Taking photographs for the sake of shooting: reflections on photography, and on being a photographer

The backstory

I have been thinking a lot about photography, about being a photographer, and my past obsession with taking photos.

From 2015 up to recently, I was a compulsive photographer. I had to take my camera everywhere and photograph pretty much everything, including my food, shadows, patterns, textures, you name it. Since my husband died back in September, I have used my camera only a few times. I no longer feel the need to shoot for the sake of doing it. I don’t know what happened, but my attitude towards photography has changed significantly.

Photography for the sake of photography 

It is common to see photographers on You-Tube trying to inspire other photographers to shoot, claiming that one can take a photograph anywhere, and that if you cannot come up with an idea, it’s completely your fault: there’s no reason to be uninspired by common situations, messy rooms, hospital hallways. Photography enthusiasts make videos of themselves taking photos in mundane settings, to prove that they can find compelling compositions using shadows, fences, walls, lamps, or some random pedestrian strolling on an empty street. 

I too have set myself out to prove that I can find opportunities for compositions everywhere and I have succeeded some times. The question I have asked myself lately, however, is: why do we have to find photography opportunities everywhere? Further, are random photographs to prove a point going to make any difference whatsoever my life, or in the lives of other people?  

I have several external drives full of random photos that mean absolutely nothing to me, or to anyone else. I have posted many of them on Facebook, Instagram. I have expected likes and comments on them, and when I didn’t get that, I explained it away by saying that people don’t really appreciate my photography. The reality is, however, that people don’t care because those photos mean nothing to them. Or if they do click “like” or make a comment, they quickly move on to another geometrical pattern, interesting texture, or spooky shadow, all of which mean nothing to them. 

The featured photograph is a snapshot of the photos I took during an outing to an old farm. I was bored to my bones and then I blamed myself for not being inspired by the setting and started shooting away. The result is a collection of photos that mean nothing to anyone. 

I don’t believe that I will go out anymore just to “shoot” or prove that I can transform boring settings into clever frames. I am not judging those who do it, and if it makes them happy, I wish them to go ahead and shoot away. But it is not for me anymore. 

Photography with a purpose

It was a revealing experience to me when I found, deep into my husband’s archives, the best portraits of him. They were taken by a close friend of his, in their early years. It daunted on me that I never took good photos of my husband, although I had 20 years of opportunities. I know I am not drawn to photographing people… but… I could have tried… it is not that difficult.

After my experience above, I remembered some blog posts by Erik Kim about photographing people who are dear to us. At the time I read his post, it didn’t speak to my heart. Now it does… No one is guaranteed of tomorrow, go make those awesome memories now.

I did enjoy photographing some of my husband’s buddies during the celebration of his life on October 23. Although the conditions were challenging, I hope the musicians appreciate the photos I took of them, and I will be able to treasure the memory when I browse my archives.

From now on, before I shoot

I will ask some questions: does this need, or deserve, to be photographed? What am I trying to say, or show, by taking this picture? Is someone else going to treasure it? Am I going to treasure it?

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Published by Alessandra Chaves

Photographer with a preference for nature photography in black and white and other abstractions.

25 thoughts on “Taking photographs for the sake of shooting: reflections on photography, and on being a photographer

  1. My impression is that most people—as contrasted with “serious” photographers—enjoy seeing pictures of people they know, or at least of people. Also of cats and dogs, and animals more generally. And sunsets and flowers and things covered with raindrops. For decades I’ve seen people ooh and aah over photographs that were poorly composed, not properly exposed, out of focus, having distracting things in the background, etc. That’s the default. People can be shown why some pictures are better than others, and they can develop a more sophisticated understanding of photography if they’re interested enough in doing so. That’s also true of any human endeavor.

    It’s understandable that after the shock you’ve undergone you’re evaluating what photography—your primary artistic outlet—has meant to you and might still mean to you. It’s also understandable that you don’t feel like taking photographs at the moment. I’m guessing that eventually you’ll find joy in it again. But maybe not: we have example of the opposite. Rossini and Sibelius, great classical musicians, essentially gave up composing music in the last decades of their lives., and they don’t seem to have regretted it.

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    1. It is interesting that for my husband’s celebration of life at the club I offered several photographs of him that were large enough to print, but the person responsible for ordering the prints chose a small photo out of focus which, enlarged, was rally blurry and people loved it, wanted copies. Comes to show that educating oneself about photography is a personal choice that bears little impact on the public’s appreciation of those photos. As you wrote, ooh aah will go for images people recognize and value, perhaps for their symbolic value. Well, Rossini and Sibelius didn’t need to compose anymore. The art of leaving the party when it is at its best. Knowing when to quit is an art for those who have reached their full potential. I probably never will reach mine.

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  2. Nice post! In my younger years I used to take photographs to imitate the “nice” photographs that I see printed or online. It was mostly a measurement if I can do it or not. Nowadays, I take photographs to chronicle our travels and significant life events. You’re right! A photograph has to have meaning to be significant.

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  3. Alessandra, you are a true artist. You’ve moved to a point where, spurred on by your husband’s death, you want to photograph for your art. You may return to needing a photo outing just for the joy of getting out and maybe coming back with a great image. Whatever happens you will still be a great artist and use photography as your medium. My thoughts are with you as you go through this difficult time.

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    1. Thank you, Anne. I hope you look at yourself as an artist too, because you are one. I would go to a photo outing, but perhaps I would not come home with a disk full with photos. Maybe a few photos of striking subjects. Maybe I would go for the social interaction. It’s a bit like purchasing things you don’t need, in the end you have to get rid of all the junk you’ve accumulated. I want to acquire less now, and enjoy more what I already have.

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  4. Wow – very thought provoking as I have come to expect from you. I also am very guilty about not taking photos of my loved ones as much as I could and should. Somehow, I feel a bit embarrassed about anything other than a grabbed shot. Perhaps I need to get these lights set up and take something different than photo of me for a stock shot!
    I think you have a very good point about being forced to prove that you can take a good photo of something just because it is there. I think I am drawn to taking photos of places I have visited in the best light and way that I can and I have a hope that others that know and perhaps love that place will recognize the beauty in it and see it in a different light.
    Your pictures of the two singers are great – expressive, interesting lighting. And then I see 8000 ISO! Amazing what our cameras can take these days and what opportunities that gives us. Any artificial light would have really spoiled the mood here!

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    1. Loved ones often need to be persuaded to be photographed or caught in a candid moment. It is not easy, but just because something is difficult it doesn’t meant that we need to give up. I agree that a good landscape photograph will often appeal to the public as a place one’s been or would rather be, than the office. I’m waiting on the prints of the musicians to see how they look. At 100% after topaz noise ninja they are still below my photographers expectations, but the truth is, the public, the people these photos will appeal to, they don’t care about the unmet photographers expectations.

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      1. Your “photographers expectations” aren’t always what pictures require (the picture can have its own expectations), or as you discovered, what others, specific audiences, might want of them. But you can still hold the original in reserve.

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  5. We all have our reasons for everything we do. Some of it is to show our love of individuals. Some for our own enjoyment. Some for our sense of accomplishment. Some for personal gain. Purpose. Responsibility. Duty. Some of us think deeply about our actions. Some not that deeply. You just experienced one of life’s greatest challenges, dealing with the death of a loved one. In this case possibly the one whom you loved most of all aside from your children. It is bound to make you question everything in your life for its meaning and value. Time heals all wounds is the saying but it does not make them disappear. With time you will find a new path or a greater reason to follow the old one. All of us who enjoy your photography, I am sure, hope you continue in your pursuit of your artistic photography.
    I agree that we should make images of those who have great meaning in our lives when we can. I did not and have only a few pictures. My folks had plenty all the way back to my great grandparents including, of course, my brother’s and my childhoods. When my mother died my father was so grief stricken that he did not want memories of her around so took the boxes of family pictures to the landfill. He did not offer them to us so all the family history is gone. Shame on me for not taking more of my own.

    I was very taken by the lovely image of you and Jeffrey with his guitar and your smile of happiness that I saw on Facebook. Something to treasure.

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    1. Stephen, you have valid points, and I can see reason in this outsiders’ vantage spot- that I’ve been through a big trauma and loss and therefore how I see things right now are a function of that, at least partly. But it’s how I see things right now, a view I didn’t have access to just a few months ago and I thought, I better make record of it while I am this person, since who knows in one year or two or five, what’s going to be going through my mind. I do understand your father’s attitude with the photos, that’s why the general advice is not to make any important life decisions within the first year of a loved one’s death. I also had the impulse to get rid of everything related to Jeffrey; and I recall that my mother tried to throw away all that belonged to my father when he passed. My sister and I did rescue quite a few important things back then, for which my mother is now grateful. The story behind the photo you saw of me with Jeffrey is a good example of why photographers have few photos of their loved ones. We were on a photography trip for my benefit, we had traveled three hours to location, checked in our cabin, gone on a hike for my photography and were just back to the cabin. Jeffrey was tired and wanted one hour alone with his guitar before we started the campfire to cook dinner, and there I came trying to snap a photo of us together. He was very annoyed but complied so I would stop bugging him and leave him alone. A nice photo that almost didn’t happen at all.

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      1. For all his annoyance he doesn’t seem so in the picture and I imagine afterwards he was glad that you made it.
        We learn from our experiences and your registering your feelings now should inform you down the road as you suggest. I cannot imagine how I would react under the same circumstances but empathize with the adjustment you are making now.

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  6. You’re right about regret over not having taken pictures of people now gone – and in fact of not documenting one’s own life along the way. At this point I don’t even pick up the camera unless I see something I think I want to capture. The way I think about it is, a photo doesn’t have to “mean” something, but it does have to “say” something”. It has to do something for the viewer. That actually covers a lot of ground.

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  7. Sometimes situations call for just sitting and experiencing it instead of photographing it. Sometimes photographing let’s me see deeper and sometimes the deepest experience is to just sit back and take it all in.

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  8. I’ve thought a lot about your post, Alessandra.

    I read the comments from the others on your blog. I feel your hurt, and disillusionment. I don’t have an answer. I’m not keen on photographing people, but I’m lucky that through serendipitous circumstances I made a number of images of my partner that I love. Recently I was in the UK visiting friends of my younger brother (he was a talented rock climber who committed suicide in 1985 and I wrote a book about him). Photography wasn’t important to me during that trip and nearly all the images I have were made with my cell phone. I never thought to photograph most of the people I visited, and now I wish I had. I am sure they would likely not have been memorable images, as I would have been too self conscious and hasty in making them. I accept that this genre of photography is not ‘me’. Maybe one day I will change, but I don’t expect so.

    Yes, I think that images of people are the ones that usually humans engage with the most. However, that isn’t my forte, nor is still life or clever compositions with man-made objects. I am interested in the natural world, and this is the space where I feel inspired to photograph. For the most part, I will leave photographing people, food etc. to others and concentrate on the trees, plants, animals and landscapes that inspire me.

    I think that it is a mistake to be too drawn to making images because other people may appreciate them. The core reason for making art is to express something within us. If someone else appreciates it, this is a bonus. My appreciation of all forms of art changes with my mood and has evolved over my lifetime. I have heaps of images that mean nothing to me now, but something drew me to make them in the first place. I don’t believe in making a photograph just for the sake of it (although I do this sometimes for practice). Or to try for an image that will please a judge. I have to want to create something that will appeal to something deep within me. Usually it doesn’t work well enough to satisfy me, so what keeps me photographing (or writing) is the desire to meet that inner need.

    I am influenced by the work of other photographers while recognising that this is their take on the world, not mine. I can learn techniques from them, and appreciate their skill, but I never wish that I had been the creator of one of their masterpieces. My work may not be as ‘good’ as theirs, but it is mine.

    This is all about me, I know, not about you and the pain you are experiencing. I hope that there is something here that you can relate to. I will be disappointed if you stop making images when so many of us appreciate your talent. However, only you can decide what future path to take. My advice is to take your time. Your creativity will re-emerge somewhere, somehow; just let it happen.

    Best wishes for your journey,

    Pol

    >

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I’m happy with the outcome of this post in what concerns the input from other people and the valuable thoughts that have been shared.
      Practice is reason enough to do anything to achieve a goal. There’s no way to achieve any mastery in photography without repeated failures and finding ways to overcome them.
      I think the core of what I was trying to say, and I think that retrospectively after considering my interpretation of the replies I got, is that henceforward, I want to put more intention in my photography. Maybe shoot considerably less, but with more intention.
      As for memorable photos of friends and family, on my last trip with my husband a few months before he passed, we visited a friend of his who had bothered to photograph their youth growing up together in southern Virginia, and those photos brought them both many memories of the times their group of friends spent together. Those weren’t great pictures by any measure but did serve as a vehicle back to their partly forgotten past. That’s the beauty of photographing our loved ones and important events: the photos don’t have to be great.
      It seems like your reasons to photograph are in line with your intention, and that is good. I agree that it’s hard to please others or oneself most of the time. It’s no reason to stop shooting the fact that we can’t.
      Thanks for your input. I hope at some point I find pleasure photographing as I used to. Death changes us, as you already know by experience, and there’s no way to know what’s coming out of it for me. Time will tell, however much time I still have in front of me.

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  9. For me, I do things because it is my passion at the time. I don’t care what people think of my passions as they are mine and mine alone. Over my lifetime I have had many passions, always setting the current one aside and then I move on to a new one. Some passions last for years and others not so much. Maybe this is something you need to do, for now, as you can always go back to photography when you’re ready. (((Hugs)))

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  10. I’ve been thinking about this post. Even though I’m not a professional photographer and don’t aspire to be one, there are a couple of dynamics you’ve touched on that I’ve noticed, and that almost kept me from developing my own photography.

    One is the ‘photograph everything, all the time’ phenomenon. I see some people taking pictures so casually and posting them online so compulsively it seems as though they don’t care at all about the photo itself. The ubiquity of the camera phone seems to encourage thoughtless photo-taking. Just today, I watched someone in a restaurant take a photo of her dinner and post it to social media as soon as it arrived. I confess I was puzzled, but such behavior seems quite common. The distinction between ‘taking photos’ and ‘making photos’ keeps coming back to me; when I finally got over feeling guilty about preferring my camera to my new iPhone, and putting more effort into a photo than a quick snap, I was happier.

    The other thing that used to puzzle me was a phenomenon I kept seeing on social media. People would post photos that were blurry, out of focus, over or under exposed, or poorly composed, and despite all that would have fifty or a hundred (or more) ‘likes,’ and comments like ‘wonderful photo’ or ‘absolutely exquisite photography.’ I used to wonder why others were judging those photos so differently from me. Eventually, I decided to forget about it, and spend time following photographers that I considered excellent, while judging my own photos by my standards. When I did that, my photographs began to improve, but even more important, I began to enjoy photography far more than I ever had.

    I’m really glad you posted this, as it encouraged me to think about some of these things.

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    1. The increased resolution and capabilities of the cell phone cameras have been truly a game changer. Now nearly everyone has a cell phone. Peoples perception of what they can afford has also changed. I recall that I thought lot about my purchase when I bought my first “bridge” camera- it cost 500 U$ and was a meaningful purchase. Now most of my friends have a iPhone they purchased for over 1,000. That’s enough to buy an old model dslr and a prime lens, and yet people don’t think twice before purchasing the iphone but will ponder if they can afford the dslr and lens option. I’m not criticizing the cell phone use as a camera, some people can do it very well, but as you wrote, the proliferation of random pictures, and endless selfies (I was never so enamored with my looks even when I was young and significantly prettier) clutters the visual space. People will snapshoot and dump on social media dozens of photos of their outings or themselves without any concern for their viewers. And they will dispense praise in the form of likes and comments without really looking.
      When I was a compulsive photographer, I aimed more at practice than show. I would photograph everything but only show one or two photos. Still, I’m not falling for random clicks anymore. I’m glad you found your own way to improve your photography, away from following careless photographers. The only way to improve ourselves is really to pay attention to the work of those who can do better than we can.

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  11. Photographing people is a tricky thing, photographing kids you just can’t do, girls the same. For this reason I photograph a lot of architecture, which I love but I feel like I’m documenting other people’s creativity. Nature is fair game, I love gardening and I love animals so there are two passions I can focus on. (my secret goal is to photograph every species of critter that I can before I die). I also like documenting whatever I’m making, or fixing or my latest fad. If you’ve got a macro lens there is a whole new dimension to explore. One afternoon I saw the International Space Station glistening in the sky with my naked eye, then I worked out that I could track it with my Luminos app. Still haven’t nailed that one or a descent star-scape but they are works in progress. Just getting out in the world with your camera often opens up unexpected opportunities and conversations, and just having a camera with you is like a badge that other photographers recognize. After maybe five years I still don’t feel that I know my camera fully and that’s always fun working out something new. Your portraits are great and people are the best story. Just keep doing what you are doing, its your experience and story telling. Love from Australia.

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