Are We Making Things Better?

A couple of years ago, I came across a post written by the Canadian photographer David duChemin. He was telling about an episode when eating in restaurant in London, during which he happened to eavesdrop on a dialogue next to him. The conversation was between two tech guys. At some point, the discussion turned into whether their technology is helping people make better things, or make things better.

The distinction has philosophical, ethical as well as practical implications, as duChemin continues to elaborate on in his post.

Ever since I read his post, I have wanted to pick up on duChemnin’s pondering. Not the least, because this goes to the core of what I do as a photojournalist.

Of course, in my line of work, I want to capture better and more compelling images, but in the end, I also hope and wish that my stories may have a positive impact, one way or another. In fact, at least judging purely journalistically, without the latter, journalism becomes meaningless. The whole point is to inform in order for members of a society to be able to make informed decisions for necessary changes. That said, I have been in the business long enough to know that any single story of mine will not change the world in any direction. However, I believe—or at least hope—that every piece will add to better our combined knowledge so that over time it all together will lead to positive advancements.

Right now, for instance, I am working on a story about the impact of isolation. How do we cope with being isolated and how does seclusion affect us? The story will have a broad focus on various aspect of isolation. Of course, the idea springs out of the corona pandemic, which holds the world in its grip. Everywhere we are all affected and forced into various degrees of isolation. I will meet with students who have lost their social arenas because universities have been closed down, I will meet with elderly, who will not receive visits in order to protect them, but I will also meet with inmates, who are isolated independently of the pandemic. To the latter, I originally had set up to go to prison tomorrow, but this week newer and more severe restrictions have been imposed here where I live. In fact, my city has been completely locked down due to the new mutated strains of the virus, so I have become secluded myself.

Anyway, the point is, yes, I want to capture strong and compelling images, whether showing students, elderly or prisoners, but when push comes to shove, I hope the story will have some sort if impact, if only educationally.

And isn’t that the case for anyone photographing, or anyone involved in creative activities, no matter at what level? Of course, we want to improve and develop our skills so that we can make better photos (or things), but don’t we all hope that our images will have some positive impact? You want your image of a magnificent winter landscape to produce some kind of awe in the viewer, you want your photo of a newborn to touch others, and you want you art, whatever you create, to bring joy or enlightenment or amazement—at some level.

One doesn’t exclude the other. However, maybe we sometimes forget the question about making things better. Or at least becomes less aware of that side of the creative coin. As duChemin writes: “Does making this thing, whatever it is, make the world a better place? Does it add a little more light? Does it bring me joy as I make it? Does it help me ask (or answer) bigger questions? Does it contribute to the experience of being more fully human and alive?”

Let’s not be oblivious about that part of the equation. In fact, being aware of how to make things better, will help us make better things. Creativity is at the very core of what it means to be human. Nevertheless, the equation is reciprocal by nature. Pushing myself to make better things will most likely result in making things better.

55 thoughts on “Are We Making Things Better?

  1. Oh yes! I couldn’t agree more Otto. It’s not just about honing our craft, taking a quality photo or writing a better story. We want to impact and engage and yes, ultimately make a difference. Your Isolation theme will no doubt resonate with many. And, for the record, I think your photos are wonderful. And definitely making things better!

  2. Dear Otto,
    reading your post was very inspiring – like always. The question is what means a better photo or in general a better artefact? Better can only be defined in relation to an aim or idea. And it has to try to trigger an reaction. I don’t think that producing joy is enough. I would see it much more politically, in the end better means helping to activate people to work for a fair society and for a more sustainable way of living. The times of l`art pour l`art are long gone.
    Thanks for sharing your inspiring ideas
    Klausbernd 🙂

    1. Good points, KlausBernd “Better can only be defined in relation to an aim or idea. And it has to try to trigger an reaction. I don’t think that producing joy is enough.”’ I would agree

    2. Dear Klausbernd, I quite agree with your point of view and think that, if we manage with our idea to trigger reaction in your sense, it may also provoke joy! All the best Martina

    3. I am not sure if art for art’s sake is left for history, but I do think most artists seek something more than just better artefacts. At least for me art in and of itself is less interesting. Nevertheless, I see at lot of art out there that appears to only provoke or break with conformity, and that is the only raison d’être. It may trigger reactions, but still doesn’t go beyond art for art’s sake. On the other hand, I would be extremely happy if only one of my photos could create joy for someone otherwise struggling in life.

      1. Thanks for your answer. It provokes these questions:
        Why do you present your pictures?
        What do you want to achieve with it?
        Art or not art seems to me a question of the definition of art. But that would be a topic for another post.
        Keep well
        Klausbernd
        The Fab Four of Cley
        🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

        1. Why do I present my photos? Of course, there isn’t one simple answer to the question. But let my at least point to some. First all, there is the pleasure in getting what I create out into the world. But then, which goes to what I write in this post, I want to influence the world in some way or another. It could be as simple as spreading joy, but on a more profound level, to inform and make people aware for instance of injustice. Sometimes I use provocation as a means to awaken the audience, but not for provocation for pure provocation in itself. Sometimes I have a very specific idea, particularly in photojournalistic work. But sometimes I just want to convey my emotional reaction to a subject I am photographing. I have to admit there is also some desire to gain recognition with my work, although I admit that reluctantly. Maybe because it’s not virtuous enough?…

          As for defining art, I think it’s a good idea not to venture into that topic, as interesting as it is, but not here and not now. 🙂 However, let’s get back to it (and I know you have written much about it).

          1. Dear Otto,
            in one of our next posts I will write about ugliness that is close connected with provocation.
            I don’t think there is something wrong or that it is un-ethical to publish for recognition. I rather quarrel to publish because wanting to convey my subjective emotional reaction to an object.
            Anyway, it is most important to getting an awareness for the reason to publish a picture. One could call all your reasons political except the last two.
            Keep well
            Klausbernd 🙂

  3. How strange is life, Otto, or merely serendipity? Just this last week I’ve joined du Chemin’s mailing list. I’m not well versed in the best photographers but followed the thought process of Sue Judd and liked what I read. I haven’t read this particular article but will go there next. 🙂 🙂 My aim is generally to stay cheerful and positive, and if not making things better, at least never making them worse. We are still pretty restricted here in the Algarve and trying to make the best of it.

  4. That’s a pretty profound question. As I shoot, edit and decide what to post, I do consider what the point of this image is. Am I trying to convey something, or just have a nice image to say I posted today.
    Your project sounds interesting. Isolation is much more challenging to capture than activity. I look forward to seeing the finished work.

  5. Reading the comments, I found myself disagreeing that ‘joy isn’t enough.’ In joyless times, any experience of joy, even the sight of a photograph, can be sustaining. We are surrounded by politicians and bureaucrats whose primary goal seems to be isolating us from one another: eliminating any experience which affirms humanity. It’s a simple fact that isolated and fearful people are easier to control; anything that helps to restore human bonds, or remind people what freedom felt like, is a threat to repressive efforts of every sort. Photography has a place in that resistance.

    1. You have a good point in that isolation and fearful people are easier to control. Personally, I still think the restrictions imposed on us are necessary, but then as a society, we need to help each other and particularly the vulnerable to overcome what social isolation may result in. As for joy and your reaction to another comment, I really love when a post can result in some real discussion about profound issues. So thank you for airing your thoughts, Linda.

  6. For me, my wild horse photography has certainly brought more attention to their plight. When I am exhibiting at art shows, people are drawn in and conversations are started about what is happening in the western US.

  7. Oh yes, dear Otto, you did a great point especially for these days of pandemic situation… For the one who has been in home for almost one year, -me… I have been in the home almost for one year, you can guess how impressing me… But yes, I do agree with you all, the creativity is the only power of humans… How nice to read you. Thank you, Love, nia

  8. I think, Otto, that if we can induce people, through what we are doing, to take on more responsability into the happenings of this world, we have at least tried to do our best! Thank you very much for your challenging thoughts.:) Very best regards Martina

  9. Io penso che sia tutto legato all’assumersi responsabilità negli avvenimenti che ci circondano. Leggerti è sempre molto interessante e stimolante e concordo con quanto hai scritto. Essere creativi è necessario ma sempre nel rispetto della persona se è il soggetto della foto. Con le foto si cerca sempre di trasmettere emozioni oppure di fare ragionare le persone che guardano le foto, soprattutto quelle che mettono in evidenza ciò che ci circonda. Far notare che ci sono situazioni da migliorare è necessario e quindi ben vengano foto educative e far nascere una reazione positiva.
    Un grande saluto, Pat

  10. Excellent post Otto. For one thing, David duChemin always makes you think. Love the “make better things vs make things better” concept. I personally have tried to make what I call “happy” images and it is probably one of the things that gets me through all the negative things going on. I know this is not everyone’s philosophy, but it really helps me. Thanks for the post.

  11. A very thought provoking post, Otto, I love it, once in a while I read David duChemin absolutely interesting post. For rmyself and most of my work, I tend to disagree that enjoy isn’t enough. My work mostly consists of showing the essence of a subject, in the aim that the viewer takes away a glimpse of hope that beauty really exists by getting them involved to take closer look at the real essence of beauty. Usually I view subjects from a very different angle and perspective one usually has not thought about. Indeed the question is what is a better image…. as I agree with Klausbernd , the aim is to trigger a reaction, that either by introducing new perspectives or someone finds him/herself in an image.
    I’m excited for you for your new project and can’t wait to see what you have captured, it is certainly an important subject.

  12. I have consistently felt that you do present positivity in your photojournalism, and in turn you add to making things better for us all. You have such a respectful approach to the people you photograph, and something honest and clear comes through the faces, telling their story, not yours. I am looking forward to when you can travel freely again and can share some of the people and their occupations within community life. I suppose that one of the ways you make things better is to ask the question of yourself in the first place. I really do admire your work. Otto. And appreciate what you’ve shared here. There are broad applications we can all learn from!

    1. Thank you for those lovely words, Debra, make me blush. I think you point to something important, that we, whether photojournalists or involved in other art work, need always to question ourselves.

  13. Interesting thoughts that made me visit the site of David duChemin. Now I understand better what you ment here. One thing is for sure…. I singned up on Davids newsletter.

  14. i’m not even sure tech is making better THINGS anymore, the internet used to be so exciting and now it’s just facebook and youtube …. but i would not want to go back to pre-computer days, so i guess they are making things better

  15. I like very much the example you give of your own project. By focusing on a subject closely we raise awareness, identify different viewpoints, encourage questions and responses. Awareness is the first step on the path to understanding.

  16. Great philosophical questions and post. We always hear that art should evoke an emotional response. I am unsure whether it always has to be positive or make a positive change. For instance sadness or even shock could be the emotions at work … but then perhaps there is still positive value. Of course that’s not me since I try to give viewers a pleasant experience, nostalgic or nature inspired.

  17. Strong article, Otto, which leaves a lot to ponder about. I do believe that maybe as long we keep pleasure in the things we create ( photography or any kind of art) we will not only add a positive note to the world . However we also might make people aware of what is at stake , what we might lose in our world of today, like a wake-up call.

  18. That last sentence is a clever way of putting it! I do ask myself that sometimes. Beauty plays an important part for me but it’s not only that. In the best-case scenario, I can inspire someone to pay closer attention to the world, to look more carefully. When you do that, you are in a different relationship with the world, a healthy relationship, and out of that, good things can come. Thanks for prompting me to clarify that, Otto. 🙂 (Sorry to hear about the increased restrictions. It seems like we’re going to be on a roller coaster for while. Damn!!).

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