Meditations on Photographs: A Car on Fire at the Mall by JM Colberg




The act of photography might have turned into the equivalent of whistling a song, something you do, something that might or might not have beauty, a communicative act just as much as an affirmative act: I was there, and me being there means I had to photograph it.


I found myself at the local mall yesterday, at the book shop, to look at magazines. I live in the countryside where not much ever happens. A tornado might come through, or a strip club might explode, but those are very rare events. And regardless, they tend to happen further down south. I certainly did not expect to look up from some magazine to see a car on fire right outside of the building I was in. (more)

Just like everybody else, I have a natural curiosity for such events. Why would there be a car on fire on a very chilly day, right outside of a Barnes&Noble at a mall? And since I had never seen a car on fire in real life, of course, I needed to have a peek - just like dozens of other people, most of them flocking to the windows of the store. “If I had a camera,” I thought, when I realized that I did have a camera (I had two, but I only used the digital one). So I went outside and started to take photographs.

Usually, I take photographs for fairly specific purposes, either for my own photography projects, or as illustrations for articles on this website (plus the occasional silly stuff I either post on Twitter or share with friends). Having looked at and thought and written about photographs for a long time I found myself wondering why I was taking photographs. Mind you, I was not the only person photographing, many people had their cell phones out and did the exact same thing. There was one other person who used a digital (non-cell phone) camera as well.

Why do we take photographs when there’s a car on fire? It would seem that a car on fire is obviously something one would take a photograph of. The usual complaint about people photographing frequently is that it’s all about food, resulting in supposedly bad photographs that presumably nobody needs (this article by Jonathan Jones might serve as an example) - a practice that, it is argued, somehow devalues photography. One could argue whether photographing one’s breakfast and photographing a car on fire are indeed part of the same spectrum (for what it’s worth, I think they are).

But unlike the case of one’s breakfast it seems much more obvious that one would photograph a burning car. It is a burning car, after all, and how often do you get to see one? There is something compulsive about the act of looking at such an event, as was very obvious from the fact that most of the customers in the store ended up flocking to the windows. There is an accident somewhere, and people in the opposite lane will slow down to look. That’s what we do, whether we like it or not (it’s much easier to be dismissive of it when you’re away from the event).

Photographing an event one is looking at might just be a natural consequence of that compulsive looking. Of course, one is likely to share the images with friends or whoever else will look at them (as I did). Photographing results from a desire to communicate, and modern technology has made it possible for people to achieve that very effect usually instantaneously (this is one of the reasons why articles such as Jones’ are so misguided).

But I believe there is more. Often enough, the photographs we produce are not very good photographs. Mind you, I’m not talking about the idea of beauty here. I’m talking about simple image quality. Cell phone and digital point-and-shoot cameras are pretty good, but most photographs by bystanders are pretty bad. They might be blurry, or the camera might have trouble getting the exposure right, or the fact that digital cameras almost always have very wide-angle lenses results in the event being quite small in the photograph. Interestingly enough, reduced image quality usually means increased believability - if it looks too good, it might be fake (as if it were impossible to fake blurry images).

So there’s that then: We photograph almost as compulsively as we look when something is happening (even if it’s just the breakfast appearing under our noses), and since the photographs don’t look too perfect, that only means they’re more real. And we share, because that’s what photographs are made for (only very, very few photographs are made for the walls of galleries or rich collectors, or to give pleasure to art critics).

And yet, there might be even more. Nobody would doubt that you had a nice breakfast, just like nobody would doubt that you went to Paris on vacation, and probably very few people would doubt that you saw a car on fire at the mall. Photography is thought of as being evidentiary, and while it is evidentiary, for the most part it’s useless, pointless evidence. There is a photograph of your breakfast, and that photograph might serve as evidence that you had pancakes and eggs. But since people will not only believe you that you had pancakes and eggs, but also know what pancakes and eggs look like, why do you need a photograph? You don’t.

But, and this is the big but here, the photograph itself is not what matters. What matters is the fact that you photographed and shared - even if you will never look at that photo again, and even if your friends might at best briefly glance at it.

We photograph because that’s what one does - sometimes for the sake of having the photograph, of having something we look at later or of having something we can display so other people can look at it later, but oftentimes simply to have photographed. There are billions and billions of photographs on Facebook and on other websites now that will never be looked at again. This makes no sense - unless the photographs themselves are not what matter here.

And that, I believe, is what has happened over the past few years: The act of photographing, the gesture, has become part of our interaction with the world. You photograph just like you look. You know that you can never look at all of those photographs again (in all likelihood you never will - who has the time?), but it’s not about the photographs - it’s about the photographing. The act of photography might have turned into the equivalent of whistling a song, something you do, something that might or might not have beauty, a communicative act just as much as an affirmative act: I was there, and me being there means I had to photograph it.

Seen in this light, photography is much more than what many theorists (and art critics) think it is. In particular, to understand photography you cannot always start out from the pictures. The pictures, it turns out, actually don’t always matter much - if at all. Photography might be a creative expression of the human mind, but often it is something else entirely. It might appear to be inconsequential, but it’s a statement made by the photographer, affirming her or his presence: I photograph, therefore I am.

(this article is an extended version of a preliminary, earlier piece)