The True Cost of a Photograph

Everyone has a camera nowadays.  Even if you don’t want one and never use it, it’s on your smartphone.  If you are travelling, then you at least have a point and shoot. If you’re an avid photographer, then you spent the money on a DSLR, maybe even the thousands of dollars it takes to get a pro-level camera and all the accompanying lenses.

It never fails to amaze me how much people like to use them.  Friends of mine on Facebook are uploading photos daily.  Travelers I meet never seem to have their cameras far from hand, myself included. They cameras are taken out at the slightest provocation: a cute kid, a delicious looking meal, a beautiful view, or just out of boredom, when walking down the street.  Taking photographs is so ubiquitous that some tourist attractions in Burma decided they could make more money charging entry for cameras than people.

But the nervous tic of photography comes at a cost.  It is higher than most appreciate.

First, it kills the moment. It redirects focus from simply enjoyment, reflection, or bonding into focusing on the composition of a photograph.

Perhaps the best example I saw of this was in Bagan, a dry valley with thousands of temples across it that is Myanmar’s premier tourist attraction.  People go there to watch the sunset.  It is a majestic sight to behold.  Best viewed perched on a monument of stone half a millennium old, the sun dies the pagodas pink and the hot air cools, and what with the hundreds of buddhas scattered around you, it give the feeling of peace, or of being on a religious mushroom trip.  It doesn’t sound like silence though, if you go to the popular viewing spots.  It sounds like the click click click click of hundreds of DSLRs and heavy breathing and low muttering as the owners attempt to correct their aperture and exposure, or curse their own cameras in jealousy of the 5D on a tripod next to them.  The sound snaps you out of the peaceful trip fast.

Even in my own family’s vacations, cameras make regular mood-spoiling experiences. Two weeks ago, my family came to visit in Thailand, and we took a one week trip down to Ko Tao, a tropical island in the gulf.  There were five us on the trip, and seven cameras.   We might be hanging out, playing in the water, or taking a ride into town on one of the long boats, when someone would decide to take a picture. It would be fine if it was just a quick shot.  But it never was.  There was always someone who had get out of the shade into the burning sun to squeeze themselves in frame, or who had to take off their sunglasses and find their bag to put them in.  It was inevitable that a conversation was interrupted, maybe even a good one, of two relatives squeezing in some one on one time in the zoo of group travel.  Of course, it was never enough for one person to take the shot, either.  You can share a photo in less than ten seconds, but everybody wants their own.  So the cameras would rotate, at least four of them, until the last shots were squinty eyed from the sun and I’d be cursing myself for not putting more sunscreen on.

The worst part is that, in the hundreds of photos we took during the trip to Ko Tao, and the thousands that were taken every morning and evening of the sun in Bagan, I can’t for the life of me figure out what those photos are for.  OK, so you put a few of them up on facebook for your friends.  But most of them go into some digital catalogue that you won’t look at for a long time, and may eventually disappear when your harddrive fails a few years from now, or you reset your system.   A few you may keep, but not many.  I’m not trying to say that all photos are useless, just positing that the majority of them amount to nothing, and that many moments are killed for photos that are looked at once and forgotten.  The moment might have been far more memorable.  Plus, if you really want a photo of the sunset on Bagan, just google it.  A pro already did it better than you.

The second real cost is that it builds barriers in between you and the subject.  This is especially important in foreign countries where you have to make friends across culture and language barriers.   I once did a story about a man who worked at Galata tower in Istanbul, selling paper birds.  They were these little birds that were powered by rubber bands, and if you threw them right, they could really fly.  He was an excellent salesman, and a crazy philosopher, and  the best damn character for an entrepreneurship piece that I have yet found.  Once I went to find him, we sat down and he treated me to tea.  Then he started talking… what a piece I was getting!  He talked to me about illegally entering Morocca, about how he showed at the airport in Rabat with nothing but 200 paper birds and selling enough of them in the terminal to buy his ticket out.  He talked to me about his political philosophies, and how he’d made 150 dollars the day before and blew it all that night on beer for his friends.  He was colorful enough to be a journalists dream.  Then I took out my camera, and the interview ended on the spot.  I couldn’t publish the piece because I hadn’t had time to ask him for key details, like his full name.

The camera can build a wall between friends, too.  Who lets loose at a party with a photographer?   Have you ever had a deep conversation with a subject you were photographing?  Maybe just before, or just after.  But when the camera comes out, everyone puts their makeup on.

My goal with this piece is not to make the reader fear taking photographs.  I only want them to think before they shoot.  What moment will this photo ruin?  Most importantly, how will I use this photo?  If you can’t think of an answer, it might be better to let the prettiest moments just flow.  They’re much better when not looked at through an LCD screen.

Journalism, Travel AdventuresPermalink

3 Responses to The True Cost of a Photograph

  1. Dillon says:

    Awesome article. I was writing a treatment about photos right before I came across your article.

    I completely agree and disagree. I have ruined plenty of moments. I have also created many as a result of the same action.

    There is nearly always invisible room for a photographer, amongs actors.

    Taking photos is one of the easiest art forms and always becoming easier. Making a direct copy of viewed inspiration within the limitations of a frame. The results can be pretty worthless from an artistic perspective, but it’s fun to do little artsy things.
    utility drives photography as a useful medium to have on hand (in pocket) at all times. If you have the equipment or ability to take a photo, you can make a photo, but you are not always a photographer. A square is a rectangle but a rectangle is not always a square.

    If you are in the moment as a participant or spectator and duck out of it to take the photo, it is a disruption of said moment. If you are with others the disruptian may spill over to them, especially if they are involved as subjects. Knowing there is a camera is turned on you does a lot of strage things to people. Being down the barrel will bring every insecurity out. Everyone becomes more aware of their hands.

    If you nestle yourself into the role of dedicated photographer, which is a working business role, you are now on the other side of the lens. You sacrifice the spectator position and accompanying experience for an alternate dedicated shift of perspective. You mix these to a degree, but you are still on your own. Some people live their life here.

    There are lots of reasons to have and keep photos. The value of ones own photos is supremely subjective. Ones mans trash is another mans treasure.

    There are lots of reasons to take photos. Lots of good reasons and lots of bad, greedy, and nonsensicle reasons. Reasons stem from intention.

    Define your role before you pick up, pull out, or pack your camera.

  2. Doug Nienhuis says:

    An interesting piece and it’s something I’ve heard from a number of people. However, these ideas definitely don’t apply to everyone. There are some people for whom I’m sure photography gets in the way of an experience. But there are others (I’m among them, of course) for whom photography is a way to connect with people and places. It helps me get into the moment and truly experience it. In fact, photography is the motivation for getting out there and discovering new people and places and having new experiences. Without the draw of photography, I probably wouldn’t do a third of the things that I do.

    As I walk around the Philippines, for example, people call out to me and ask me to come over and take their picture. I willingly do it, and we end up talking and getting to know each other. The camera acts as a bridge between us. Without the camera, I would have had no reason to walk up to them and engage them in conversation.

    And having a camera in my hand helps me to really see what is going on around me. When I go out without a camera, I don’t notice a tenth of the things that I do when I have a camera. With the camera, I’m looking around me and seeing things with a photographer’s eye. I see much more, meet lots of people, and have lots of experiences.

    Then later, I have the enjoyment of looking at the pictures. You mention in your piece that all these photographs that people take are rarely looked at and then are eventually lost as a hard drive fails. That is probably true for some people. But it isn’t true for me and many more like me. I get a huge amount of enjoyment out of looking at pictures I took over the years. It brings back the memories and deepens the experience dramatically. At night, I review the pictures that I took during the day, and it enhances the enjoyment of that day. I keep the pictures online, and I often go back and look at pictures from years ago – again with great enjoyment.

    For some people, I’m sure taking pictures has a high cost. They might feel like they have to take pictures and even resent it to an extent. And certainly, the sunset pictures at Bagan and Angkor Wat fall into that category. The scene you describe of hundreds of cameras clicking away fits your thesis perfectly. But that’s not the only type of photography possible.

    One last thought that strikes me is that with modern digital cameras, photography does not have to be intrusive at all. Certainly, if you’re chatting with a rice farmer somewhere and then you suddenly hoist a Nikon D4 to your eye and aim it at his face, the tone of the situation is going to change. You are suddenly putting a lens and a very big piece of technology physically between you and you even lose eye contact. But there are many, many very small and very quiet cameras out there today that take very high quality images. With some of them, you don’t even have to look through a viewfinder. You can hold the camera in your hand at your waist and just tap the LCD screen to take a picture. It doesn’t take you out of the moment and out of the experience at all. I don’t find photography like that to be a barrier in any way. I find it to be, as I said, a bridge and a way to connect and deepen an experience.

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