On reading about celebrated photographer Steve McCurry’s recent project

Ahead of his appearance at the Hay Festival next week, Steve McCurry was interviewed in the Daily Telegraph about a new book featuring photographs taken in coffee-growing communities around the world. Apparently, he made trips to eight countries over ten years, returning several times to each location to get to know the people he was photographing.

The time and energy that went into producing his images, some of which were reproduced beside the article, impressed and surprised me. There I was, naively thinking a photographer arrives in town, strolls around, spots the perfect shot, and snaps away. Or goes up to a local and asks him to pose for a photo portrait. That, I always reckoned, was more or less it. It’s not as if taking a photo is like settling down to work with pencils or watercolours, is it?

So I have a refreshed respect for the minds behind the lenses. John Berger may have pointed out in Understanding a Photograph that unlike the painter the photographer makes only a ‘single constitutive choice’, which is when to click the button, but I don’t think this belittles the photograph in the slightest. After all, he does also imply that it is as meaningful as any other art form once the viewer has ‘lent’ it a past and a future.

The practice of photography has been demeaned of late, I feel, because it is ubiquitous. A photo is so easy to take. You whip out your digital camera and blast away. It doesn’t matter how many potshots you take as there’s no film to waste. And you get to see the results instantly, even if it’s only on a tiny screen.

Of course, instant results aren’t exactly new. I remember using a polaroid camera when I was small. Out of the front of the device popped the finished photo. But the paper it was printed on was still a commodity of some value, and had to be replenished (by Dad, not me), so I wasn’t encouraged to be snap happy.

The recent World Vinyl Day was a reminder of the pleasures of valuing music, which like photography is all around us and all too accessible. Vinyl-buying returns us to the days when music could not be downloaded for free, and walking out of a shop with a new record under one’s arm, anticipating its first play, was a necessary but enjoyable ritual to be performed. By getting your hands on a real object (in this case, a record) you feel a connection with what it is you have purchased, deepened by the physical act of placing the record on the turnstile and moving the needle – and perhaps, as vinyl enthusiasts claim, by the quality of the sound too.

Taking photos and acquiring music: both pursuits are more satisfying if we devote more time and effort to them, and if they compel us to interact with people and things around us.

camera film