What makes a photograph interesting?

I put most of the pictures that I want to share onto Picasa, but I've been putting a few onto Flickr for a while, mainly because I liked the geo-tagging that Flickr supported - and seeing the red dots littered across the map.  I spent a while this weekend playing with some of the other features that Flickr offers, and came across the concept of "Interestingness".  Serious Flickr users debated this feature years ago but my exploration of it did start me thinking about what makes a picture interesting and why I choose some pictures to share and not others.

The twenty most interesting (according to Flickr) pictures include eight from the Falkland Islands, three from Antarctica, a couple each from various Scottish Islands and Argentina - I don't particularly disagree with any of these choices but I am intrigued about what put these ahead of others in my collection.  These aren't the most regularly viewed pictures nor the ones that others have flagged as favourites - and I must admit I haven't yet gone off to look at the various patents that Yahoo have filed in this area to understand the ranking.

 I put pictures onto Picasa (or Flickr) for a variety of reasons. They're there as my 'been there' flags, pictures that represent the geographic extent of each trip and the "famous" places I've visited on the trip.  Although my visit to Beijing a couple of years ago was in the summer and the visibility was lousy, I was always going to put up pictures of the Great Wall even though if I wasn't particularly proud of them.  I also put up pictures that I particularly like or which evoke strong memories.  These are often wildlife pictures - I got a real buzz out of the whale pictures off Boston in the summer and the bird pictures from the Falklands earlier in the year.  These two reasons are really just reasons why I would put pictures up, but not really reasons why anyone else would want to look at them never mind contribute to any concept of interestingness.

The third reason for putting pictures up is (I hope) slightly more altruistic and potentially more interesting to others - it is to give a flavour of the experiences I've had, the places I've been seen or the people I've been visited.  I think this is particularly true of the places I think of as unusual - I do tend to opt (when given a choice) to go to places that most other folks don't go to, and I see part of my "role" as sharing my experience with others.  Part of my criteria for "interesting" would be to highlight things I want to talk about after the trip.  From the Central Asia trip I felt a real need to talk about what's happening to the Uighur people in Xinjiang in western China, but I didn't want to share some of the people pictures just in case there were implications to my doing this.  My compromise on that trip was to include pictures of the various bits of Kashgar Old Town as they still are alongside the freshly bulldozed areas being cleared by the Chinese authorities in the name of progress.

When I'm enthusing about the places I've been to, I also occasionally catch myself thinking that I don't really want lots of people following me there.  Places like the Falklands and Bhutan are fascinating places to go and visit and I'll be going back to both of them, but part of the interestingness of these places (and hopefully my pictures) is that they are relatively unusual destinations.  However neither of these places has a big tourist infrastructure and a huge influx of visitors would certainly change them.  In these cases I get torn between offering interesting pictures and wanting to keep the secrets to myself..

My 20 most "interesting" pictures are linked below

Interesting Pictures?

Watching The Albatross

I'm not sure I'd go quite as far as Robert Cushman Murphy who in late 1912, asserted that he now belonged to "a higher cult of mortals" because "he had seen the albatross", but I do consider myself to be lucky to have seen a variety of albatross over the last couple of years.

My first sighting of the albatross was from MS Fram heading south from Ushuaia towards the South Shetland Islands in November 2007 - on that trip I saw four different species (Wandering, Black-browed, Sooty and Grey-headed). However, I saw all of these at a distance and, truth be told, I was pretty reliant on the accompanying naturalists to confirm which I was seeing.

Those first sightings were enough to encourage me to head back down to the Falkland Islands earlier this year so I could get a look at one of these species at close quarters.

I spent a few days staying at the Neck on Saunders Island in the northwest corner of the Falklands.  The attractions on Saunders include colonies of gentoo, magellanic, rockhopper and king penguins, as well as Johnny Rooks (striated caracaras), king and rock cormorants - but the real draw is the huge breeding colony of black-browed albatross. These awesome birds nest on mud-turrets on a steep hillside facing northwards towards South America - and I was able to sit close to the colony (which they share with both rockhoppers and cormorants) watching the adult albatross sweep dramatically back in from the sea. They stumble through a landing process, most charitably described as ungainly, before going through their welcoming rituals with their partners and then turning their full attention to childcare. The beak-tapping ritual reinforces the bond between the adults - but the real magic is the delicacy of touch demonstrated after feeding when the adult's huge curved beak is used to pick away left-overs from around the chick's head.

I was at the colony in February when the down-covered chicks are not yet quite ready to fledge, but are almost the same size as the adults. The chicks spend much of the day sitting balanced high on their mud look-out posts waiting for the adults to return with another load of freshly caught squid. One of my strongest recollections is walking along the tracks high above the colony aware that many pairs of chick eyes were following me - and if I dared cross the invisible line that the chicks considered to be the safe distance they would very vocally encourage me to take a few steps back up the hill.

A few of the photographs I took around the colony are linked below.

Saunders Albatross February 2009

I spent several days on Saunders Island, and was privileged to be able to spend a lot of hours just watching the comings and goings at the colony, particularly watching the chicks waiting for the adults to return from their long-range foraging trips. This makes the activities of the Albatross Task Force even more important in my mind and I'll be encouraging folks I know who are interested in bird-life to help support the project. We (collectively) need to do everything we can to help protect these magnificent birds as they search for food across the Southern Ocean - I'm trying to figure out how and where I can get to see other albatross up close, but in the meantime I'll continue supporting the ATF.

Travel Envy...

Envy is a terrible thing. My first real pang of travel envy was when I was 12 or 13 - I and my family were on holiday in Aviemore in the Cairngorms. It happened that my school headmaster was on holiday there too. When the snow closed in towards the end of the holiday season my family got out towards the South just before the roads were closed, but the Head and his family got stuck. I made it back to school in time for the new term, the Head made it back several days later. Felt very unfair at the time. Still does.

Had similar thoughts today seeing the news reports that the Kapitan Khlebnikov has managed to get stuck in the sea ice near the Antarctic peninsula. I'm already envious that these folks are getting to travel to Snow Hill on the KK before it's retirement - and the bonus of getting safely stuck will give them serious bragging rights when they get home...

Bromsgrove and Birmingham November 2009

There's been something of a pattern to my trips this year - Barcelona, Beijing, Bishkek, Boston, Budapest - and Bromsgrove and Birmingham fit right into that pattern.

These two trips (both work-related) covered different aspects of my work role.

The Bromsgrove trip was to spend a while talking with a group of Open University Associate Lecturers about the range of collaborative tools the OU makes available to them now, and to speculate about the new tools that might become available in the next two or three years to either complicate what they're doing further or to help them manage the torrent of information. I enjoyed the session - and I hope my audience got something from it too.

The Birmingham trip was a visit to the Brave New World of the JISC/CETIS Conference - last year I made a comment about being surrounded by twitters this time I was one of them. As always this meeting brings together a really good mix of new technology experimenters and folks responsible for running production systems - and provides plenty to think about.

Budapest November 2009

My last visit to Budapest was in June 1997 - the city has changed since then. One of my strongest memories was that we couldn't find any of the traditional Budapest coffee shops we'd been promised - they all seemed to have been converted into western european (and US) burger bars. This time it had all changed - and the US burger chains have all been supplemented by Starbucks and Costa Coffee - not traditional perhaps, but at least I was able to get a reasonable cup of coffee. The bonus was that alongside the cappuccinos and lattes it was possible to get some decent local cake.

I was in Budapest for a two day workshop on standards for exchanging elearning materials - and (I suspect) as a result of good planning by the organisers, the one point during my time there when there weren't sessions to attend coincided with a time when the skies cleared and the cold drizzle stopped.

I walked the length Andrassy ut on the Pest side of the river - from Heroes' Square (which was in mid-rehearsal for Armistice Day) down towards the Chain Bridge, then along past the Parliament Building. Budapest has more than it's fair share of statues - the most moving I saw were the Shoes on the Danube by Gyula Pauer - commemorating Hungarian Jews shot and thrown into the Danube in 1944.

And it was a useful conference too!

Budapest November 2009