Collecting the world

“To collect photographs is to collect the world”
– Susan Sontag, On Photography

What is it that makes you pull your camera or phone out and take a photo of something?

My husband sometimes ends up laughing at me when I’m out with my camera. Exploring France recently, he looked back and saw people gathering to take photos of a view, all their cameras pointing in the same direction. Then he noticed me, standing with them but facing the opposite way, taking a photograph of the wall behind me or something similarly obscure.


I do like big views. I love the feeling of scale that it gives me, a feeling of being so small in something so vast. The wilder the better, and I can’t help but instinctively grab my camera. But I also love details. Textures. Colours. These are the things that I want to remember, the things I want to collect. Those small details that make up the whole, without which we would have no big views. So often walked past, trampled on; unnoticed.

Some details are momentary, taking to the stage to play their fleeting part in the great landscape, whether they have an audience or not. My lens might be the only thing that sees it before the moment passes. Other details are small but solid, immoveable parts of history. Photographed before maybe, you could always go back and find it again. Noticed by the few; they wait for those who are really looking.

What I love is that it’s impossible to take the same photo twice. Each one frames a specific moment in time; a combination of light, objects, people; arranged. Catching a subtlety which may never happen again.

But more than that, two people can photograph the same thing at the same time and still get very different images. A raw, unedited photograph tells the truth. In essence, the camera is showing you what it sees. But its also a selective truth: it doesn’t tell you what’s happening outside of the frame; what the photographer has chosen not to include. Because each photo is more than just a factual record of an event or moment. The photographer, in the act of framing and taking the photo, adds a comment, their own fingerprint. The photograph expresses something of who they are, what they think, what they notice. What viewpoint have they chosen? Where have they placed themselves in relation to their subject? Where is the focus? The difference is in the details, and details can change the entire mood, or narrative. (It can also tell us things about ourselves.)

All of these things, whether conscious of it as we press the shutter or not, are glimpses into our individuality. Our perspective of the world will inform the way we photograph, the stories we choose to tell, and what bits we choose to collect, and why.

The photographs we take and share can speak as much as our words, holding the power to create emotional responses. We may not even realise that we have a platform, but each of us has the power to influence, even if it’s just the one person standing next to us.

So let’s not leave our individual voices sitting in our pockets, our drawers or our hard drives. Let’s collect the world and share it. But let’s collect things that say something more. Let’s notice the things that often get missed; unnoticed. Let’s lend our voices to things that are important to us.