The simple answer is because we are a visual species. The more complicated answer involves backing up such a sweeping statement! And back it up I must, or you won’t be convinced and this blog post will be much too short!
So here goes:
We are a visual species because sight is our most important and useful sense:
Firstly, sight is long range – very long range. We can actually see things billions of miles away. But on a more down-to-earth level it enables us to detect danger at a distance. So we know when it is safe to cross the road, and in times gone past our ancestors could see danger and prey far enough away to devise a plan, so sight was vital to survival. Some of our other senses are fairly long range too – hearing and smell for example. But both are highly inaccurate. There’s no way you can know exactly where that sabre tooth tiger is just by the sound of it’s growl or its pungent smell, you’d just know it was there and you were in trouble…
The need to to quickly identify predators despite their attempts at camouflage may have led to our excellent colour perception – the best of any animal. In addition this capability will have helped our ancestors choose the right things to eat by selecting the nutritious fruits and berries and avoiding the poisonous ones.
In the modern era our vision has a profound effect on us. Research at 3M has discovered that we process images around 60,000 times faster than text. Although we also use sight to read the words on a page, we change the words in to sounds and pictures in our brain. This is a long, slow and inaccurate process that takes place in a linear fashion, word by word and sentence by sentence. Conversely, we are able to process the elements of an image simultaneously giving rise to the old cliché that a picture speaks 1000 words.
Our brains are also wired to support our strongest sense and we think using pictures. As media theorist John Berger writes in his book ‘Ways of Seeing’ (1972): “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak” suggesting that we are innately attuned to imagery whereas we have to learn all about words and language.
Some responses to images seem to be ingrained in the human psyche and are universal across cultures – for example wide, open landscapes evoke an instant sense of well-being and contentment even though for most modern men they would actually be a place where they couldn’t survive and would certainly perish. They should generate a sense of fear!
So, photography is important because our brains are geared up to deal with imagery more than with any other sense. This makes good photography even more important, because bad photography will have a huge and lasting impact in a negative way.