Two Points on Photography

(Uncohesive blog content, posted as part of a daily posting streak I have openly committed to; standard disclaimers apply. Whew, made it by a few minutes…)

This essay was partly inspired by but mostly orthogonal in purpose to dzaefn’s essay on a similar subject, Humans, Photographs, and Names. I agree with many of its points, although I deviate in that I think it’s more important for my Facebook picture to identify me than to inform about me (there’s the rest of Facebook, plus my maybe half a dozen other sites, for doing so). Part of the problem for me there, and part of the reason I hang on to my nine-letter random handle from fourth grade, is that my names, first and last, are so commonplace. Among the people who share them (according to DuckDuckGo) are a New York Times tech writer, more than one computer science professor, a photographer, a couple doctors, and some guy who did some sort of graphics work for a short clip and two movies. This means that, to somebody not already in my social circles trying to match me to my account, my Facebook photo is my primary tool for disambiguating myself from all these other people, and I don’t think there is anything that could do that job quite as precisely as a picture of my actual face and body.

Still, I agree enough to be bothered by having a profile picture suffering from “the whole extent of photographic informational void”. I always planned to add some GIMP layers to the photo to indicate context and content more precisely. Except I procrastinated and it got more and more awkward to do this as time went by, since as far as I know, normal people update their profile pictures only to reflect more recent events, especially when they’re important. Like, you know, graduating from high school? So yes, I’ve been waiting to do this for an entire year now.

Eh, to hell with awkwardness. That’s the spirit of this daily-posting exercise.

(Fun fact: The code in what I’m about to set as my profile picture, if I don’t procrastinate even more, is real IOI 2014 code I submitted successfully (for rail, as previously featured; the visually selected fragment was the key fix for the final bug I fixed). Except I actually had to manually retype my code printout to get the picture because I lacked the foresight (sound familiar?) to save an electronic copy of my IOI submissions.)

Also, I’m glad this isn’t a smiling photo because I feel like it’s easier to appreciate happy posts from a person whom one associates with a serious face, than serious posts from a person whom one associates with a happy face, and I want both types of posts to impact people when I post them. I could be overgeneralizing from my own feelings though. If you are reading this and want to chat me feedback (as way more than one of you has been doing), I’d welcome more data points on this issue.

That’s not what I really wanted to rant about in this post, though.


Why do people take photographs? I think we can broadly divide photography into artistic expression or documentation. These purposes are not mutually exclusive, of course. I can appreciate some beautiful photos, but I am not an artistic photographer by any means and there aren’t many insights I can add to that.

I will further attempt to divide documentary photography into two more categories, which are also not mutually exclusive:

  1. photographing something to show people who wouldn’t have seen the thing otherwise, and
  2. photographing something to show people who had already seen the thing, including yourself; possibly to refresh their memories.

Item 1 is also something that I have no objections against. Photographs are great proof (or at least, given increasing image-manipulation technology and skills, strong evidence) that you’ve been at a certain place or with a certain person. More practically and impactfully, you might take pictures of human rights abuses or hidden pollution or shady manufacturing practices, and you can publicize them to attract the world’s attention and pressure. This contributes to one of the awesome effects of the Internet.

The second functionality, photographing people for yourself, is really what I want to rant about. And even in principle, I think it makes sense. Visuals are powerful, powerful mnemonic devices. Properly chosen visuals evoke memories far more easily than a diary or blog post. That’s how most human brains work, including mine. And, as long as your artistic standards aren’t too high, photography is cheap and easy. This is the future. Embrace it.

What I really wanted to rant about was this occurrence, which happens far more than one would hope: when people, usually family members, pull me on some kind of nature trip and then take dozens of pictures in a row of them and their scene and try to get me to be in them. These people are not artistic photographers. If they were, they would not be photographing me in the nature scene. Either the nature scene is beautiful, in which case they’d just photograph it without any humans so as not to dilute its beauty; or I’m beautiful (trollololol), in which case they could have saved a whole lot of money and time just by looking through my Facebook albums.

I am pretty sure they are type 2 documentary photographers. But you don’t need a dozen photos of the participants to document one outing. Just one photograph with everyone in it (or, if you want to document that each of the \(\binom{n}{2}\) pairs of people was together and need one person to take photographs and therefore stay outside each one, three) would be fine. In particular, the photos do not have to be perfect to serve this purpose; you don’t need everybody to have eyes wide open and perfect smile. The memories ought to speak for themselves. Even if they don’t, after you’ve gotten one photo of everybody involved, it would be much easier just to photograph the scenes or excursions or whatever you want to remember without any people in them. And if you keep making me shuffle around and try different poses so you can get a really nice photo to represent the memories nicely, well, great, now all my memories about the trip are going to be about shuffling around endlessly for your “nice photo”. Also, I smile exactly as much as I want to, so quit bothering me about that. Do you want me to misrepresent my own feelings about the trip to myself in the future? No thank you.


Now that I’m done, that actually seems like a really short rant. There is no meaningful conclusion because there is no meaningful thesis because the points I wanted to make with the two sections above don’t seem to be related except for both being concerned with photography.

End rant, end post. See you tomorrow.

(note: the commenting setup here is experimental and I may not check my comments often; if you want to tell me something instead of the world, email me!)