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​Through a lens

Each photograph has a story; a context. No photograph is meaningless. For me, this is the most alluring aspect of a photograph. Why did the photographer want to capture that nightstand? Why did they think that this person staring at a palm tree in broad daylight was interesting? Whenever I see a photograph, I wonder about the intent, the context, and the technique that was used to capture the scene. What is the meaning of this photograph?

In photography, meaning is rarely articulated at the moment when the photo is taken. It is a sudden inspiration or a gut feeling that makes the photographer take the photo. We see an interesting scene—maybe a bird soaring over a skyscraper, or perhaps an ant mounting an apple—and snap the photo. Once the photo has been taken, we analyze what beautiful moment we have captured, and find a meaning that only our guts knew at the time of capture. For example, in the bird picture, we may only see the sun and the sky with silhouetted bird and the skyscraper. We feel a sense of freedom because of the bird, but we may also feel a sense of oppression because of the silhouette and the harsh sunlight. The photograph may also make us feel like we are imprisoned beneath the steel structures, as if those black silhouetted skyscrapers are like the bars of a prison. But outside we may see hope as we see the freedom of the bird and the light shining towards us.

In that way, we open a whole world of deeper meaning and symbolism through a photograph that was taken from a moment of inspiration at a moment in time that will never be replicated again. Ordinary things we see every day—buildings, birds, apples, flowers, whatever—through the frame of a photograph, become extraordinary. By narrowing our field of view and bringing a fraction of our sight into attention, photographs give us the power to see things we would have easily missed and experience a world we could have never guessed existed.

Sometimes these worlds are difficult to come by and capture. However, when these moments happen, the results are extraordinary and breathtaking. Capturing these moments isn’t easy—it’s like fishing. We often wake up early in the morning to capture that perfect light at the crack of dawn, or to capture that misty morning air above the tall grasses damp with dew. Other times, we set up our tripods and point the camera towards a city during a thunderstorm and wait for lightning to strike the tops of skyscrapers. Perhaps we camp out in the middle of the desert and wait for the moon to set, or stay focused for the Milky Way to position itself perfectly above the barren tree, so that the tree branches seem like they’re holding up the galaxy. However, when the perfect moment is reached and the shutter released, the results are often astonishing, opening up a whole new universe of seeing our world.

While photography can capture fleeting moments to be written forever into history, it can also capture history and bring a forgotten and neglected world into light. Photographs of tiny towns, natural wastelands and hidden sceneries often have a creepy or eerie atmosphere, but also can be quite beautiful. This time, the relative stillness of the world makes us feel the awe. Think of Chernobyl, where photographs of the stillness of decay, of buildings overrun by vegetation, give our visual senses a splash of rich colors and details that we would easily dismiss in real life.

Not only is photography an important tool for audiences to explore worlds they have never seen before, but it is also important for the photographer. Through the lens, photographers have an outlet for expression. Each photographer has his or her own unique style and technique, and they can express their viewpoints and what they see through photography to tell part of a story about themselves or others.

Nature has created the eye—the sensory organ that gathers information about light, allowing the host organism guide itself around the universe. Then, mankind created the camera, giving machine the ability to sense light. Ever since its inception, we have relentlessly explored the field, experimenting with various methods of capturing the fleeting moments in life in permanence. This novel invention has allowed us to look at the world from a new perspective, opening up an alternate universe to us, allowing us to experience the world in a familiar yet wildly different way.

Photography has evolved, and continues to do so. Despite the influx of over-posed selfies and overused filters, the field and its core ideals grow, and our eyes improve. With a fraction of a second captured into a special arrangement of colors and lines, the once-meaningless receives significance, the neglected enjoy the spotlight.

Hansung Kang is photo editor of The Chronicle.

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