Why Take Photos?

Several years ago I was living alone in Hawaii with few friends and no social media. I leaned into this by also not carrying my phone with me most of the time, or intentionally keeping it turned off and/or in the car. At that time my only camera was my Ricoh GRII, which I frequently brought with me every time I went out. Despite having my camera with me, I did not often take photos. I only took photos if I thought something was really interesting and worth capturing, such as a beautiful landscape, interesting plant/animal, or places I traveled to.

This pattern of taking photos is similar to my approach during the first year that I lived in Taiwan. Before moving to Taiwan, after having broken my 5 year streak of no social media for a few months in 2020, I deactivated my photography Instagram account and didn’t really use any social media again until late 2021. After reactivating my account, I became very motivated to go out and take photos, and took more photos more consistently than I ever had before.

Based on these experiences, I conclude that using social media and sharing photos with people created a form of motivation for me to take photos. When not using social media, I primarily took photos of my friends because I enjoyed the process and wanted to provide my friends with nice looking photos. I also took photos at school events or other events that I wanted to document or remember later. The biggest difference was that when I wasn’t using social media, I never went out alone just to take photos, presumably because I felt no pressure to consistently go out and take photos. Due to the external validation I received on Instagram, and because the app will show your stuff to more people if you post consistently, I felt a much stronger motivation to always be going out and creating more images; more photos = more validation.

I think that the number/type of photos I take without using social media is a basic representation of my natural pattern, since there aren’t any major external factors influencing my habits; I just take photos when I feel like it or for specific purposes. If there is a marked difference in my behavior depending whether I use Instagram or not, then I would consider that change in behavior to be a form of manipulation rather than actual ‘motivation,’ as I tend to describe it. This is because not only is the number of photos different, but the type of photos I take and share is also different; it’s unclear if these differences are my true personal desire or not. It feels more like I’m just fulfilling the wishes of the platform by spending my time using it, and creating content to encourage others to spend their time on it, all the while we all generate income for IG through the ads we all passively consume.

The main problem with this is that I feel it is impossible (for me) to create authentically when under the influence of a supernormal stimulus (see post Mindfulness, Wellbeing, and Smartphones). This is something I feel very strongly about. I find doing things primarily for some kind of worldly gain (e.g. reputation, popularity, money, sex, etc.) to basically nullify the intrinsic value of doing the thing itself. It feels the same as if a mouse was running through a maze in order to reach a treat at the end; the mouse isn’t completing the maze because it enjoys it or finds it worthwhile, it just wants the treat, and it remembers the most efficient path to get what it wants. However, the mouse may become conditioned to believe it enjoys the maze.

When I meet another person who is multilingual and/or a language learner, I often feel a little excited. But I’m often disappointed when I discover that that person is learning a language just to get more money at work or to pass some test. I’m not saying this is wrong, and these are valid practical considerations, but love of learning is one trait I highly value in myself and others, and I think the world could really use more of that and less of just doing things for personal material gain. I guess I have an idealized view of learning and creating – like they should be done as ends in themselves, not as means to an end. In my case, I started taking photos with a similarly idealistic notion as to why I was doing it, but that idealism was soon forgotten when I started getting any sort of popularity and social validation. Innocently sharing in order to ‘connect with and learn from others’ quickly became a perfect example of the hedonic treadmill – no matter how much validation I got, how many followers I had, or which ‘popular photographers’ followed me, I always returned to the same feeling of wanting just a little bit more.

Wealth is like sea-water; the more we drink, the thirstier we become; and the same is true of fame.

Arthur Schopenhauer

In September, recognizing the problematic relationship I had with using Instagram for photography purposes, I decided to actually delete my photography IG account and permanently lose all of my posts and followers. It is worth acknowledging that a lot of this problematic relationship is likely caused by the fact that I live alone and in a foreign country (see Alone); it’s easy to get distracted by online socializing when I’m at home by myself. However, due to FOMO, I felt the need to somehow keep in contact with a few people I met on Instagram (even though these people didn’t take any steps to keep in touch when I deactivated my account in the past). As a result I decided to give IG one last shot and create a private account where I only allow a few people to follow me.

The creation of this private IG account resulted in a discovery – now I rarely check IG (like 1 time per week), rarely look at what others post, feel no need to post anything, and feel essentially nothing about IG at all. This basically shows me that social media itself was not problematic, but rather my desire for new people to see my photos. Basically, I learned that I’m an attention whore.

Sharing photos with the same people all the time evidently has little appeal to me, or at least not enough appeal to make me keep going out and regularly taking photos; it was only the possibility of getting more and more attention that appealed to me and prompted this action. Using a private IG account for sharing photos feels almost the same as not sharing them at all.

Now that the treat has been taken away, this mouse no longer enjoys the maze.

This leads me to the questions: Why do I take photos? Why should I take photos? What should I take photos of?

If I do not share photos on social media with the intention of possibly reaching new people, then the majority of photos I take are just everyday life stuff or people in my life. However, when I was regularly posting on social media, I spent a lot of time taking street photos. Although I like street photography and I do find scenes on the street interesting, I just don’t often find myself that motivated to go out and take that kind of photos just for myself, and many/most of my friends aren’t photographers and don’t seem to understand why I take that type of photos.

So this basically leads me to think about whether I take photos for myself or for others. After writing all this and thinking about the situation over these past months, I think that I have been taking photos for others, while deluding myself into thinking I’ve been doing it for myself. It’s funny to think back on some of the things I said (maybe quoting famous photographers or whatever), acting as though what I was doing was somehow inherently meaningful, when in reality I think those statements were probably unconscious attempts to mask or make-permissible my attention-seeking behaviors.

I have forgotten the reason I became interested in photography in the first place.

When I really think about it, my favorite type of photography is portrait or personal photography because I can hang out with someone I know and create something nice for them, or document personal events to look back on later. These types of photos are the only ones that have any kind of inherent meaning to me, and the only ones I am motivated to continue shooting even if I don’t share them anywhere. I guess I interpret this to mean that this type of photography is the only type that can be said to be ‘authentic’ for me.

I still enjoy taking photos, and I love the feeling of being one of my school’s photographers and photographing every school event, but I think in the future photography will be occupying a less front-and-center role in my life. Maybe it’s time for me to sell some of my camera stuff!

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