Photography at its very best elicits a response from an audience. The beauty about photography is its diversity, which allows people to gravitate to certain styles and images for varied reasons. Photography connects us. Whether it’s the Falling Man captured during the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, the shock factor of Kim Kardashian’s ‘break the internet’ photo, or a skyline of New York City that reinforces our hopes and dreams, the power of photography is evident to see.
We’re very much in an age where people are keen to learn the skills that will make them a good photographer. At the same time though, we live in a world where social media means we share more than we consume. With this shift, it made us wonder how photography can change the world.
Why images are better than words
There’s a saying that the pen is mightier than the sword, but there’s also that famous line, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’
Images definitely have an impact on our brain, which can sometimes make them much more powerful than words.
An article on LinkedIn by Gabe Arnold on why images speak louder than words mentions Krista Neher, a marketing industry influencer, who explained that the brain could process images 60,000 times faster than words. Furthermore, it’s a form of communication practically everyone can tap into.
Dr Michael Pritchard, Chief Executive of the Royal Photographic Society, said ‘I think because photography is visual, in a way, that’s a universal language and it removes the need to understand a written language. I think people today are also aware because we’re very much living in a visual based society. Across the world, wherever we happen to be living, I think photography and images are actually more accessible to more people and because of that it has more power than the written word for many people.’
So how do you capture an image that speaks this universal language?
According to an article on Contrastly, in order to capture a powerful photo, you have to assess the opportunities presented to you – as well as how to ‘bring those opportunities to life.’
A few elements to look out for includes exceptional lighting, powerful composition, a strong subject and an image with a message.
The last point may be somewhat hard to decipher but the crux of it all is that ‘powerful images tell a story; one that is powerful and intriguing.’ To define powerful is difficult. After all, the subjective nature of photography means that people are drawn to the discipline for very different reasons and develop their own unique style based on what’s already out there. So their interpretation of what is powerful will also vary.
What photography means to those working in the industry
Veerle Evens, a food, lifestyle and interior photographer, was on course for a different career when she recognised her love for photography.
‘When I was studying to become a stylist at the William de Kooning Academy (similar to Central St. Martins) in Rotterdam, I pretty much used photography and film as a medium to express myself and my ideas in all the assignments we got. It was a natural way for me to communicate my vision to the world, and it felt like second nature.
‘Towards the end of my degree I realised that although I loved styling, I’d much rather create the bigger picture, the final product: the photograph.’
Given Evens’ initial journey towards styling, the type of photography that captured her attention was fashion related.
‘I do have a deep love for early fashion photographers like Helmut Newton, Erwin Blumenfeld and Ellen von Unwerth. Their black and white, experimental and sometimes controversial photography inspires me, even though I don’t even shoot fashion or black and white myself.
‘Other than photography, an artist I find particularly inspiring is the architect Rem Koolhaas. His work is incredibly bold, innovative and his use of space is mind-blowing.’
On the other hand, for Karen Weiler, an animal photographer based in Toronto, Canada and founder of Posh Pets Photography, it was a passion she harboured for years.
‘Ever since I was small, I loved photography. I have always been in awe of its power to capture a moment in time, to forever preserve a memory. Unfortunately, as a child, I was frustrated with it because I had not been taught the basics. I rekindled my passion for it later on in life,’ she explained.
For Weiler, she holds a deep appreciation for Annie Leibovitz and her use of light and ability to poser her subjects. However black and white photography is where her heart lies.
Why photography is important to society
It’s evident that photography plays a huge role within society and has widespread effects beyond those that work within the industry.
Pritchard believes that right from the introduction of photography in 1839, up until this point, the world has gradually become more image based.
‘Even in the 19th century with photography, billet engravings and different ways of reproducing images, people began to become very visually aware and photography really develops that even further. For that reason, the image has become more powerful and more pervasive than the written word or other methods of communication.’
A photograph, without retouching or photoshopping, doesn’t mask a situation or emotion. Arnold explains that ‘pictures can instantly change your mood and leave impressions much faster and much more accurately than words can. Pictures can invoke feelings of happiness, sadness and others.’ It connects with people, which is key for advertisers and businesses selling a product.
For actual photographers though, their motivations are sometimes more personal.
‘Photography is a second language to me. It enables me to express my appreciation for my surroundings and the things that inspire me,’ Evens explains.
‘It gives me a drive to keep improving on myself and my work. It gives me a reason to get up in the morning and create.’
Weiler’s feelings are pretty similar. Photography allows her to combine her interest in animals and creating images. ‘This allows me the freedom to set my own schedule, travel and spend time with loved ones.’
When does photography become art?
Is it the moment you capture an image? The moment it resonates with someone else? Or when you sell a photograph as a piece of artwork? This loaded question is just as subjective as the practice of photography itself.
Pritchard explains how boundaries have changed given that photographs are now sold as works of art, when they may have originally been captured for a totally different purpose.
‘Images that would have been documentary or photojournalistic images have been reinterpreted as works of art. You’ll see Don McCullin and Nick Ut’s famous photograph of the Vietnamese girl being sold as artworks when they were created for a different reason and that’s really interesting because it’s a reflection of how these boundaries are very fluid.’
For Weiler, photography becomes art when it elicits an emotional response in the viewer.
‘If art is in the eye of the beholder, then there are two perspectives – the photographer and a person viewing the image. A photograph captured by chance, with little or no thought on behalf of the photographer is a product of technology, not art. Likewise, a photograph that does not cause the observer to feel something is simply a photographic record of whatever was in front of the camera at the time, not art.’
The future of photography
Currently, photography is experiencing something of a surge. The digitalisation of the industry now means that rules and regulations can be expected when you take into account equipment like drones becoming more popular.
The Royal Photographic Society serves to support photographers and promote photography. They also keep an eye on developments that can impact their members.
‘Our view as a starting point is that these things should be as open and accessible as possible and then beyond that if there’s a demand for certain things then we try and manage that and feedback in a way that supports what photographers are wanting to do without placing too many restrictions on them,’ Pritchard said.
But can photography change the world with these rules in place? Despite the digital era we live in, photographers are still very hopeful about its impact, which if anything, is furthered by modern day techniques.
‘Using photography as a way to document causes and projects you are passionate about and sharing them with the world might teach or inspire other individuals. If I can evoke some sort of emotion or reaction within another person through my work, I believe I’ve made a difference in the world,’ Evens explains.
A good example of this is Timo Lieber, an aerial photographer, who Evens says has inspired people to take a closer look at climate change through his project THAW, which looks at the changing landscape of the Arctic.
Though there is this desire to create a global change through photography, sometimes a more localised change can have the biggest effect, as Evens says, ‘it brings creative fulfilment, which I think is important on a level of personal happiness and mindfulness.’
If you're inspired to pick up a camera and see how you can impact the world, why not try your hand at a photography course?