Photography as an Outward-Focused Art

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This article is part of a series called Art Month. We'll highlight more on the intersection of faith and art during December.

A picture hangs on a grey wall in my family’s stairwell. It encapsulates a moment when my father gave a white-petaled flower to my then three-year-old sister. The photo contains my father’s cupped hand and my sister’s intent gaze as she gently reaches for the bloom. As romanticized as this description and the photo itself are, my family memorialized this tender moment on our wall because of how meaningful it is to us. The photograph is beauty captured through two lenses: the lens of my mother’s perspective and the lens of the camera she used to capture the photo.

This moment is only one of thousands upon thousands taken across the globe in an effort to convey meaning, and it was captured through a craft — photography — that has changed in response to culture and increasingly advanced technology. With these advancements came new opportunities to convey beauty and explore new mediums. One of these mediums is the “selfie.”

The name “selfie” was coined in 2002, and Susan Bennet from Ooh St. Lou Studios aptly explains selfies as such:

  • “Selfies allow us to examine and re-create our own image in a way that we feel comfortable with. In our looks-obsessed world, our appearance is a real currency, and it’s only natural that we should want to experiment with it, and make sure that we control it as much as we are able.”

While I’ve taken my fair share of selfies, they are not my preferred form of photography. I prefer photos like the ones I took on January 16, 2022.

That morning, I walked outside and gingerly stepped onto newly fallen flakes. College students flooded out their dorms, hauling all manner of makeshift sleds (a mattress works best). I ran back inside, retrieved a camera my mother had given me, and hurried back outside, giddily snapping photos of my friends as they played football in a joyful blur of snow. One photo I’m particularly proud of focuses on a group of five boys, all in various states of running or falling in the white fluff against the backdrop of two great trees. This photo represents my favorite aspect of photography — the act of capturing beauty in uncontrived moments.

Yet recently there’s been a trend directed away from this kind of beauty. With the holiday season’s arrival, social media has become home to post after post of explosions of red, green, holiday cheer, and influencer weather-appropriate “fits.” With the exception of a few quickly snapped pictures of seasonal foliage, most of these photos depict the owner of the account through a carefully structured window into the life of the individual. Tiktok and Instagram have become platforms for fast photography (if one can call it that); social media has cheapened the meaningful, finite, and outward-focused art of photography because of what these photos often communicate and how easily we can take them. One might call this development the perversion of the thoughtful, patient art of photography.

As we aim the lens outward, we become more outward-focused and concerned with the other.

So, do we lose the art of the photography when we constantly focus on self?

Before writing this article, I would likely argue yes. I’ve seen the perversions of this memory-capturer in the shallowness of my fellow students’ quickness to edit a photo in an effort to obscure an unwanted feature. I’ve seen it in my own attempts to control the persona I portray on social media. I manipulate my photos to cast a better (or manufactured) light on myself.

Yet recent generations are not the first to dabble in self-portraits, and the “rightness” of focusing on the self is contextual. Claus-Christian Carbon discusses the art of the painted self-portrait in relation to selfies, and writes,

  • “Self-portrait paintings are created following a sophisticated plan or concept demanding a serial production process ranging from composition and preliminary sketches to colorization and final varnish…Selfies, in contrast, are produced (i.e., taken) within seconds, usually by means of the deficient add-on camera of a smartphone equipped with a strongly distorting lens and under suboptimal lighting conditions.”

Carbon seems to imply that modern-day selfies lack the craftmanship of their painted predecessors. We are not the first to want to depict ourselves in a framed image, but modern photography both simplifies and cheapens these photos.

But something beautiful happens when we point the camera at something or someone other than ourselves. We’re suddenly less concerned with our own personal appearance or how others will perceive us. And as we aim the lens outward, we become more outward-focused and concerned with the other. Of course, this practice starts with intention and perspective. One must orient her proverbial inner lens in order to effectively orient their camera’s lens.

What it comes down to, as with all things, is the motivation behind the art. We often see the outworkings of vanity in those who post selfie after selfie, without context, narrative, or fellow friend in the frame. Focusing on the literal, physical self does not always imply moral failure or grave perversion, but it can serve as a litmus test. We must be vigilant in aligning our lens with our heavenly Father’s, that we may diligently seek to glorify him in all of our endeavors (1 Corinthians 10:31), and subsequently find beautiful, meaningful moments in the extraordinary mundane.

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Emeri Glen

Emeri Glen

Emeri serves as the social media and website manager for Liberty University’s student newspaper, The Champion, where she is currently a senior pursuing a BA in English. When she’s not working, writing, or rock climbing, Emeri enjoys having meaningful discussions with friends and strangers alike and reading books by C. S. Lewis and Agatha Christie.

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