John Carey has written an excellent article on the current state of photography, titled Don’t Forget to Remember This. It is difficult to quote bits of it, because one is easily tempted to quote everything. The following is what especially resonated with me:
The challenges present in photography today are not in the devices we use to capture, it’s not in our approach, skill level, or what we think we need to create good photos; the problem today is in social pressure. Photography has quickly evolved in its short lifespan from revolutionary, to useful, to ubiquitous and full of expectation.
Like the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, or the houses we live in, our photographs are another vehicle to which the world judges us because the world expects to see proof of our beautiful, happy lives and we have grown to crave that attention. In this light, photography has grown vain in its old age.
We shoot, we shoot, and we shoot… and then we share. Sometimes to prove our good taste or creative ability, but also, in many cases, as a means to feel alive because we have generated this need to prove something to others and to ourselves.
When I left Instagram in early 2013, the reasons behind my choice were essentially two; the first was ‘political’: Instagram had been recently acquired by Facebook, and I didn’t (and don’t) want anything to do with Facebook. The second reason was tied to that ‘social pressure’ Carey mentions. As I wrote in Life after Instagram about my Instagram photography and experience, I realised that it had become more of an Instagram dependence than a form of expression. I realised how mechanical a habit it had been. I realised the cheapening effect it had on my photography in general. Posting to Instagram had turned into a meaningless daily hunt for the cool ‘Instagram moment’. Later in the article, Carey’s advice is don’t shoot to share, shoot because you love what you’re shooting and I realised I was doing exactly the opposite — at least on Instagram.
Another great piece of advice from Carey:
Your tool of choice is your choice. Spend money on a camera, or not, but don’t do it to feel more confident or to fit in. Buy a camera that suits your lifestyle.
These past years I’ve considered the purchase of a DSLR more than once, because I was feeling I had hit the limits of my ageing Nikon Coolpix 8800, an 8-megapixel bridge camera from 2004. Then my interest was piqued by more compact, mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses. But one day I just realised I didn’t really need a new, cool, expensive digital camera with 14 or more megapixels. On one side, I have a few film SLRs with very nice lenses that still give me great pleasure when shooting and great results at the end of the process. On the other, my digital, instant-gratification needs are certainly met by my iPhone. And the Coolpix 8800 may feature 10-year-old technology, but it’s still capable of delivering satisfactory results. My wanting a new photographic toy, it turns out, has little to do with actual photographic needs. It’s a passing fancy I can do without — upgrading my iPhone will probably be enough.
The format and approach I have taken through the years has varied a fair amount but has always been a big part of defining the feelings I carried while shooting. I shoot film when I feel a deeper connection to what I am shooting, I shoot digital when I simply want to remember. My compositions and developing have similar fingerprints in that they tell me a lot about how I felt when I made the photographs. Every click of the shutter for me is a moment worth remembering and it’s the memories that make photography so gratifying for me.
I, too, shoot both film and digital, with more or less the same intent as Carey. Shooting film has taught me to be more restrained and to really look for the scene or subject to shoot, not just be trigger-happy at the first hint of ‘something interesting to capture.’ It’s been such a significant change that I maintain the same behaviour when I’m using a digital camera. (I know, digital is more forgiving and one can be more wasteful, and that’s a great thing when one is learning; but I’ve come to a point in my photography in which I want to waste much fewer shots to catch what I’m trying to catch — the ideal being capturing the scene or subject I want with just the one perfect shot.) My iPhone remains, in a way, a sort of photographic sketchbook, where photos with an artistic flair are interspersed with snapshots of fleeting moments or experiments taken with a particular app.
Whether you’re serious about photography or just take snaps to share a moment and quickly forget about it, read John Carey’s piece in its entirety. Let it sink in. Think about it the next time you take out your DSLR, compact camera or smartphone. Don’t simply focus on what you’re shooting — focus on why you’re shooting.