12 January 2010

Does Photography Do Any Harm?

Out of all the places we usually go to, few sceneries and objects deserve our attention and overwhelm us. These places possess a quality called beauty. We are often attracted to things which are an aesthetic delight to the eye and after encounters with them, we may seize every chance to capture them and try to hold on to them. That is why we have invented cameras. Taking photographs may satisfy our urge for possession sparked by the beauty of a place or an object. How impressive a design that allows us to hold on to beauty with a click of the shutter. But what harm does photography possibly do? If photography is to be criticised, it is not so much about photography itself, but it has everything to do with how we employ the art of photography.

But this art has been significantly changing. We witness, on the streets in Hong Kong, an uprising of artistic movement. Art no longer restricts those who only have God-given talents. The teenagers have an urge to say, 'Anyone Can Be Photographers'. It reminds me of the Pixar cartoon called 'Ratatouille' which The owner of the restaurant, Gustav, also writes a book named 'Anyone Can Cook'. Encouraged by a similar democratic vision of being artists, it is not uncommon in Hong Kong to see teenagers taking photographs everywhere. We often see in those photographs a bunch of teenagers showing a 'V' gesture to remember their union. We may also see them taking photographs of the food that they eat. Sometimes, even a piece of rubbish on the street may be intriguing to them as an object of beauty. This motive may be understood as their appreciation of the beauty of still life but somehow worthy of some degree of suspicion.

What, then, is wrong with photography? Instead of employing the art of photography as an conscious effort of seeing and of noticing the minutest details of the scenery, they have developed a new style of photography which may be called 'snapshots'. They use the medium as an substitution. They pay less attention to details due to their blind worship of technology. They invest faith in their digital cameras that they automatically assure them the possession of beauty. They have no patience to notice every minute detail in the photograph. What they do is just plugging in the memory stick to their computers so they can upload the photographs to facebook and blogs. They do so not out of promoting beauty, but in order to show themselves off so they can receive more comments from friends.

We glance over the newspapers published in Hong Kong. It is not surprising that we see more images than words on them. However, it is true, images may stimulate our mind and urge us to remain sober of the horrors of wars. But the flooding of images on newspapers not only prevent us from appreciating the author's style of writing, but also weakens our ability to comprehend and analyse the readings. I was surprised when I first glanced over a German newspaper with only few images on it. Little wonder why it is the hometown of philosophers. Images alone, unlike books, cannot teach us to think independently. Words, after all, are the sole tools that we rely on to think clearly.

Photographers teach us to look at things with an aesthetic eye and a good writer urges to attend to the minutest details that we may neglect. They open up our minds to see things rather than merely look, by making conscious effort to notice elements and understand the constructions of a scenery. Taking snapshots blur the distinction of looking and seeing. It promotes our laziness in noticing details. It condemns our literacy by a few clicks. Whether we should take pleasure in a stroll in an art gallery or spam the internet with snapshots, only the future can decide. For my part, I'd rather die sooner.


William joined the Pub as the first and only good guy so far. We feel that we should probably not let our readers hate us too much, and we hope that by dragging William in, his politically correct writings would freshen up the Pub stank out by the other four villains here. William will update us weekly on his philosophical struggles dialogues, the usual trash you encounter in every other pubs. Check out his personal blog here for more sublime meditation. Probably should stop now, the editor here is running out of sophisticated words.


  1. Good post. This is why I also refrain from using any images on my blog, (even though sometimes it may enhance what I say)

  2. Daveed, do you wanna join us as a good guy...or a villain? (My money on the latter!)

  3. William,

    I realise that you're playing devil's advocate here to try to get your point across (surely you don't believe everything you've written here?), but I think your far simplified examples and narrow view make you appear elitist and hurt your message.

    I think being able to recognise beauty in all things, from the shadows playing on crumpled piece of rubbish to a sprawling vista is a worthy pursuit and one that we should encourage HK's youths to follow. Aside from the number of hours in a day, the appreciation of this in no way detracts from the appreciation of good literature. In fact, I think the two often go hand-in-hand.

    I (of course) have a vested interest in the topic and don't pretend to be impartial, but I do try to stay objective and I think a more evenly weighted and objective approach from you would have seemed more thoughtful and elicited a more positive response.

    I meant no insult and hope this is accepted as constructive criticism.


  4. Joe,

    Actually, I don't seem to understand your objection. The purpose of this entry is not to condemn photography. What I am against is how teenagers employ the art of photography. Not all snapshots are bad but I only consider those which are taken with an aesthetic eye good. I think you also misunderstood me on the view of beauty. I never discourage it. As you may have seen in my conclusion, I promote it. What I am trying to say is that they should pay more attention to details and heighten their aesthetic sensibility. I also make a distinction between people who take photographs and professional photographers since not all people who take photographs can be called photographers.

    Besides that, I don't think most teenagers nowadays really take beauty in consideration when they take photographs. They just take them for the sake of taking them. Though newspapers that are spammed with images may not distract them from appreciating literature, I think it does have a profound impact, just like most people nowadays watch youtube videos instead of reading articles online. As they are more exposed to images and videos, they become more reluctant to read. It's a matter of habit. If you present to them, say, 10 pages of work with no images in it, they may find it very difficult to finish it.

    Lastly, I never said images should not appear on newspapers. The problem is they have spammed the newspapers in Hong Kong. It's a matter of degree. It is wiser to strike a balance between words and images.


  5. For a second, I thought the title is Does Pornography Do Any Harm? Instead I got photography.

    Yeah, this post does come across as elitist and I bet you like arugula too. Photography is an art but to most it's more like a hobby. So most pictures suck because there was just one Ansel Adams and one Henri Cartier-Bresson, and they were all dead, the one that is not dead is Annie Leibovitz but she is like buried in debt.

    Well I totally rambled. But I guess it's allowed.

  6. Maybe William will one day write an entry titled "Does Pornography Do Any Harm?"?

    Yes, anything goes here! We're Libertines Pub, not MO's Notebook for Christ's sake!

    Come back for more, people!

  7. I don't think people consider photography a hobby in Hong Kong, but it's more like a habit. They just follow the flock. Moreover, if photography is really considered a hobby for most teenagers in Hong Kong, it is also precisely the reason why my point makes sense. They would devote their time to getting the best out of photography.


  8. I have to add one more thing. Whether photography is a hobby or an art, it doesn't change the fact that it does in some sense make us pay less attention to details and weaken our ability to comprehend and analyse a reading. But that is not to say photography should be condemned. Like I said, it depends on how we employ this art.



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