why do we photograph?


namib desert, hardap region, namibia

namib desert, hardap region, namibia


Image 8-19-15 at 12.09 PM

The photograph is an iPhone image I took when I was hiking, tripod on shoulder, camera gear in a backpack, through the Namib desert to a dune in Sossusvlei.  The second image is a google map of the region I was hiking in.

I’ve been a photographer for about 10 years now.  My first camera was a polaroid and I bought it in order to document my daughter’s childhood years.  But I never considered myself a photographer then.  The camera was just a tool for me to capture moments in my daughter’s life.  I have had film cameras in my life but typical for most of the non-photographers I knew, I never had film when I needed it or if I had exposed film, it was sitting in an envelope on my desk waiting to be sent to the developing lab.  Once I finally sent the film to be processed, I was usually terribly disappointed in the results – blurry, poorly exposed images.  But I was happy that I had at least a photo of whatever it was I was trying to capture.  Just like most people are with their cell phone images these days.  People are usually content, judging by the images that are uploaded to social media, that they have captured a moment, even if the photo itself is poor quality.

On my first trip to Africa, I decided that I really needed to be able to get some decent images so I bought my first digital camera.  It was a Kodak and it captured 2 megapixel jpeg images!  But I was happy with my photos, making my friends come sit in front of my computer so I could brag about my exotic travels to foreign lands.  It was the 90s version of the slide show projector.

Fast forward several years later and I now definitely have the travel bug.  Africa opened those doors for me.  I loved being in places I had never seen before, surrounded by people I did not know, cultures I didn’t understand, and the challenges of traveling globally.  I was hooked! And now, I really did want to capture not just snapshots of my travels but images that would show my passion for the people I met and the landscapes I was exploring.  I bought my first Canon DSLR, a 5D, in 2006.  Two years later, I joined a local camera club.  I spent the first few years in the club too timid to even participate in the activities, particularly the ones where people showed their work.  I just observed but I did see that the people in the club were just as passionate about photography as I was.

And I started accumulating camera gear, reading books, going to photography conferences, doing workshops.  I immersed myself totally in this new hobby and most of my new friends that I gathered around me were just as addicted as I was.  One of the things I do frequently when I travel, because I’m so curious about the places and people around me, is to become a questioning observer.  I want to immerse myself in my new surroundings and the best way for me to do that is to ask questions, to try and understand why, and what, and where.  So, as I met new friends who were as passionate and committed to their photography as I was, I would ask what I considered a central question:  ‘Why do you want to photograph?  What is it about this endeavor that you will spend thousands of dollars, go through personal hardships and sacrifices, in order to get that one special photograph?’

The most frequent answer I heard was, ‘I can’t draw or paint so I photograph’.  I think the unsaid corollary to that sentiment is this – people want so much to create.  I think the drive to create is as central to human beings, and probably as instinctual, as our need to seek shelter and food.  It’s probably right up there with our need to form human bonds and to be part of a community.

Very few people expressed the answer that I had to my own question and it has always made me wonder why.  Am I such an outlier?  Because my answer to the question, ‘Why do you photograph?’ is that I want to prove that I existed.  I was here, in this place, at this time.  A tangible reminder of a moment of my life will persist, even after that moment has now passed and no longer exists. For me, it’s almost like defying mortality.

I have no doubt that there are others who feel exactly as I do – the huge number of selfies that are proliferating on the web lend credence to that.  And I have no doubt that our human ancestors, painting on cave walls by flickering firelight, were trying to leave a visual representation of events that had already transpired.  Look at us – we gathered as humans around that woolly mammoth and we conquered!  Remember that we were here!

I don’t think I am really that much of an outlier among all my photography friends, tho.  I suspect our need to create is probably part and parcel of our wish to defy our mortality.

‘When my life flashes before my eyes, I want to make sure it’s worth watching’

Gerard Way 


About Diana Davidson

Physician, traveler, photographer, tennis player, reader, teacher, student

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