I read this fantastic piece while reading Marguerite Helmers’ ‘Elements of Visual Analysis‘:
‘In a 1965 essay titled ‘The Cerebal Snapshot’, travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux argues that setting the camera aside is ‘good for the eyes’ and vocabulary:
Once, when I was in Italy, I saw about three dozen doves spill out of the eaves of an old cathedral. It was lovely, the sort of thing that makes people say if only I had a camera! I didn’t have a camera with me and have spent the past two-and-a-half years trying to find the words to express that sudden deluge of white doves. This is a good exercise –especially good because I still can’t express it. When I’m able to express it I’ll know I’ve made the grade as a writer.’ Page 86
As the current focus of my research is on visual material and it’s effect on perception of space, geography and urban regeneration, this quote is really worming away at my ideas.
Why would one take pictures over writing descriptive essays on an event or an object? Is it just to associate the memory of the place with a distinct photograph or item? How is the personally snapped photograph different from the images you can get off of Google Images? Would it have the same impact if my friend took the picture? Or if I took it but there was no person in front of the vista or scenery? Who is more important? The person in the photograph, the place they are in, the person taking the photograph or that moment in time? Or all of them?
Would I rather spend my time writing about what I saw if I didn’t have a visual backup? Is it a visual backup, a crutch to help me write? Or do I just use the photograph and ignore the verbose description altogether? What problems do I, as a person and researcher, bring to a wordy description? Words or images? Either, or, or both?
Do I want an image with this post? Would it make a difference?
My very first personal camera was a Minolta that used actual film. The one I used to use before was my parents trusty old Olympus. My first experience of using my very own camera was at a family vacation in China. I used 8 rolls of film as compared to the 3 my parents used. Now that I look at the photographs, the stark difference is that mine rarely have people. If they hadn’t been embedded in other photo albums with my parents pictures with us smiling at the camera, one would probably not know who was on the vacation and what value those photographs had. They probably would have made good postcards.
I am very certain that my main motivations of taking those pictures were that I could, and because it was harder to pose for pictures for a 15-year-old, and said 15-year-old had no patience to line up a shot with people.
So, coming back to visual geography and why pictures matter for research. There are a lot of people who photograph spaces and landscapes for a variety of reasons. There were a lot of reasons for photographing the Olympics. Besides the technical images that showed the idealized future, architectural drawings of structures, maps of proximity and locations, the graffiti crocodiles, logos, mascots, Usain Bolt’s victorious pose, evidence of community engagement and photographs of people attending the events. What do all these images mean? Why were they taken? Can we codify and categorize them neatly to indicate motive and intent? Would it matter? How does the heavily visual nature of the London 2012 Olympics makes it different from the original Olympics? Or the ones that sparked Leni Riefenstahl’s epic ‘Olympia’? Is it quality, quantity or just a thirst to document everything significant that happens to us?
At one point do photographs go beyond the point of personal memory and insidiously shape the world? Is that even possible?