What Do We Really Capture When We Take a Photograph?

Photography and film can capture rare and intimate moments that can be taken for granted at the time the photograph is taken. Looking back at older photographs of wars, strikes, parades, festivals, or rituals we come to realise how “human” history is. And this is a good thing because it creates understanding. For example, in 1942 Jean Rouch filmed a possession ritual which in 1954 turned what had become myth into human activity and inspired a new generation of filmmakers in Accra.

You see, photographers and filmmakers capture aspects of activity and appearance which may disappear over time – whether we are photographing humans, animals, plants, our environments, food, design, or dress. Whatever it is we think is important to us as photographers and our audience. So, what do we capture when we take a photograph and what value do we get from doing so? According to the social sciences and research methodologies, the answer is a hell of a lot when photography and film supplement data collection or fieldwork.

During my fieldwork experience in Greece, I bought a camera and taught myself photography through online resources. I was in Athens, so I began to photograph all of my surroundings: ashtrays, the room I slept in, people I was close to. When I got comfortable using a camera I picked up street photography and began documenting what I saw on the streets.

I shot everything, from walking down a random street to street art, markets, churches, music events, family events, road trips, corporate product shots and events, and weddings. On top of that, my camera became a way to meet random people. Much like asking a smoker for a lighter, people ask photographers what they are doing, and this means conversation time. What I came to realise was that photography gave me access to my subject’s world and their experience of it.

What Do We Really Capture When We Take a Photograph
In Greece, construction workers tend to be older men. An “aged” construction labour force can be attributed to two factors: an exclusionary employment policy and the prestige associated to different types of work.

I was told a story in their words about their experiences and memories and had captured the image of the narrator in the setting which the story was told. Ok so what, right? Well, this photograph and story through the correct interpretation can lead us to understand and appreciate what it is to be human somewhere else. This is a good thing.

What Do We Really Capture When We Take a Photograph
I covered a live music event at a research participant’s café. Music in Greece plays an important role in the creation of identities; historical, national, and local identities are often connected to music in some way.

But it doesn’t end there; the photograph reflects the photographer. How this happens is that we have a limited field of view of which we can capture with a camera. So we decide what to include in our frame and save that moment in a photograph or as a video recording. It’s as simple as choosing what to shoot based on your own criteria, the reason to take the photograph, and the possibility of the expectations of an audience. Moreover, photographs outlast human memory, so this image can be reanalysed in the future when perceptions and the social theory change.

What do we really capture when we take a photograph
Street musicians fill downtown Athens, this is both a form of creative expression and a means to make a little more cash in the years following the economic crisis of 2008.

So what can photographers take from social sciences like Visual Anthropology? Perhaps the research methods incorporating photography may inspire a photographic project or make us aware of the power of our images.
For example, photo elicitation techniques are used by researchers to capture personal perspectives. Photo ethnographers (or researchers) gave cameras to children to photograph their schools from a child’s point of view and led to a greater understanding of childhood education. Another example is asking the people we want to understand to show you what to photograph to reveal important spaces that would otherwise go unnoticed.

What do we really capture when we take a photograph
Another shot of musicians playing in a café. Greek café culture, in other words all those activities that occur in a café, is massive. Everything from music to gambling, from storytelling to gossip and rumours you can find it with a cup of coffee in hand.

And video is no exception; with video intervention assessment we can record the everyday lives of people and their interactions with material objects. This type of assessment was used to collect data on young asthma patients by giving the same patients video cameras. The video data revealed that the patient’s issues and value systems varied from that of their doctors and so more effective intervention and treatment programmes were developed.
What do we really capture when we take a photograph? We capture and record reality, a reflection of ourselves as photographers, and a moment in history. For the audience, it may create a deeper understanding of trends, human experiences, and perspectives outside of their norm. The best part is that creating such records is not reserved for experts with degrees. Just the curious, with their cameras and an awareness of what their images can mean.

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Arthur Procopos
Street Photographer, Anthropology Student, and Writer

Currently based in South Africa

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