Freud Says You’re Unhappy, and That’s Why You’re a Photographer


I’ve just got done with a marathon reading of Sigmund Freud. Well, maybe not “marathon” but an extended reading including The Future of an Illusion back to back with Civilization and its Discontents, two of his sociological works published in the late ’20s. Freud is a remarkable intellectual figure, so clearly full-of-shit about historical specifics yet endlessly thought-provoking in his larger worldview. As W.H. Auden wrote at Freud’s death, “if he often was wrong and, at times absurd, to us he is no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion under whom we conduct our different lives.”

Freud says that we differ from other animals in that we consider ourselves to have a purpose ( you won’t find your dog wondering what his purpose in life is). The purpose and intention of human life is pretty simple: we strive to be happy. This endeavor has both a positive and a negative aim. On the one hand, it aims at an absence of pain, on the other the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure. ‘Happiness’ relates more to the second aim. Unfortunately, the intention that we should be happy isn’t shared by the world we find ourselves in. We are threatened with unhappiness from three directions: from our body, which is doomed to inevitable decay and dissolution; from external forces of destruction over which we have no control; and finally, from our relationships with other people, all of them pursuing what they think will bring them their own happiness and often getting in the way of ours.



Clever animals we are, Freud says we’ve developed a number of ways of trying to be happy, or at least, fending off the inevitable unhappiness reality forces upon us. The first, and most obvious, is the unrestricted satisfaction of every need (e.g. you buy yourself a Lenny Kravitz Leica and enroll in a Thorsten von Overgaard seminar, thinking somehow that’s going to make you happy, because Leica and Mr. von Overgaard tell you it will. It doesn’t work, obviously, after you soon realize you’ve been conned into spending 40 large for an M240 with fake lizard skin covering and are spending an extra 3 grand to learn about ‘bokeh’ from a carnival barker who thinks he’s royalty).

Second, there is the happiness of quietude, i.e. voluntary isolation against the dreaded external world. You withdraw from the hustle and bustle of everyday life to seek a quiet space within ( e.g. you get yourself banned from the the photo forum you’ve compulsively visited because it’s nothing but a bunch of assholes all chasing their own ego-centric happiness, all talking past each other, and you’re better off not indulging such nonsense). Included in the pursuit of quietude is intoxication, introducing chemical substances into your system that alter the conditions of your sensibility (e.g. developing a fondness for bourbon neat.) Third, there is the attack against nature, attempting to subject her to the human will via science. We send people to outer space to learn its secrets or we embark on medical attempts to control and eradicate disease, all in the name of seeking our immortality as a means of continuing to pursue pleasure (e.g. I subject myself to the ravages of chemo because I’m being told that it’ll “cure” me in the end, irrespective of the fact that if cancer doesn’t get me soon, something surely will).

Finally, Freud sees our striving for beauty – our inborn aesthetic sense – as a defense against suffering in that, like quietude or intoxication, it seeks to master the internal sources of our needs by re-creating the world we perceive, building up in its stead another world in which the unbearable features are eliminated and replaced by a view that corresponds to one’s wishes. This is ultimately what our quest for happiness via an aesthetic outlook entails for Freud. Your attempts at developing a unique photographic vision are, for Freud, a result of attempting to remold reality in a more pleasing image. I do it by shooting stuff out of car windows. Thorsten von Overgaard seeks his bliss in bokeh. For Freud, your aesthetic strivings derive from the same cause as do your religious beliefs; they are both attempts to correct parts of reality unbearable to you by construction of a wish.



Unfortunately, for Freud, the program of becoming happy via seeking pleasure, whether via sex, or intoxication or knowledge is bound to failure. We will always find our efforts at happiness to be fleeting at best. This is because the satiation of our desires only makes us happy when it’s intermittent and experienced against a larger backdrop of deprivation. Unrelenting pleasure soon loses its appeal, as anyone who spent too long in bed with an overly available partner can attest. As for the means by which we seek our happiness, “there is no golden rule which applies to everyone: every man must find out for himself in what particular fashion he can be saved.”

And yet, there is in Freud a certain admiration of, and humbleness, before man’s quest for happiness via the enjoyment of beauty that you don’t see in his analysis of other forms of human pleasure-seeking. The beautiful temporarily takes us outside ourselves, having no obvious use except as a tonic for what would otherwise be a life of chronic discontent. This, actually is much the same argument for aesthetics that Schopenhauer makes. And, unlike finding solace in religion, Freud doesn’t see the joy of the beautiful to be a delusion; beauty does exist, and we can access it to satiate our desire for pleasure. Beauty’s efficacy as a means of happiness is something, Freud admits, that ultimately isn’t explainable by psychoanalysis. “Beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. Yet civilization cannot live without it.” This is because, unlike other forms of pleasure, there is no satiation in our perceptions of beauty. Unlike sex or drugs, accessing beauty continues to give pleasure no matter the amount we indulge in it. According to Freud, this path to happiness, humble though it is, may be the best we can ask for.

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9 thoughts on “Freud Says You’re Unhappy, and That’s Why You’re a Photographer

  1. Dan Newell

    Hold On……three German philosophers in one post. I’m going to have to see if I have a joint rolled.
    Wasn’t one version of hell where the French are the politicians, English the cooks and philosophers were German?

  2. Rob Campbell

    Whether or not one has to be of an unhappy nature in order to be a photographer depends, I think, on how much photography means to the individual.

    In my own case, I certainly was unhappy, frustrated both by geography as by the government’s desire to send all youths between 17 and 26 (I think those were the age limits) to the armed forces in order to risk their lives for things that were not existential insofar as Britain was really concerned. Why would I want to risk my life in Northern Ireland, Kenya, Cyprus or any other place that we would probably have been better off leaving as quickly as possible? We did it with India, a country with problems so vast (ecomomy, casts, religions, health, dacoits) that nothing Britain could do would have solved them. (Instead, we stupidly invited them all to come join us on this tiny island, already deeply in trouble with its own economy.) So, taking advantage of the deferment opportunities some careers offered, i joined industry to become an engineer, which was a ploy to buy time, in the hope that conscription would be abandoned during my training period. Thankfully it was, after my fourth year as an apprentice, and I switched at once to photography, now feeling safe from the armed forces. What a blight on careers, at their most critical time, that that little military concept was!

    In an ideal world, wanting to be a fashion photographer, I should have been born and bred in London. Instead, after a circuitous trip via years in Britain, India and one in Italy, I ended up in bloody Glasgow. It took me to the age of 29 before I got the money together to be able to give it a shot at going solo, based on the ability to survive for six months without bringing in any money. As our home would have bought little but a garage in London, and having two kids, moving south and living under a bridge was out of the question, although I did go down there to explore the job possibilities, and the best I could pull was an offer of employment at £9 a week… right.

    So, yeah, sad and highly frustrated, but with a passion so strong that there wasn’t much else I could do but make the play to be pro. It would have been far worse if I had not tried, or if I had tried but failed. Thankfully, Lady Luck was now on my side.

    However, had I remained an amateur, with my particular mindset and desires, I most certainly would have been the saddest guy I ever knew.

    But the quest for beauty belongs exclusively to no category of snapper: we can all share it, and if we do, then happiness depends on our ability to find it and create/record it. I think that’s the attraction of “street”: it doesn’t require beauty; more does it require big balls bursting with testosterone, and subscription to a different aesthetic that depends on other factors of design and shape for personal satisfaction with the product of our labours. I find it fascinating, if not within the format of my own testicular development. That’s the people shots branch of street; the so-called architectural side is something else that I can dig, thanks to Saul Leiter and some young guys doing their thing today.

    Perhaps the best conditions for being interested in photography are met when you enjoy it, but don’t feel yourself saddled with too much love, desire and an ambition for success within it. Perhaps that’s what the iPhone is unintentionally beginning to prove.

  3. Chris

    “Unlike sex or drugs, accessing beauty continues to give pleasure no matter the amount we indulge in it. According to Freud, this path to happiness, humble though it is, may be the best we can ask for.”

    That’s an interesting thought! I guess there is some truth in it. But well, I’m German…

  4. David Comdico

    I re-read Civilization and It’s Discontents every few years. It is a wise book and Freud is actually a very good writer. As far as a connection to Leicas, the camera itself is special as it creates a highly immersive experience in use. The craftsmanship is part of this, sure, but also its function as a time-keeping device. A well-crafted manual camera puts you in touch with this essential aspect of photography (which has interesting implications).

    BTW: I just read through all your M5 articles. Thanks for writing those.

    1. Rob Campbell

      Was there any particular reason why you opted for a manual camera? Did you mean to imply that a digital camera couldn’t deliver?

      Photography is photography, and making a shot is little different with either type of camera, and it’s not your fingers that do the walking in this case, but your eyes. There are differences in reaching a print, if you want to make one, but that’s another matter, don’t you think? Insofar as the search for the healing power of beauty is concerned, it’s not much more than swapping from one colour of eyeshadow to another: well applied, both are exciting to the eye.

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