This might seem an odd question to ask, but how we answer it will determine the type of photos taken. Why we take photographs will have implications on how we take them.
At the most conventional level, we take them to provide mementos of the trip. Susan Sontag’s fascinating On Photography (see eg http://www.susansontag.com/onphotographyexcrpt.htm )is emphatically not a manual of photographic techniques. Rather it is sceptical meditation on why people take photographs and their consequences:
The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on. The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic-Germans, Japanese and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be fun.
This neurotically driven camera addict is also allegedly an egotist as “photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had.”
There are clearly elements of truth in Sontag’s account. But even if her generalisations were universally true, it would not disparage the activity. In criminal law the distinction is drawn between “motive” and “intention”. The intention is to document an extraordinary planet and its inhabitants. The largely unconscious motives that may drive this activity may reflect anxieties and point-scoring. But they do not diminish its positive aims and consequences.
What are these positive consequences? They are not adverted to by Sontag. At a personal level they include the capacity of images to sustain experiences decades after they took place. When I look at my safari shots in Africa I am vividly reminded of the experience of being enveloped by this gorgeous vista.
Better still, that photo enables me to share that literally wonderful experience-initially with friend and relatives and subsequently with a wider audience. Thank you www.china.com !
Nature and wildlife photography serves a particularly useful function. It reminds people of the beauty and fragility of their natural environment. This is not merely edifying for all concerned. At its most potent it can mobilise public support than translates into political action to save threatened environments. Ansel Adams pictures prompted the creation of a national park. In Australia the wilderness images of Peter Dombrovskis and Olegas Truchanas were critical in saving a reserve in Tasmania, an island off the Southern Coast of Australia. The Franklin River is in the fastness of South Western Tasmania. Despite being listed as World Heritage Site, the government of the day was taking active steps to dam it. Images portraying its natural beauty featured prominently in a political campaign which led to a change of government and the saving of the reserve. And in An Inconvenient Truth: a Global Warning (available on DVD) Al Gore relies on images of Mt Kilimanjaro to build his case that global warming is a real and present danger. I took this one of Africa’s highest mountain in 1988.
Sontag also argues that “the habit of photographic seeing-of looking at reality as an array of potential photographs-creates an estrangement from rather than union with nature.” (at p97) As regards wildlife photography, this overlooks the need for patience and the attendant close and sustained observation of a subject required to get “the shot” .For example my guide and I waited an hour for this tree-climbing lion to awake for the shot.
Not a recipe for estrangement in my view. Particularly as good wildlife photography is best informed by knowledge of the habits of the subject (knowledge of composition also helps and notice how I avoid putting the lion in the middle of the picture, as that would create a more static shot).
I have no argument, though, with Sontag when she writes “nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs”. Copyright Mark Berthold 2006