What gives a photograph its power? Sometimes it’s beauty, or humour, or the conjuring of a particular mood. And sometimes it’s awe. What is awe, exactly, and what does it take for something to inspire it?
Just as scientists have been digging into the nature of happiness in recent years, they have also been investigating the nature of awe. This was one of the things I learned when I recently did an online course on The Science of Happiness. So what have they found, and how does it apply to photography?
In a nutshell, awe is the feeling we get in the presence of something much bigger than us that makes us consider our place in the grand scheme of things. So it can come from looking at a star-filled night sky, or a landscape, or marvelling at the birth of a child, or watching a truly extraordinary performance, for example in music or sport.
But awe can also be found in everyday life: taking pleasure in the dancing shadows cast by a tree, experiencing unexpected kindness from a stranger, or watching a child’s joy at overcoming an obstacle or learning something new. I’ve come to appreciate the value of looking for these moments of awe, and recognising them when they happen. And sometimes that feeling can be captured in an image. It’s the emotional equivalent, I suppose, of the photographer’s habit of always keeping an eye out for beauty in the mundane.
Researchers are not quite sure what the evolutionary function of awe is. Perhaps it’s to help promote group bonding, by reminding individuals that they are a small part of a bigger system. Or maybe the mind-blowing power of seeing something awesome makes people curious, alerting them to potential risks or opportunities.
Whatever the origin of awe, experiencing it seems to have mental-health benefits, helping people feel more grounded, promoting clear thinking and even providing therapeutic benefits, for example in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Learning all of this has helped me come to appreciate the power of awe, whether I am holding a camera or not.
(these pictures are taken on my Contax Aria using Portra 160 at Sissinghurst Castle in June 2020)