints, and the proliferation of platforms encouraging us to take pictures, these statistics might seem to point to a drastic change in our photo-taking habits compared to the pre-smartphone era. The Press regularly report about the human race becoming addicted to 'checking their phones', driven by their feeds and alerts; and 'posting pictures'of whatever takes their fancy by Social Media. So, yes our collective photo-taking and videoing has skyrocketed into the stratosphere driven especially by a new demographic of photographers: smartphones now put a camera in every teenagers hand.... and who are the most addicted to their smartphones?
BUT is this the only driver of our current prolific photo-taking habits? Neuroscience isn't my field, but I've read that addictive behavior has something to do with underlying mechanisms, at the neural level, that induce PLEASURE!
It should also be noted that the billions of photos that make it up onto Social Media platforms everyday are only a fraction of the actual numbers taken. It's just that with the removal of restrictions, the shackles have come off...
BUT the feeling of wanting to document and hold on to our memories is still the same....
Have we become a more caring, sharing, society?
These days photographs are an easy way to communicate with people both near and far, with Social media centered around instantly ‘sharing’ easily taken photos with short captions. We are now just as likely to share our everyday lives as we are holidays and special events and with MANY more people.
Are we taking photos that we didn't before?
We may "follow" a celebrity or two, and very occasionally, instead of an autograph, get lucky with a 'selfie' (which of course we post!!!).... AND who doesn't love a cute baby picture (be it human or animal)??!!...
My phone is littered with photos of every type of document, label, sign, and even TV screens, conveying some form of information. it is so much easier to snap a high resolution 100% accurate reproduction of words & numbers that can be zoomed in on, than writing down the details... I can easily share the info with others or have it handy for future reference . When I'm out shopping I take pictures of any & every type of merchandise, product details, prices etc... for comparison, to get a second opinion —OR to make sure I'm getting the right thing that my husband asked me to pick up from Home Depot. It is particularly useful to get model & serial numbers, printed in tiny fonts on labels stuck in very awkward places, on malfunctioning appliances; or long case-sensitive wi-fi passwords stuck to modems under a desk or some other remote location. Before getting into a rental car I take pictures of the bodywork & licence plate.
...I could go on and that is just me!
The 2003 Sony Ericsson Z1010 was the first cell phone with a front facing camera, included as an afterthought for video-conferencing. By 2013, the term 'selfie' was declared "word of the year" by the Oxford English Dictionary.... I wonder how, whoever had the afterthought, feels now?
I'm still trying to perfect my selfie techniques but I certainly understand it's appeal. It provides a different angle ; everyone, including the taker, can be in the picture.
There maybe some cons... I’m not going to delve into the psychology of measuring self-worth from the number of likes of increasingly provocative selfie poses.... BUT men posting balancing bubble tea on boobs selfies!!!! At least with trends, they come... and go just as quickly.
Another 'new' habit that is getting some bad press.... Not so much the beautifully presented spreads at special occasions but more like regular menu meals at chain restaurants. By extension, DRINKS have to be involved and in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I have a 'Bottles of Wine that I like' Album and I always take pictures of flowers, edibles, hampers or any other thoughtful gift that comes my way.
Whatever pictures Teenagers are taking...
The new demographic of smartphone touting teenagers was bound to take photo-taking into a whole new direction. When you hear about Apps specifically designed to keep the prying eyes of concerned parents from seeing what their teenagers are up to, surely it's something they shouldn't be doing!! — cyber-bullying takes 'Mean Girls' to a whole new level. Lets hope the developers are also working on Apps that can permanently erase the compromising digital evidence, body-parts, reckless behavior and the like, well before the teenagers of today become tomorrows responsible parents.
Are we taking the same photos as we did before?
People, travel and the big occasions remain the most popular subjects and it is more a matter of how many more pictures we take (no restrictions), the manner in which we can take them (selfies & video), how quickly we share them (instantly, with captions), how many more people see them (through Social Media) and the ease with which we can 're-touch' and add lay-overs to them. The best part is their much better quality.
But, in general, a photo's only importance is still the value someone puts on it, emotionally. The overwhelming majority of photos are of people, BUT when people we don't know accidentally turn up in our photos it causes us some mild annoyance (unless they are a celebrity)... at least, now we can Photoshop photo-bombers out!!.
We're still taking (lots more) photos of our travels, but now we don't need to make sure to pack our cameras (unless, of course, it's for a well-planned trip to an exotic location, such as a safari!!).
IN THE PAST we might get the odd Post Card, that arrived after the vacationers were back and told us all about it. By the time the vacation photos had been developed, we never even saw them!! NOW we (HAVE TO) scroll through vacationers daily postings of stunning sunsets, beautiful landscapes, exotic animals, interesting architecture, different cultural festivities, the people enjoying them etc. — The most popular are tropical scenes, tranquil beaches, smiling faces behind exotic cocktails, on the beach or lounging by the pool...... you get the picture :)
We still want to preserve life's “special occasions”: birthdays, graduations, weddings etc., but now it's just that we (and everyone else who is invited) take more photos at these events. Of course for the BIGGEST, we still don't leave anything to chance and hire a Pro.
There are also the everyday moments with our families (and pets) when there is no Pro in sight, that we want to document. Now we have a camera near us at all times, also with video, to unobtrusively capture their natural expressiveness.
Our young children have always been the most popular photographic subjects.... the nearer to setting off on their life's journey the better... blissfully unaware of the profound emotional affect they are having on the people around them; spreading pride & joy with each (literal & metaphoric) 'baby' step — with innocent playfulness, hilarious antics, genuine smiles, contagious giggles— Oh So photogenic!! NOW, they are becoming 'viral' sensations and getting invited to the likes of the Ellen DeGeneres show, with increasing regularity.
Who wouldn't want to share and congratulate the bride & groom on the happy occasion of their nuptials? — at least there are still some etiquette rules... Please wait until the happy couple have posted their announcement and photos before you go congratulating & sharing on Social Media— when baby comes along, the same goes for the 'gender reveal'!!
Why do we hang on to all of our photos?
That hasn't changed...
Billions of photographs taken before the days of digital photography still languish, unlabeled, in boxes forlornly waiting to be passed to future generations to be sorted and preserved. Many of these pictures will have no meaning to the inheritors except that they were kept by, and had great significance to, someone they loved. Scenes from places they have never been, gatherings that they weren't a part of, friends and family they never met, whose names they don't know.
Trillions of digital equivalents will soon be floating around in the cloud, also forlornly awaiting to be passed to future generations to be sorted. This could prove to be a bit more complicated than clearing out the attic, because while the digital world has been hurtling through space at the speed of light, the laws addressing granting access to the original owner's digital footprint are still quite a few steps behind. Digital files don't need preservation, since they are indestructible. Even if they get deleted accidentally, they're surely backed-up somewhere else!! Each comes with a meta-tag that pinpoints the exact date, time, and where it was taken (with location services turned on). Facial recognition software is beginning to identify the people in them (if someone has taken the time to put names to faces). So on the face (...yes, pun) of it, they will be easier to identify BUT from NOW ON there will be a prohibitive number, and many more types, of redundant images, even for the most ardent sorter to want to sift through.
I have always been a dedicated photograph organizer. The best of my film photos are sorted and labeled in albums. I may have thrown out some duplicates and unidentifiable photos but kept the rest. My best film photos are now digitized and organized in folders on my computer and also backed-up with their digital relatives in the cloud & on external hard drives. They are now creatively showcased in photo books along with said relatives, but my albums remain, mostly intact, on their shelves. I'm not psychologist either, but isn't hoarding another common addiction?
Proof of Existence
So what is it that makes us take a photo or FEW in the first place, then be so attached to them afterwards, even if we only give most of them a cursory glance or two before banishing them to the NEW box in the attic — the cloud?
The only thing that we can be absolutely sure about our lives is that they will end. My theory is that we can't throw away or delete our photos because they are proof that we have been here. They are a representation of ourselves, our personal history and our significance in the world. They leave a footprint of our lives — where we've been, what we've accomplished, what we've overcome, what we like to do, who we loved and where our imagination has taken us. We hope they will aid the family we leave behind understand who we were and who they were in relationship to us; by going through the pictures they will see that our lives mattered...
...and fondly remember us!!
Our Ancestry Matters
By now, we may have inherited some of those attic boxes full of old family photos. Some may be the photos of our own childhoods; not so many and maybe in need of some 'restoration'. From there going backwards, family photos become much scarcer. I have only a handful of photos of my parents before they were married, none of my Dad as a child, and one very grainy family photo of my Mum (left photo below, back left ) with her mother and siblings. My parents were born in Trinidad and immigrated to England. I never met my grandfathers, and my grandmothers only once, when we visited Trinidad and they were already well into old age. Mine may be an extreme case but even on my husband's side, the Downton Abbey photo at the beginning of this article, and the photo (right photo below), are all that came down from his paternal grandmother and we have no idea who the people in either of them are!!!
I recently signed up to Ancestry.com. I'd been thinking about it for a while, but not sure I'd get very far researching my Caribbean heritage. Not surprisingly (to me), it was my daughter who (putting it nicely) 'encouraged' me to: stop thinking and start doing AND to get my DNA tested!!!
Judging from the recent explosion in the DNA testing market, my daughter & I are not alone in our quest to learn more about our lineage. By all accounts, more people took a DNA test in 2018 than in ALL previous years combined, with 2019 being another record-shattering year.
This in not the place for a detailed analysis of these trends, I'm just using this info to provide powerful corroboration that...
...where we came from matters to all of us.
As we go through those attic boxes, we will toss the pictures of unknown scenery and places that have no meaning for us... BUT the ones of people that might be our fore-bearers?.... Tell me you haven't stared at these, wandering about what they were like and wishing you knew more about their stories..... AND what about the home movies? Have we thrown any of those out, either???
To hold onto family memories
OK, that is enough about a human anxiety epidemic centered around a collective global identity crisis ....
As we get older, we become much more aware of how quickly time goes by and recognize the importance of our pictures helping us to hang on to our memories. We all attach our own special meaning to our accomplishments, the things we have done, the places we have lived and traveled to. We attach the most importance to our relationships with the people in our lives, above all of whom are those that mean the most to us and we have the deepest love for, our families (which, obviously, also includes our pets!!). AND the photos of those we love.... they are are extremely precious to us.
All the places we have lived add to the story of who we are. Vacations, more about relaxation and reconnecting with our families, away from the humdrum of everyday life, have a different significance than the trip of a life-time to some exotic far-off destination, but they all matter. We attach importance to documenting all of our experiences and being able to revisit them through our pictures: "A picture paints a thousand words....". Photos validate what we remember, and even bringing back details to our minds that we would have otherwise forgotten.
For our children
Anyone above a Gen Z, definitely all Millennials, and at least ‘younger’ Gen Xs are featured in plenty of film photos, still in existent today, likely tucked away in family photo albums in their parents' home. The photos are in the same condition as when they were carefully inserted into the plastic sleeves. Now, if only very occasionally, they are still looked at, always with a wistful smile across the viewing parent’s face. I'm one of those parents (of children in the millennial range, I hasten to add!), and just talking about lovingly gazing at my babies, when they were babies, is making me nostalgic.
My kids were present from the day they were born, but they have little to no recollection of their early years. I have their personal childhood histories documented in my photo albums, which show our everyday life together (although I have to admit there are no shots of toddler screaming abdabs!!), record places we visited as a family, interactions with important people in their early lives, the activities they enjoyed and, of course "the big moments". I have one album dedicated to the pro portraits starting with the hospital newborn, all the school pictures, up to and including college graduation. The idea was to have the best pictures of them through their early years in one place, although I have to say, some really don’t do them justice!!
When the kids were still quite young, we relocated to the US from England. It didn’t take them long to adjust to their new surroundings (oh the resilience of children!!). I would often tell people “the only thing English about them now, is their passports!” They quickly lost their cute English ‘Accents’….. which may not show up in photos but I have lots of video evidence!!!... The point is, that the moment our children come into the world, they become the most important things in our lives, which are changed forever. So, while it is important that we act as the historians of their past, even more importantly we are the keepers of their identity. Whether consciously or not we take pictures of them to show what they mean to us, how much we love them, how proud we are of even the smallest of their achievements, (starting with the argument over whether their first word being ‘dada’ means anything!) and that we celebrated each and every step along the way with them.
We intended to pass our photo albums on to them when they reached adulthood, so that if they wanted to piece together the story of who they were, what they were like, and what was important to them as children, they might find some of the answers in the pictures… BUT WE are not ready to part with the albums JUST YET, we still have our dotage to go through.
Helping people get their home media collections in order, and select the best family photos to create stunning keepsake Digital Photo Books is what Digital Kreation is all about.
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