To understand the role of photography today, we have to understand why we take pictures. We automatically tend to associate picture-taking as an addition to our memory function since a lot of our natural visual activity is geared towards storing information for later use. However, with the advent of digital and especially mobile photography, we have largely expanded the role of images in our lives and with new emerging cognitive technologies, might even push its boundaries further.
The Kodak moment was always defined as the first step of the shoeboxing experience. We took pictures to remember people, places and moments as a marker in our lives narratives for later consumptions. Shoot, store, share has been a big part of everyone’s lives for the last 70 years and continue to be. So much so that studies have revealed that more often than we realize, we better remember photographs of events rather than the event itself and the two merge into one memory. Photography as memory is still very much an activity of our everyday lives and more than ever, we continue to capture the events we consider significant enough to be added to our live’s stories. Encouraged by social media which has greatly facilitated our ability to share, we can now more than ever trade our memory photos ( Throw Back Thursdays) and reminisce as a group. We can, much easier than ever, pull out our smartphones and share our latest vacation, concert, party, wedding or graduation, leaving the projectors and shoeboxes in our deep closets. Using photography for memory will never disappear and because cost of shooting is perceived at zero, we have dramatically lowered our standards of what we consider valid to be stored.
Validating our lives
But capturing a frame for later retrieval has not been the only reason we took pictures. Intrinsic to that, we have felt the urge to communicate that memory. Photography is not a selfish act. In fact, it is deeply social. While we might enjoy remembering alone, we far more enjoy it when we share it with someone because it validates it. Like the falling tree in the forest that makes no noise if no one is around, memories, and our existence along it, makes no sense if there is not another human being to validate it. Photography and memory play an important part in dimensioning our lives. So much so that it has become essential for most.
However, parallel to that function, we have to examine the role of the photojournalist. While there is the element of memorization in his work, more importantly, there is the need to communicate. Capturing an event for the world to remember is obviously key to any photojournalist and from press conferences to parades or sports games, it is most of what they do. However, more important than creating a visual catalog of events past, photojournalist have an important function at conveying a message, an explanation. Unlike a wedding photographer whose images will be better consumed over time, photojournalists seek immediate consumption. Their fundamental function is reporting, not remembering. This is because photojournalists seek actions in return for viewing their images and very often these actions need to be immediate. Thus, a photojournalist reason for taking pictures sits somewhere in between memorization and communication, with the chair much closer to communication.
The age of communication
To communicate with photos is fast becoming the primary function of photography today. With the advent of social media and in particular apps like Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat, we no longer solely take pictures as an addition to our memory but rather as a tool to send information to one another. The explosion of ephemeral photography, the ones that purposely destroy themselves after a few seconds, being the supreme demonstration. Fundamentally expedient, it relies entirely on a need to say something, using photography as a better conduit than words. Originating in text messaging, the one to one digital dialog where you can attach a photo, it has matured in a variety of formats, from the more artistic Instagram ( It’s reference to a Telegram is no accident) to the more practical Pinterest. One accentuates the form versus the substance ( Instagram) while the other uses photography to teach and inform ( Pinterest). Both are used as a communication tool first.
These two fundamental usages of photography, communication and memorization, are slowly getting their own term in digital marketing: Flow and Stock. Flow is used for communicative photography, the ones you find in Snapchat, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest and Stock is used for the memorization, pictures you will most likely find in Google Photos, Apple Photo, Flickr, also Facebook and on hard drives. Flow are the images that brands want to capture since communication is a vector for actions and actions can be veered to purchasing. It is much more voluminous in size (a huge part of the 1.8 billion photos taken daily) yet extremely volatile. Stock is what the printing, cataloging and archiving industry want to reach. More precious than the Flow, since it carries higher emotional value, it is a treasure chest of marketing opportunities. But like all treasures, a very hard to crack.
As cognitive computer science evolves and automated extraction of information from images become more common, we will probably see other types of reasons why we take pictures. One would be to understand. We can easily foresee a time when we will take a picture of a scene and thanks to immediate analysis, it would explain key patterns ( favorite crowd restaurant by volume, upcoming predicted traffic congestions, trend in clothing people are wearing, color references to weather, trending emotional signals from crowd) that would allow us to make better decisions. Or more simply, as shown by Google as of yesterday, we can take photos of our food, just so it can tell us how many calories we are about to ingest. Informational photos will only exist for the immediate need of immediate analysis, not memory or communication and could become soon, the number one reason why we take pictures.
Photo by kevin dooley