Photography: the act of intangible appropriation
The question of why we photograph has been asked since the invention of photography. While the answer may be more or less straightforward in case of journalism, product photography and other types of photography where there is a clear purpose for producing images, it is much more elusive where personal photography with no predefined specific use is concerned. Why do we photograph landscapes, wild animals, or places we visit as travellers? You often hear about artistic intent, self–expression and other noble intentions. The answer, however, is likely to have other variables as well: while these harmless motives may all be a part of the "why" equation, intangible appropriation is what often drives us to make images in the first place.
If you think about our first reaction to—or general attitude towards—the objects that we photograph, it is fascination. It is not a coolheaded desire to know or understand them: when we research an object in depth, it is usually to know how to photograph it better. And it is not a rational intention to contribute to the object's development or preservation: these purposes are better served through means other than photography (although photography can and has served to preserve, it is an exception rather than a rule). More often than not, we are driven by irrational, emotional attraction.
The most natural, human reaction to a fascinating object is to appropriate it. But of course, you cannot bring a mountain back home, you cannot catch a lion and keep it as a pet (how impractical would that be?), and it would be unwise to marry a beautiful person you see in the street even if she or he agrees to it right on the spot. Quite satisfactorily, though, taking a picture of an object of fascination gives a sense of having taken a part of it with you* (likewise, with the use of photography one can associate himself with events he cannot be a part of directly). Thus, by taking a picture of an object of fascination we appropriate it, even though intangibly. Which at the end of the day is a perfect compromise for all involved: the photographer is satisfied emotionally, while the object is not appropriated physically.
By intangibly appropriating an object through the use of photography with artistic intent, we beautify it and create an enhanced—or, at least, alternative—version of reality**. By sharing and spreading the enhanced version of reality, we foster further intangible appropriation of the object: more people become aware of and fascinated with it, want to witness it in person, and consequently appropriate it intangibly through the means of photography. Moreover, real–life perception of an object can be greatly influenced by its enhanced versions—to the extent that people start to believe that the cumulative enhanced presentation is what they experience in person, even though it may contradict their actual experience.
Naturally, there is nothing wrong with the photographic act of intangible appropriation as long as it does not result in tangible consequences. It is a subtle line, however, and tangible consequences are usually noticed when they are already irreversible. Post too many artistic photographs of a beautiful mountain valley on the Internet and people with no artistic intent start flocking in the valley to intangibly appropriate it with the rudimentary purpose of associating their mugs with the beauty of nature. Mass tourism will follow, and the valley will end up being shamelessly milked and prostituted to gain profit***. Just as photography can serve to preserve, it can foster humiliation and degradation.
Granted, most serious photographers do not mean any harm; moreover, one photographer cannot cause harm on a large scale even if he puts his mind to it. Most of us are sophisticated beings, and what we intangibly appropriate through the act of photography is used for sophisticated and selfless purposes: we contemplate, juxtapose, interpret and entwine the resulting inklings with our inner selves; we create abstract connections and realities that otherwise would not exist. In this sense, photography is a rare undertaking wherein one plus one equals three—or more. However, it is not as pure and harmless a pursuit as it may seem: multiple independent harmless efforts may cumulatively result in unintentional disservice.
We need to be aware of that.
*Is this why in some cultures it is believed that taking a picture can steal or harm the object's soul?
**"Reality" is meant as the most likely direct experience of encountering the object in person.
***I mourn for you endlessly, Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou.