If you revisit familiar subjects time and again with your camera; if you experiment, repeatedly, with a new technique till you nail it; if you have tried to see the world a bit differently than most do, in other words, if you push yourself in any way to take your photography beyond snapshot making, it is likely you’ve been asked this question in one of its many forms.
I’ve been on the receiving end dozens of times, from friends and strangers alike. Unfortunately, it’s often delivered with a little snark. It used to be that such a comment would shake my confidence and break my concentration, the end result being that after overhearing, “she’s taking a picture of that?” I couldn’t or wouldn’t get the image I saw in my mind’s eye. Somewhere along the way, I learned to tune out both the question and the questioner.
However, this summer, while taking in the scene at Piazza San Marco with three generations of my family, my nephew watched me frame a photo of tourists and asked, “Why are you taking that picture?” You couldn’t turn around without hitting a selfie stick, and it seemed as though everyone in the throng of high season tourists was figuring out how to place themselves and their travel partners center stage in their phone screens. Meanwhile his photographer aunt was taking pictures of strangers. He asked the question with complete earnestness, and he deserved a thoughtful response.
I told him, “I know that I’ve been here, and seen this amazing place. I don’t need a photo of that. What I want to remember is what it feels like to be here. The heat, the semi-ordered chaos, the crossing paths of international groups of guided tours, the colorful crowds surrounded by the wedding cake-like buildings, the pigeons, the vendors, the beauty, and the complete improbability that is Venice. That is why I am taking this picture.”
The sincerity of my nephew’s question has stayed with me in the months since returning home and getting the last of my film developed, and I’ve been asking myself that question repeatedly as I review my Italy scans. It has served as a pretty good exercise in re-examining how successful I was at delivering against my intentions.
Why are you taking that picture? To capture the anachronism of Venice.
– because of the harmony of shapes and colors, and serendipity of this quiet moment
– the umbrella fringe held the light and stood in for the riotous color of Burano
– C’mon. Street photo with contrasting gondoliers. How could I resist?
– to remember the thrill of the unexpected around every corner
If you’ve been on the receiving end of a not so kind version of the question, and it rankles you as it did me, I’d encourage you to mentally strip away all traces of derision and judgement you may have heard in it in the past. The next time you are reviewing some images where you pushed yourself to try a new technique you hadn’t yet mastered, or where you worked hard to realize your vision, ask it of yourself in the most sincere and honest voice, “Why did you take that picture?” Did you accomplish what you intended? If not, what might you have done differently?
I will continue to tune out every last snarky questioner of my photographic intent, but my nephew’s question was a wonderful reminder that I don’t ever want to stop asking it of myself.
Keep your eyes wide open,