Purposes of photography

In a previous post, I began an attempt to categorise the purposes for which we take photographs (as distinct from why we do what we do with them after they’ve been taken). As part of this process, I have been looking for web posts describing why people take photos. An example is the Photojojo forum page: Why do you take photos? Alongside this, I have done my own little survey via Twitter and Facebook, the results of which you can see on the purposes of photography project page.

The categories of purpose I would like to begin with are memorialcommunicativecreative and investigative. Based on the accounts gleaned from the Internet and my own research, I have attempted to outline the kinds of photos these purposes might produce and how these categories might overlap (since the taking of a photo can, and often does, have more than one purpose). Not all of the accounts fit neatly into my current categories, hence the addition of a temporary “other” category for types of photography that require more thought.


Words that hint at this category: document, chronicle, record

A common reason for taking a photograph is to “document” something with a view to looking back and remembering it at a later date. Some (e.g. Sontag 1977) claim that photography enables us to freeze time so that we may remember, at some future point, what things looked like now.

Memorial photographs are not just about documenting things that are a major part of our lives but also things that we admire but witness only fleetingly, such as landscapes seen on a journey. While we may also take such photos to show other people now, in the present, the memorial purpose involves a wish to remember them ourselves or to show them to others in the future. We take the photograph because we want evidence that something happened or that we, or someone else in the photograph, participated in an event at a particular time and place.

Example quote: “Documenting life is what I like about photography. I love the instant results. Why? Because sometimes you get so so involved in the production whether it’s a birthday party, Christmas, or some other event that it’s just nice to be able to look back and enjoy the moments longer.” (Swintime, http://forum.photojojo.com/viewDebate.php?id=333&p=2).


Words that hint at this category: share, show

These photos are taken to communicate an aspect of the present to other people. The prominence of this sort of photograph has greatly increased with the development of digital cameras, online photo sharing sites and cameraphones in particular (see, for example, van Dijck 2008). Image texting is one example of this (since the photo is often sent to someone else directly after it is taken) but there are many others. In a sense, any photo taken so that it can be shown to someone is communicative provided the intention is to evoke the present rather than the past (immediacy rather than preservation).

Example quote: “I see my pictures as a way to show people the world through my eyes.”(Shaolin, http://forum.photojojo.com/viewDebate.php?id=333&p=2).


Words that hint at this category: art, use, create

Sometimes photographs are taken to become part of a project or as a form of creative expression. In this latter sense, it may be to create something that we enjoy looking at for its aesthetic quality or it may not be the photograph itself that is important but the engagement in the act of photography. Where the purpose of photography relates to the act (e.g. for learning or enjoyment), the photograph is used mostly for generating feedback on the process (aspects of composition, lighting, settings, etc.).

Example quote: “to change my world view always have 1 theme project did 365 days am&pm, now casting a shadow” (http://timfawns.com/wordpress/?page_id=214).


Words that hint at this category: find out, understand

Photographic technology allows us to capture a scene for close analysis or examination of an aspect of it. Examples include:

  • astrophotography (photography of astonomical entities such as stars and galaxies);
  • photo finish (e.g. to see which horse won a race);
  • time-lapse (e.g. to determine patterns of animal movement);

Example quote: “[I take photos] while hillwalking to capture plants & mushrooms I don’t recognise for identifying later” (http://timfawns.com/wordpress/?page_id=214)

We might also take photos for the purpose of reflecting on our own lives, personal characteristics or social behaviour (see my previous post on Self-documentation, self-construction). Intuitively, I would guess that using photographs to examine past experience and identity mostly occurs as a retrospective purpose (i.e. not what we had in mind when we took the photograph).

Other purposes:

When done regularly, documenting through photographs can become a way of looking at the world, seeing things as a potential photograph. This is, perhaps, photography as a way of seeing rather than as an act of communication or documentation. To me, this is not quite the same as any of the above categories because the intention relates to the processing of experience rather than being directly concerned with the photograph that is produced. It is also distinct from the creative engagement in the act of photography, although the two intentions may often may be involved simultaneously.

There are other purposes not adequately captured by the categories above. For example, the taking of photographs to keep one’s hands occupied might be considered a social but not communicative purpose. The following quote from the Photojojo forum illustrates another such social – but not communicative – purpose:

“Call me shallow, but I started taking pictures to meet girls.” (Richard Wang, http://forum.photojojo.com/viewDebate.php?id=333&p=2).

Some photographic actions are the result of a camera being linked to an automatic process. For example, this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8aCYZ3gXfy8) shows how a service from Google+ automatically uploads each photo taken on a mobile phone. These photos are sent immediately to a network irrespective of the purpose for which the person took the photo. Even the taking of the photo might be automatic (e.g. Sensecam), making it possible for production and distribution to occur without human intervention. Presumably the “original” purpose of the photograph could be traced back to why the system was set up in the way that it was, though there would (as always) be various other purposes for which the photos are subsequently used.


In reality, most photographs are probably taken for more than one of these purposes (with no guarantee that photographer is aware of any of them). Memorial photos can, for example, also be creative (e.g. the sepia-toned wedding photograph). In fact, this can make them more effective as memorial artefacts since the creative process involves reflection around the event being captured and the resulting photograph may be more thought-provoking and/or ambiguous. These memorial and creative purposes often overlap, indicating that there is more to photographing our lives than simply capturing the details. The following quote from the Photojojo forum shows an example of this overlap:

“I shoot because it’s fun, both to document life as artistically as I can : ) and as an art.” (amolick, http://forum.photojojo.com/viewDebate.php?id=333&p=2).

I will leave this post with a question: could these categories be mapped onto different profiles of people? For example, is it true, as seems intuitively to be the case, that older people and parents will tend to take more memorial photos than younger people who are not parents? Do younger people take more communicative photos as their ways of keeping in touch are increasingly digitalised? What kinds of people take investigative photos?


  • Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • van Dijck, J. (2008). Digital photography: communication, identity, memory. Visual Communication7(1), 57–76.

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