Why Context is Important in Photography
I remember I used to go out regularly on photowalks, for the three years before I started to blog. At the time, I used to think of myself as a street photographer. It was easy to make that claim, since I was good at it - or at least I thought I was. In any event, being skillful in street photography made me feel accomplished and confident with a camera. It was no wonder then how photowalks became a part of my daily routine. I was plainly obsessed over it.
So like my America Express card, I would always sling a camera around my shoulders the minute I walked out the door. In doing so, I summoned my inner Bill Cunningham in anticipating what I called my "street silhouettes". What I sought to capture were street styles with a documentary flare to it. For the most part, I enjoyed doing it, marveling at my own cunning in documenting the urban catwalk. But then, something changed in me, one unremarkable day, as I reviewed my image haul after an equally unremarkable outing. I felt empty.
I looked at all the photos I've captured that day, and felt nothing. Then I reviewed all the photos I captured throughout this three year period, and felt just as empty. The self-congratulatory feeling of accomplishment I used to have, looking at these pictures, no longer resonated anymore. Then it dawned on me that everything I've ever documented on the street was meaningless to me. Upon that realization, I stopped doing street photography.
At the time, I didn't know why I had this sudden change in heart towards street photography. Though in hindsight, it's not difficult to see why. The explanation is actually more multi-faceted, given a change in career paths and photographic objectives. But for the sake of staying on point, I will only concentrate on what's salient to the issue, which I'm attempting to address.
The images I captured during that three year period meant nothing to me, because I had no contextual relationship to the people I photographed. They're just a bunch of people I don't know, that happened to catch my attention. And beyond that, I will probably never see them again. Whatever decisive moment we shared will likely never amount to anything more than a chance encounter in the context of street photography. They're just random people I documented - no more, no less.
In other words, the people I document on my street photography mean as much to me as I mean to them - which essentially is nothing. As such, what expectations should I realistically have that anyone else would care about them, or the image I captured? Others were probably going to have even less context than me in relating to my subject and image capture, given that they were one step of separation more removed than I was from the decisive moment. Unlike them, at least I was there when I clicked the shutter.
What many don't often consider when taking a picture is the issue of context. To a large extent, context sets the tone in how an image is received by others. Thus, the more context an image relates to a person, the more the image will be received positively by that person. Conversely, the less context an image relates, the less positive - or more precisely - the more indifferent the image is received.
This is why pictures shared by friends or family, like selfies, baby pictures, or even people-less milestones have a higher likelihood of being received more positively than ones without any discernible context relating to the photo taker. Because the photo means something to the photo taker, the image will better relate to those who are shared the image. As a result, the shared image will likely be received more positively.
Admittedly, I wasn't originally aware of this relationship between context and how an image was received. However, recognizing it became increasingly evident, which was only possible through my late introduction to social media. From a process of sharing my images and observing images shared by others, I quickly noticed a regular pattern. Images that were more relatable in context generally received more interaction than ones less relatable in context.
Of course, this isn't an indictment on street photography. There are well known street photographers with images captures celebrated the world around. But, the context of photos taken by the famous, the celebrated, and the accomplished are not exactly regarded in the same way as photos taken by most regular folks with a camera working the street, in search of their decisive moment.
Images captured by renown photographers and celebrities will always be received more positively than images captured by working photographers and amateur enthusiasts - despite being removed by more degrees of separation in context from the intended audience. This is because:
The fame of the photographer or the celebrity makes the image more relatable to the intended audience, on the context of recognition or popularity.
The fame of the subject makes the image more relatable to the intended audience, on the context of popularity. Famous people have a higher likelihood of photographing famous people.
The frequency of dissemination of a famous image makes it more relatable to the intended audience, on the context of familiarity.
The context of recognition, popularity, and familiarity bridges the divide in closing the degrees of separation between the famous and their audience, by giving meaning to the relationship. In other words, fans, followers, and admirers will have a feeling of attachment towards the renown photographer or celebrity and their resulting work. This is why their work is generally received more positively with greater responsiveness from their audience. Alternatively in layman's term, it's just a demonstration of appreciation or fan worship.
For most of us, we will never be famous, we will never photograph famous people, nor will we ever photograph anything that would be disseminated at high frequencies. Still, it doesn't stop us from striving for more. Intrinsically, I believe there is a yearning for most photographers in wanting their efforts to matter enough for someone else to care about it. The moment an image is shared, that image is subject to interpretation and judgment. How it will be received, will largely depend on that other person's context to the image and the image taker.
As I've said earlier, my street photography didn't have any contextual relationship to either me or my intended audience. Essentially, no one cared about it, which is why I stopped doing it. It really amounted to nothing. However, when I started to collaborate with Anna, something interesting happened. People started to care about her, because contextually, she was more than just another nameless face.
And it wasn't just her they care about. People started to also care about me - about what I said and what I photographed. So over time, through repeated posting and writing, my image capture gained some recognition. Through repeated documentation of Anna, she gained some popularity. And through our collaboration, the images we share experienced considerable reposting, enabling many of those images to gain familiarity.
This is not to say that Anna and I are famous. Far from it. But to the modest community this blog has cultivated, we have become familiar enough for many of you to follow. The context of our relationship has bridged the divide closing the many degrees of separation typical of people who have never met. In fact, it's almost as if our familiarity has made us become close friends. And because of that, the images we share on this blog will likely matter enough to be received in a positive manner - unlike my street photography - which honestly, no one cares about.
Without context, many of the pictures shared on this blog would just be overlooked as conventional images. But since Anna and I have become familiar to many of you, by entering your lives through this blog, the photos we share is anything but conventional. They're laced with context, influencing you to receive our photos in a positive way.
All images shot on the Leica M10 + 28mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH and the Leica M246 + 21mm f./1.4 Summilux-M ASPH. All images have been optimized in Lightroom. Some images have been cropped for composition. Everything shot wide open and at ISO 400.