All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, and mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt. – Susan Sontag, On Photography
The world we are living allows us to take pictures almost everyday. Cameras are more accessible today compared to any period in human history. Some take photos for monetary profit, other for fashioning their social media, some for personal souvenirs. When I was a kid, playing with an old camera encourage me to understand people as photography subjects. But as maturity settles, it made me realize that the very act of taking photo is intimate but frighteningly cold at the same time. As photographer, you are in the position to look into lives, actions, praxis, and narratives. It is an attempt to empower people by sharing their story. Ironically, you also locate them into a tiny viewfinder where thy are simply subjects under your assumed power as the photographer. And I think this is just one of the many contradictions of photography. Things like this interests me to see how cameras and photographs figure into our mundane existence.
As a form of artistic discipline and technological advancement, photography did not simply emerge out of a social vacuum. The word photography is derived from the Greek word photos which means ‘light’ and graphein which means ‘to draw’. Sir John F.W. Herschel first coined the word in 1839, referring to the method of recording images by means of exposing sensitive materials to light and radiation. Though it wasn’t until 1820s when practical cameras were developed, the science of photography started way back. The origin of modern day cameras are the multiple technological breakthroughs (and mistakes) of the past.
Greek thinkers in the name of Aristotle and Euclid mentioned a prototype of pinhole camera as early as 5th – 4th century BC. It is said that Aristotle pondered on why the sun produce circular images when its light passes through a square hole. This inquiry laid down initial principles on optic laws. Around 1000AD, scholar Alhazen made a thorough study on the manipulation of light, camera obscura, and pinhole camera. During this time, pinhole camera was used to project images of the environment onto a screen. In 1190s, Albert Magnus discovered the use of silver nitrate while Georges Fabricius discovered silver chloride around mid-1500s. In 1694, Wilhelm Homberg documented the darkening reaction of particular chemicals to the exposure of light.
By mid-1820s, Joseph Nicephore Niepce developed the first photograph using camera obscura. Apparently, no other person successfully recorded subjects by means of exposure to light. He called this heliographs, also known as sun prints. This method, however, requires several hours of light exposure and the end results were nothing but crude outlines of the subject. Not to mention the fact that the printed exposure will fade after few days of printing. Nonetheless, Niepce attempt opened a brighter (pun intended) path into the development of better cameras and photographs. Fast forward, this technological innovation served as the prototype of the modern digital cameras and DSLRs that we are using today.
How photos changed the modern world?
I don’t pretend to be making photographs to “help” people. It is a fallacy. But I do sometimes believe that when the images are shared they can illuminate aspects of a life that is overlooked and they can be part of a larger conversation about how we overlook certain people. – Stacy Kranitz
In 1972, Nick Ut’s “The Terror of War”, a photo of a young naked girl and other minor civilians crying and running toward the highway after South Vietnamese air force enforced napalm strike on Trang Bang village. After taking the photo, Ut mentioned that he immediately took a lot of water and poured it on the girl’s body because she had been hit by napalm. Thirty percent of her body suffered from third degree burn. This image alone stirred national debates in the US vis-à-vis their direct involvement on Vietnam War. Until now, it is considered as one of the most powerful and influential imageries that raised the ethical consciousness of people on the terrors of war.
Photography changed the modern world in different ways. The landmark photograph taken by Nick Ut tells us how potent a medium photo can become. It allows people to see distant places, cultures, and stories. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, portraits and images are symbol of wealth and prestige. Because getting an artist was expensive, self-portraits and family portraits are only exclusive among the members of the upper class. The invention of photography revolutionized the use of image. It singlehandedly made the production of images available to the public. In the mid-20th century, average people can share their photographs as their versions of their worlds.
Currently, photos have become anthropological and archaeological records. It sketches the life of certain people and draw insights into the complexities of human existence. It helps in bridging the big “Other”. It shows us what it means to be human, and what it means to have humanity.
In just three years, a friend of mine already posted more than 1000 photos on her Instagram account. That’s almost a picture a day! Well, that is a revelation for me. People love taking photos and sharing it to the public.
But why do we enjoy photography? Some may simply answer that it’s for fun. And yes, I would agree to that note. Still, I think there is more to it than that. It is possible that we take photos because it allows us to freeze (slice, if we use Sontag’s expression) moments. The ability to capture memories helps us remember our past. This is why we photograph cool concerts, travels, foods, friends, and family. Photos allow us to narrate our small but personal legacies. It helps us construct our own history.
As an art form, photography is also a way of expression by presentation. While it gives you new insights on how to understand light and the world around you, it also grants you the ability to express how you see the world.
What are you waiting for? Say cheese!