Snapshots, postcards and photos

What are our photos saying? What is their real subject?

Things have changed a lot since I first started playing with a camera, almost four years ago. I took a lot of bad shots. Felt tired and discouraged. Searched and experimented. Had small breakthroughs. Found myself in the right place at the right moment. Had moments of inspiration. Had tons of time with no inspiration. Had no time.

Then there was the whole rest of life. You know, the life that takes you for a ride that is sometimes slow and boring, some other times crazy and lighting fast.

The distinction between snapshots, postcards and photography is not meant to lecture anybody on what “real” photography is. Everybody photographs what the hell they want. Different subjects and styles makes sense to different people. There’s more than enough lecturing and dogmatism out there. I don’t want to add to it.

However, I think some differences matter. I’ve been around the photography world long enough to have a sense of what good, meaningful photography is. And what it is not.

My kid in a puppet theatre, watching two mousquetaires engaged in a duel.

Snapshots are the fast food of photography. It’s what you usually find on people’s smartphones, but there is also a lot of snapshot photography done with advanced and expensive cameras. There’s nothing wrong with snapshots, my phone is also full of them. They record moments of our lives. What can become annoying, at least for me, is the pretense of doing photographic work and presenting it as such.

If snapshots are a bit like fast food, postcards are like an expensive meal that you cannot really enjoy unless you talk about it to all your friends. It’s the chasing of spectacular places or subjects. It’s the kind of photography that generates countless almost identical shots of the same subjects photographed from the same angle. When I was still on Instagram account, I remember following an account that was posting collages of such similar photos. Depending on your mood, watching these can be either funny or depressing.

It goes without saying that there’s nothing wrong with photographing spectacular places. I wouldn’t have known about many of them without such easy access to postcard photography. Again, what is troubling is the pretense of depth and storytelling when all is offered, in the best case, is good technique. Sharp focus and good color editing are to be appreciated, but they do not replace or compensate for the lack of photographic vision and narrative.

The kind of photography I like (and aspire to do) tends to be personal and honest. Personal means that it’s based on a personal interest, problem, obsession. It’s not reducible to what others have done or to what others expect and like. Honest means that it does not try to pass as something which it’s not, or to take advantage of its subject.

Personal does not mean self-centered. Honest does not mean that we limit our creativity to showing only “what’s really there”. What counts is the photographer’s intention in taking a photograph. Is it meant to promote him or her? Or is it meant to uncover, explore, protect, honor something beyond us?

What are our photos really saying? Is it “look where I am right now”, “look who is posing for me”, or “check out how skillful I am with these highlights and shadows”? Or is it a way of documenting something bigger than ourselves, a way of disappearing in the shadow of a story that is worth telling?

As with everything else in life, things can be done in a way that continuously comes back to us, that is essentially about showcasing and congratulating ourselves. Or they can be done in a way that tries to witness, respect and honor the persons and stories we come across.

  1. Well put. It’s not easy to be a non-commercial photographer, or maybe saying the same thing with another word, an artist. With commercial photography, where postcards have a place, it’s clear what one has to do. The world of the “other” photographer, the artist, is a little trickier. I used to follow Erik Kim’s blog and one thing he wrote that might resonate is, meaningful work must be meaningful to the photographer first. He then advises that we take more pictures of our loved ones, and shared moments that we will cherish to the end of our lives. Some of the photography I took even two years ago, of things and places, which seemed meaningful at the time, somehow have decreased in artistic value for me, whereas others, usually taken on difficult or blissful moments, still hold their impact. To me. Engaging others in a narrative with photographs, on the other hand, is a far more complex process. This is the job of curators, to find and communicate meaning to a collection of images from the same photographer or a group of photographers on a common theme. It is difficult, but not impossible, to be the curator of ones work, but communicating requires an interested audience, and that is difficult to acquire. Why for instance would anyone on WordPress be interested in a photo that holds meaning to me? Well, either the viewer cares about me in some way, or the photo speaks of a universal theme the viewer connects with.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I can only agree with your insightful observations. Thank you for taking the time to write this and reflect on your own experience. The suggestion to start from very close, from the family, speaks a lot to me. In any case, I feel there needs to be a personal stake in the subject. Affection, fear, attraction, something that provides a personal connection.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it depends on what we want to express with this medium. For me it’s a way of coming back to myself and being honest with myself. If I did it differently at this point in my life, it would feel fake.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting thoughts. I’ve had phases where I ponder similar things related to photography, but thankfully I’m now in a blissful stage of not caring (and only following photo bloggers who I think have real talent). I love that photo of your kid watching the performance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you like it, that photo is very dear to me.
      About the distinction I make, it’s really not about judging or establishing what is quality photography or not. It’s mostly a confession about how I relate to photography right now, and what makes sense for me if I’m to continue taking photos.

      Liked by 1 person

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