Why do we look at photographs?

Last week, I went to a photography gallery.


To look at photographs.


Because I am interested in photography


Looking at Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs

Why do we look at photographs?

Why do I look at photographs? Why do you look at photographs? Why do we look at photographs?

As interesting as I find photography, as quickly it turned out I couldn’t find a coherent answer to the ‘why’ question. My conversation with Socrates would be short-lived. Some vague ideas swirled around in my head, but I couldn’t grasp the complete answer.

Of course, some photographs have specific functions, resulting in easy answers to the ‘why do we look at them’ questions. A photograph made for a family album has memory value, advertisement photographs seduce us to buy things, instructional photographs are giving us information, scientific photographs have value in research, news photographs show us the news, etc. I am not talking about these photographs here.

Many of the photographs we look at (in art exhibitions, photography books or online) don’t seem to carry any of these direct functions. Why do we look at these photographs? What value do we search in them? Why am I going to a photography gallery on my free day? Why do we spent hours lost on the internet scrolling through photographs.

What are we looking for?

When looking at photographs, we might be looking for:

  • An experience of beauty
  • New knowledge
  • Experiencing emotions
  • Reflection (on ourselves, the world, a certain topic)
  • Humor
  • Sensuous beauty (beautiful colours, sharpness, composition)
  • The enjoyment of seeing
  • A moment of calmness
  • (Artistic) inspiration
  • Technical/Artistic skills to admire
  • A moment away from your normal life, diving into a new world

These are very varied answers and there might be many more. It might be all of the above, or none of the above, or a combination. It might depend on person, or mood or context or all kinds of other unknown factors in ourselves and the world.

We could leave it at such a scattered, vague and chaotic answer. Still, I wonder whether we could approach our photography-looking behaviour from a larger framework. Is there something that ties all of these photographic experiences together? Consider the next paragraphs as my way of thinking (writing) out loud about this question.

© Nathalie Vissers

Interacting with photographs is like interacting with the world

Feeling, thinking, reflecting, experiencing, seeking… I mentioned these as possible answers above, but they are also general characteristics of us being human.

What we look for in our interaction with photographs might be nothing more than what we look for in our daily lives when interacting with the world.

Every day, we are seeing the world around us, seeking out new sights, places and faces. We actively looking for information, constantly update our model of the world and ourself as we go along. We are curious beings, always inviting new experiences in our lives. Besides seeking out new sights, we also like to spend time with the familiar ones, the things we found beautiful or that made us feel something, the faces we’ve seen before, the experiences we enjoyed before.

Maybe looking at photography is just a celebration of all these human processes.

Looking at photographs kickstarts processes related to sensing, thinking, feeling and experiencing. The only thing you need to do is find a photograph and spend some time observing it. All kinds of questions are set in motion: What is the first thing I see, what catches my attention? Is this photograph pleasurable to my eyes (and other senses). How does my eye travel through the composition? What does this photograph make me think? How does it relate to me or my view of the world? What does it make me feel? Does it remind me of something? Does it make me laugh? Do I find it beautiful? How did the photographer do this? What else was happening besides the frame? Is the world in the photograph different from the world I know?

Looking at a photograph is like interacting with the world. We are engaging in a new interaction with the world and experience how our mind and body respond to it.

However, why do we seek out 2D photographs, limited in time and context, instead of just experiencing the world at large. Why am I visiting a gallery in my Holidays instead of experiencing the sights of another country?

© Nathalie Vissers

Interacting with photographs is unlike interacting with the world

Looking at photographs is also interestingly different from looking at the world. This might explain why we sometimes choose to seek out photographs rather than interactions with the world at large. I can think of at least three ways in which photographs enrich our visual world, and therefore have special power on us.

Seeing the world through different eyes

In our daily lives, we are always restricted in what we see. We are seeing the world through the gates of our own attentional processes, our own focus, experiences, upbringing, personal history and preferences. Isn’t it fascinating that photography can offer us a look through someone else’s eyes?

Looking at photographs offers us a new view on the world. We bypass our own viewing biases and see things we didn’t notice before. We can learn through what another person saw. We can see what another person imagined. Haven’t you ever wondered about what other people see and how they experience the world differently than you? Photography is one way to get at least some insight into this.

We can now see the world, not only through our own eyes, but through millions of other people’s eyes (and imagination).

Think about those moments when a group of people are getting the same photography assignment. It is always remarkable to see the differences in the resulting photographs. Looking at someone elses photographs can show you the world in a different way, but also give you an insight in the person behind the camera (a realist, a dreamer, a technical person, an activist, …)

Seeing what we can’t see

Photography can show us things we can’t see due to physical barriers

It can show us places we don’t have access to, be it in another country far away or the intimate interior behind closed doors. It also allows us to see things that are impossible for our eyes/brain to see directly. We can see things too small to be detected by our eyes or things so far away (in space) we’ll never experience them directly. We can see movement captured in one frame, we can see things in different colours and contrasts, we can see how the world looks from above, we can see black-and-white versions of our colourful world.

Seeing in a safe environment

A key aspect of photography is its capacity to freeze time. You now have unlimited time to observe a situation, object, person, … something impossible to do in our ever-moving interaction with the world.

Photography gives us time to really look, by freezing the time we are looking at. Moreover, photography us a non-threatening space in which we can look at the world.

A photograph is not going to respond to you. You can look at a person, an object, an animal, a situation without the possibility of physical harm, awkward situations or interruption. You can move away from a photography if its sight is too threatening (or too boring) and you can stay as long as you want to enjoy the processes it stirs in you.

© Nathalie Vissers

Why am I looking at photographs? Why are you?

Why do we look at photographs? I am still trying to find a satisfiable answer for my own experience with looking at photographs. At this point, I am leaning towards the following explanation:

Looking at photographs can firestart all kinds of human processes of thinking, feeling and knowing. It broadens our horizon and offers new experience that go beyond our own viewing biases and physical barriers. It offers all of this in a non-threatening and timeless space. Throughout all this, we are satisfying our human nature of exploring and understanding the world.

So what about you? Why are you looking at photographs?

Why do you go to a photography exhibition, what attracts you to an evening of online imagery? Are there certain aspects I didn’t mention that you feel are important? Do you agree with the thoughts I shared? Feel free to contact me

Asking yourself these questions can shed a new light on your own photography. If you understand what you are looking for in other people’s photography, you can also express this in your own photography.

Even for those who are not photographers, however, it is interesting to reflect on your photographic experiences.

We are living in a world where our interaction with photographs keeps on increasing, so being more aware of your own experiences with photographs, could add more depth and meaning to our interaction with them.