I recently read an absolutely wonderful article in Business Insider, with the short, snappy title of ‘A Psychiatrist Who Survived The Holocaust Explains Why Meaningfulness Matters More Than Happiness.’ This really is an article worth reading, because it beautifully explains how these two concepts can play such different roles in our sense of being. You may be asking yourself, ‘what on Earth does this have to do with photography?’ My answer would be, ‘everything’.
We all take different types of photograph at different times for different reasons. However, some photographs are imbued with meaningfulness and this can only be a product of the motivation for taking them in the first place. Photographs can be smart, funny, cutting-edge and eye-catching, but such images can still be ’empty’. I would describe them as ‘fast burn’ images i.e. those which make a quick and powerful impression, but ultimately leave us empty a short while later. The next time we look at them, we may even find them entirely boring. I believe such images are empty because they lack ‘meaningfulness’. Instead, they are empty spaces wrapped up in a skin comprising of tricks and techniques. Once past this skin, there is nothing underneath.
How many images that have stayed with you for years have lacked meaningfulness? I cannot think of one, but that may be because those images have already been forgotten. They contained no emotional or meaningful ‘hook’ with which to gain purchase in my mind and therefore later memory. The recent article I posted, titled Christina in Red, is all about meaningfulness; meaningfulness in terms of our mortality, our ability to connect with personal intimacies of lives long since passed…. our ability to reflect upon parent-child relationships, which are so dear to us. ‘Slow burn’ images intrigue and endure, because they reveal many and varied connections.
Does this mean that all famous photographs are celebrated because of their meaningfulness? I would say ‘yes’. It does not matter whether that comes in the form of a significant moment in human history (moon landings, famous boxing match, hoisting of the US flag over Iwo Jima etc) or something more general to the human condition (documentary and social photography). It should therefore be no surprise that even landscape photographer Ansel Adams’ most highly valued images (in monetary terms) are those depicting an element of human civilisation – ‘Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico’ being a great example.
Even if you remove any human references from a photograph, we may still find meaning and connection in our human context: the environment, the cosmos, or our fellow animals. With a still life comprising of inanimate objects, how many do not point back to ‘what it means to be human’. Transformative images show us new ways of seeing (Edward Weston’s ‘Pepper #30’ or Imogen Cunningham’s ‘The Unmade Bed, 1957’, also connecting us to the perceptions of ‘another’.
Central to the notion of meaningfulness is human connection and central to human connection is our ability to transcend the isolation of being bound by subjective individual perception. It is for this reason, that I have for some time regarded ‘a sense of understanding’ as central to my own documentary work. One cannot ever claim perfect, or true understanding. There is surely no such thing, but we can pursue a ‘sense of understanding’, where we reach the terminus of our own ability to empathise, understand and connect. I see this as being where we have created as clear and meaningful a connection as we can with the information and time we have and the limitations inherent to being a different person experiencing a situation separately.
If I am to somehow conclude this short article, it would be with this: If we are to produce images with depth and longevity, surely we must seek out meaningfulness at the foundation of all that we do? Meaningfulness is impossible without connection and in connection we invariably find communication, whether spoken or otherwise. I believe that great photography lies not as much in photographic skill as some would have us believe, but in the photographer’s talent for living a connected human life imbued with meaningfulness – one only need take the camera along for the ride. As for happiness, what is it when not rooted in something deeper?