Why Take Pictures? Answering the Existential Crisis of the Photography Hobbyist

Why Take Pictures? Answering the Existential Crisis of the Photography Hobbyist

2100 1181 James Tocchio

For a minute there, I imagined that I could be a real photographer. It might be me at the head of a billowing trail of Saharan dust, my driver beside me wrestling our Land Rover between towers of desert grass as I meticulously track and frame the cheetah’s hunt at full speed. I’d have a handsomely weathered face, lined from years of sun and wind, a tan punctuated by my piercing blue eyes. Unfortunately, my eyes are brown. And as it turns out, I’m just a hobbyist photographer.

It’s a weird thing we do, as hobbyists – take pictures. If we’re not making money at it (which most of us aren’t) and we’re not getting meaningful recognition (and most of us don’t), why do we do it? If my archive of photos are seen by nobody but me, what’s the point? This question eventually comes to torment many of us hobbyist photographers.

I actually have the answers to this question, because I’m thirty-six years old and I’ve spent the last damn-near-twenty of those years engaged in pursuits that nobody cares about. I’ve written countless unpublished essays, so many short stories that I can’t remember many of them, and one big-honkin’ novel, and not a single word of any of these has ever been read except (maybe) by an editor with his hand suspended delicately over the edge of one corner of his desk, paper trembling above the inevitable trash bin below. Show me your favorite well-respected magazine and I’ll show you the stationary on which they print their rejection letters.

At this point, I write for the process. Each good sentence is a win, even if no one ever reads it.

Yesterday, a friend of mine seemed to be struggling with the existential question of the hobbyist. He sent me a screenshot of a popular Instagram film photographer’s most recent photo – a photo of an empty gas station, with an off-level horizon, poorly framed, badly exposed, and scanned with borders so that everyone would immediately know that this was a film photo. For me, the photo could have been objectively described with any number of adjectives – bland, vacuous, thoughtless, uninspired, insipid, derivative – I mean, I could come up with more. I wouldn’t even need a thesaurus.

Thing is, that boring, lazy photo had generated more Likes, the currency of Instagram, than any of the photos my friend shares. Worse yet, the engagement! The photo enjoyed plenty of comments applauding its “dope tones.” I saw a lot of flame emoji. People loved it.

And for my friend who makes and shares classically beautiful and technically sophisticated photos which garner comparatively few accolades, this straw, added onto the enormous pile of similar straws (in this metaphor the straws are copycat photos lacking in technique which are incongruously popular), broke my friend’s proverbial back.

He said “I’m becoming desensitized to what is good and what is bad. Not that I’m an artist or anything. But it’s like, why do I spend time sharing photos or even looking at photos? I sometimes think about just never taking a picture again. I just don’t always find comfort in the trite answer that we should just make pictures for ourselves.”

Here, students, is the existential crisis.

For the record, my reflective friend went on to admit that his lamenting the popularity of photos he considers to have less value than others is equally trite. My takeaway was that he was frustrated. Generally speaking, his struggle isn’t unique. I receive random Instagram direct messages every few days from people complaining about the state of popular film photography (which is exhausting – please stop). Point is, there are a fair number of photographers who grapple with why they’re doing what they’re doing, whether or not it’s good enough to just shoot pictures that they like, or pursue the craft for their own edification, without recognition or reward.

I think that the answer lies in the work. It’s there in the process. It’s also in the answers to smaller, more personal questions. These answers will be variable among individual photographers. Your personal existential crisis is uniquely your own. That said, I can at least offer a framework of questioning prompts to get you started. Sadly, nobody can answer the questions for you. Yeah, this is life. Life can be confusing.

If you find yourself wondering “What’s the point?” Ask yourself – what’s your goal as a photographer? Do you want to make money making photographs? Do you want to be a wedding photographer? Do you want to be that idealized Nat Geo warhorse that I imagined in this article’s first paragraph, traveling the globe on the company dime to shoot beluga whales one month, Machu Picchu the next? Do you want to wear oversized white tee-shirts and shoot film and hashtag the hell out of your photos on Instagram so that you can eventually sell your bloated account to a Chinese company who’ll then sell it to a would-be influencer? Do you want to have your work hung in stuffy galleries so that strangers with cheeks full of cheese and cracker can tell you that your photography transports them? What do you want out of this hobby? Answer that question, and then take the steps.

You can be any photographer you want to be. You can mimic what popular photographers are doing and get popular yourself (there is, after all, no editor’s rejection stamp on the free internet). You can shoot for National Geographic if you want to, you just have to want that enough to sacrifice other things in life. You can be a street photographer, though it’ll be hard to make money. You can be a wedding photographer and make a good living, just try not to get mad when some “art photographer” with 107K followers on Instagram makes fun of wedding photographers. You can agonize that your photography’s not good enough and buy gear to make it better (though it won’t). You can take photos of your family and be happy and content when one shot out of a hundred looks pretty good.

There’s no reason to take a photo, and there’s all the reason in the world.

When I said that I have the answer to the existential question of the hobbyist photographer, I wrote with insufficient clarity. What I meant was that I have the answers for my existential question. I can’t tell you why you should take pictures. I only know why I take pictures. Photography helps me be alive and present at whatever place and in whatever time that I happen to be at any given moment. I get nothing else from it, but that’s all I need.

I take pictures so that someday when I’m dead and my daughters are going through my things, sifting through tens of thousands of bad photos and hundreds of good ones and dozens of great ones, one daughter might pause for a moment and say to the other, “You know, Dad actually took some pretty nice pictures.” And my hope is that the other will reply, “Yeah. He was pretty good.”


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James Tocchio

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
29 comments
  • Avatar
    Bo Belvedere Christensen May 15, 2020 at 12:40 am

    Hi James. Seems weird that you write about unpublished work, as a lot of us read it here. But I think I get the point anyway.

    I regard you at thirty six as a young boy, and saying that nothing has been published doesn’t mean it won’t when you are that young. At your age I was in the same situation taking thousand of pictures, writing for my self in diaries (I have meters of diaries written from the age of 16 and I still write them). Something changed for unknown reasons, and today I have published 17 books with lots of both text and images from my earlier years. The last year alone I have published six books, three of which are mostly image based books – I call them image based narratives.

    Therefore I can say, never give up. Suddenly all the stuff you have written and the hundreds of thousands of pictures in your Lightroom might become gold. I happened for me and it can happen for anyone who has something on their mind that they think is important. My books and image are primarily about climbing, mountaineering and the love of nature in general, and though I don’t live from this work, I still get a decent amount of payback on the huge amount of work I have done from early on. And most satisfying, I know that I have done something, that is meaningful not only to me but to a lot of people who read my books and watch my pictures.

    Best wishes,
    Bo
    Danish mountaineer, photographer, author and lecturer.

    • Bo, that’s quite impressive. Congratulations. I’ll have to look up the work. I have no worries about being published outside of my own site. It’ll come eventually, and if it doesn’t, I love the process. Many thanks again.

  • Avatar
    brian nicholls May 15, 2020 at 2:37 am

    Interesting and challenging article James. In my formative managerial training in the 1980s we were taught the theory of human motivation via ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs’ I am a photographer and musician and find that this model goes some way in answering …”why the hell am I doing this?”…especially driving home at 2 am after a rough gig and in a blizzard. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs

  • Avatar
    Charlotte – 35mm May 15, 2020 at 3:33 am

    “Your personal existential crisis is uniquely your own” – ain’t that the truth! A very good point about working out what you want out of photography though – one month, I want to have some images I can hang on my wall and be proud of, another month I want to be seen as an inspiration or interest to other people taking photographs. I think the former is more realistic!

  • James, why do you do yourself down by referring to yourself as “just” a hobbyist photographer? The approbation you get on this site is far more valuable than the vacuous “likes” on the ‘net. Most wouldn’t know a good image it it hit them in the face. Remember, before we had professional photographers, all photographers were amateurs/hobbyists.

    • Ha! Great points. I’m actually perfectly content to be just a hobbyist. I love it. But there are other people, my mentioned friend included, who struggle with it. If this article doesn’t help, maybe your comment will. Many thanks.

  • Hi James-I love that you took this on and expressed it so well. I have had much of the same introspection over the years. There was a time 10-15 years back when I had gone on two dedicated photo trips. Both times I realized later that I had never done anything with the images when I returned home. Did not even remove the memory cards from the camera. (And haha, not because they were all s***!!)

    That got me thinking about what I like about photography and how I experience it. I am what I call a conceptual photographer. Not that I don’t make actual images, I do, but for me the enjoyment is derived from being in and experiencing those environments and situations, and the photography part is somewhat an afterthought. I think there is a related, but save for another occasion, discussion about if you did not get any good photos during those experiences does that mean you didn’t have a good time?

    This is not to suggest any similarity with how you feel about it, but there is a similarity in the self-evaluation piece that runs through this post.

    Thanks!

    Ross

    • I primarily take photos because I like cameras and because I like making images that are my memories for the future: places I’ve been to, things I’ve seen, but mostly pictures of my family growing up. So probably about the same as you. I’m surprised you’re so hard on yourself about being published. You have a very successful website that I and many others visit regularly. I had a photo blog once. It ran for four articles before I ran out of things to say. So, you’re doing very well by comparison!

      The current lockdown has made me question many things as well, especially what I have achieved in life. I’ve done ok, but I haven’t excelled at anything, which I’d like to have done. And I’ve realised getting good at something is mostly about doing something again and again and again, not doing it a few times and hoping that it’ll all slot into place.

      Like you, I take about one good shot in every hundred or so, but of course I see the 99 rather than the 1. So, I have recently decided to go through my ‘back catalogue’ and post one photo (not of my kids) per day to Instagram (I hardly posted before). I’m not doing this for likes, I’m doing it as a discipline, just so that I can inspire some confidence in my own abilities. So far, it’s going well. A few more likes than I normally get, but mostly I just feel better about myself and my photography. I’m hoping that it will inspire me to take more photos, and not just of my family.

      • Malcolm, going back and revisiting old photos is so useful, in my experience. You’ll see things you didn’t before, learn a lot about your current work, and realize you’re pretty damn good after all. I’ve had many great photographers tell me that their greatest skill lies in their ability to edit, ie. curate their own work and only pick winners. Sounds like you’re doing the same. Enjoy the process pal, and thanks for reading.

      • I think Matthew meant to reply to James but it appears as a reply to me.

  • Some people drive motorcycles. Some people are radio amateurs. Some people take photos. Why? Because they can. Because they enjoy doing it. Because they want to do it better than they did it last time. Or just do it different. Because they like to learn, to experiment.
    Some just like the model(s), ha!
    Play The Kooks (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92J6b9rW4uM) on headphones and go take pictures of somebody or someplace you like.

  • Well said, James!
    My wife, as is her wont, asked me why photography, and why specifically film? For me, regardless of who thinks my work is good or not, it’s about stepping outside of myself and creating something. My photos may be normal, or boring, or bland (I don’t honestly know, I’m not a professional), but in the moment I tripped the shutter, I created and captured an instant that is unique. Other people may photograph the same subject from the same spot, but that one instant and the image accompanying it are mine. It’s helped me a lot with my state of mind post military…

  • Avatar
    Péter Kaderják May 15, 2020 at 2:16 pm

    Loved it, thanks James! I struggled with the same issues and got nearly to the same answers. And, after all, the quiestion “why take photos” is a perfect anology for life. Why do anything? If my son thinks after a died, that Papa was quite a nice guy, that has to be enough.. and if he’ll think my photos are good, that’s the cherry on top.

  • James, Asking the question ¿Why do you do it? is not productive. You might as well ask “¿Why do I do CasualPhotophile?” It’s all about the process and how it feels to you. It’s not about likes or what other people think/feel about the work [unless it is commercial]. It’s about finding your voice and taking pleasure in the process. In the beginning it may mean emulating the masters [The Bechers] until you progress to“killing the master.

    It’s not just about “taking the image”, it’s making the image. Culling them. Learning from the mistakes. Reflecting. And more …

    Think more about the what [what kind of images ], where, when and how. These change over time and in different situations.

    Ultimately, make images. Doubt can be destructive. At minimum it’s get in the way.

    James, Casual Photophile is your creative endeavor.

  • Reason enough, James, reason enough.

  • James, thanks for writing this. I only started earnestly doing photography about a year ago. It began simply, with one camera and the goal of documenting my small flower garden as it changes over the years. I decided to do so because the garden had become a source of peace for me.
    Over the last year, one camera has grown to many. I have taken a darkroom class, started developing at home, and studied to improve my technique. About eight months into my plunge into photography, I began to ask myself why I was so taken by shooting images when all I set out to do was document a small patch of flowers. What was I trying to accomplish?

    After a while, I realized that, for me, both gardening and photography were forms of meditation. Each allows me to ignore distractions and shut out concerns and focus on the wonder and beauty that exists in the natural world. Further, photography allows me to see, from a different perspective, both my life and the world.

    https://earthsunfilm.com/the-shape-of-my-art/

  • Great article. Especially in these stay at home times I feel many photographers question themselves. Alsp thanks for your things to do at home article 🙂

  • I think of myself as an amateur – amateur musical, amateur guitar maker, amateur photography – because an amateur is someone who does something because they love it. I may not be good at ANDY of those things, but I enjoy doing I anyway.

    Great article – never hurts to examine what and why we do what we do.

  • Well, I drifted into photography like one drifts into prostitution. First, I did it to please myself; then I did it to please my friends; and, eventually, I did it for money!

  • When I first started reading this it made me feel a little depressed, but in the end I found it uplifting. I feel exactly the same sometimes. When film is so expensive, why I am doing it when I am broke…because it gives me peace and occasionally beauty. I often wonder why I bother and then come back to that.

  • This is a question that has never crossed my mind. I started taking pictures in 1960 when 6 years old. My photography is used to document places and times in my life. Where I was, what I did, who I was with and so forth. These pictures then provide me with visual prompts so that my memory call recall that time 50, 40, or 30 years ago. The memory is that much more vivid with a photo than with none. Whether someone likes it doesn’t figure into the process since my process doesn’t involve them as an endpoint. Last, taking pictures is just plain fun for me from start to finish. I also work on all my old classic cars because I like doing that. These cars never go to shows so one could ask me why and I ‘d say..enjoyment.

    As a side note this shelter in place has enabled me to scan every slide and negative I have since I started. Can you even imagine all the memories going through my mind each time they pop up on my screen after scanning? To use a cliche, precious.

  • Avatar
    Khürt Williams May 16, 2020 at 2:05 pm

    For a minute there, I imagined that I could be a real photographer. It might be me at the head of a billowing trail of Saharan dust, my driver beside me wrestling our Land Rover between towers of desert grass as I meticulously track and frame the cheetah’s hunt at full speed. I’d have a handsomely weathered face, lined from years of sun and wind, a tan punctuated by my piercing blue eyes. Unfortunately, my eyes are brown. And as it turns out, I’m just a hobbyist photographer.

    It’s okay James. I’m the short darker-skinned man (no tan needed), dressed in khaki, standing next to you, Indiana Jones hat atop my head, squinting through a super-telephoto lens attached to a medium format digital camera.

  • Avatar
    Steve Mitchell May 16, 2020 at 6:48 pm

    Enjoyed this! I have been going through some of my father’s photos, going back to the 1950s. While he was in Korea during the war he apparently acquired a Leica, and some of the Kodacolor slides are great. I had not seen them before. I will be scanning these over the coming months, along with many of my slides and color negatives going back over the last fifty years. At the end of the day I hope that someday my children and grandchildren may find something of value in them. And I have more recently come back to shooting film, for two main reasons. One is to record the passage of life, in a way that remains tangible (after all who is going to trawl through Dad’s old hard drive when I am gone) and the other is to try and create art of a high enough standard that a stranger may wish to own one of my prints!

  • Avatar
    Frank Wu (@FrankWu16) May 17, 2020 at 3:33 pm

    Well for me I started off taking a interest in photography because of the feeling of press down and that knowing a moment is captured, stored forever (Unless you discarded it). 9 months ago, I started finding my photos being boring, without a soul in them. So I started trying out street photography because I started hating the “Perfect Looking Photo”, and started to find interesting interaction of people on the street in New York City where I currently reside in. Over the months where I focus solely using Black and White Film for street photography, and sometimes color film. I finally start finding my photos to stop being boring. With interactions with lights, and directions of people’s eyes and such. Maybe this is why I love photography, I love manipulate a scene with my camera, to the way I want it to be. Putting the image on my mind onto a photograph. (I can’t draw well so yeah)

  • Avatar
    Neal A Wellons May 18, 2020 at 8:43 pm

    I posted a long comment but decided to greatly simplify it. I shoot photos just to amuse myself and would continue if no one else ever saw them. I just like photography, and have moved heavily back into film lately. I post on Flickr but if it disappears, it will make no difference in my production.

    As long as it is fun, I’ll keep it up. And I started shooting 35mm in 1960.

  • James! Loved this. Course I’ve asked myself the same question a gazillion times (I’m 46, so I have a few years on you). Eventually one day I was photograhing model planes at a good friend’s club when it dawned on me that we really don’t need a reason, other than that we enjoy it. Why fly model planes, why shoot targets with arrows, why restore old cars, why waterski, why knit? Well, why not?

    Personally, I love the machines. Old cameras, new cameras, simple cameras, ridiculously advanced cameras – I love the click and the whirr and the slap and the kachunk. I love film. I even love the way it smells. I get a weird little kick every time I load a new roll into a camera. I love getting a good shot. Mostly of my kids – 9 out of every 10 pictures that I’ve taken are of my friends and family. But I serioulsy think I have the best family photo album in the world. Every time I focus and click the shutter, I’m trying to get The Afghan Girl – even if I’m just shooting my pets. This is all subjective, of course, but I absolutely love my photos of my family.

    And I love being the person behind the camera. Because I’m a bit of a socially awkward introvert, and for me at least it’s been a wonderful crutch in situtions where I’d otherwise probably be drinking a beer in a corner, staring at a pot plant.

  • “the click and the whirr and the slap and the kachunk” – oh yes! And nowt wrong is sitting in a corner drinking beer, staring at a pot plant, Brent.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio