This one.
It's a snapshot.

And this one.
It was originally a snapshot,
 but now it’s not.

What makes one the one thing, and the other another?
Which one is better?
Which one is more important?
To whom?

The first photograph is my favourite kind: the snapshot.

Snapshots are usually important to the photographer, because they're done to record something for posterity, rather than as a considered act of photography. Photography as means, not end.

Does that mean that the subject is more important than the quality of the photography? Yes. Photography enthusiasts might dismiss such a picture by saying, “It's just a snapshot”. Meaning that the photograph has no Wow factor and little overt technical merit. It's beneath them and their craft, is perhaps the unspoken subtext.

But is the subject of the snapshot more important than the photograph? No. We may have been moved to take such a picture because the subject matters to us personally, but what we actually want is the photograph itself. As an object. Not merely as a record of a thing, but as a thing in its own right. An imperishable thing, a treasure.

This is just a cell phone shot made to look like a Polaroid, to help illustrate my point about the photograph as an object. A Polaroid is a unique material object, of which there cannot be a satisfying duplicate. It's not a copy of a thing, or even an image of a thing. It is the thing.

To a lesser extent, any photograph printed and treasured and passed around at the breakfast table is also an object, as well as being an image.

This particular snapshot is of my wife. It was taken while we were making the first survey of the site for what is now a newly-completed house. Not just any house. It's a small private guest lodge in our beloved African bush.  

Is the photograph any good? By objective standards it's not remarkable. I made some modest effort to give it a suitable mood, by crouching down to include wildflowers and the slanting sunlight, hoping for a dreamy romantic effect.

But it's important only to me. First because it is my wife, and family is the primary motivation for snapshots. Second because this guest lodge in the African bush is a dream we'd shared. It's the most thrilling thing we'd ever imagined together. 

And this was the moment when we first paced out the boundaries, literally and figuratively, of that dream.

Now to the second photograph, of a graphic event we recently witnessed. 

Lions killing and eating a warthog, just a few metres from us. It was originally something of a snapshot too. One of a quick series I shot with a compact camera as a first instinct. No time, no place, for considered photography.

Looking at the images of the event later, I saw within one of the pictures something that was more than its whole. The whole was, frankly, a mess. Entrails and blood and confusion and for the dying warthog screaming terror as his last emotion in life.

But a judicious crop told another story, with a little help from my limited processing skills. 

There was the young male lion, stooped over the warthog like a malevolent Diablo. His one opaque eyeball added to his aspect of pitiless detachment. And at his feet lies his victim. 

Arrayed around this diabolical centre are his handmaidens, in an improbable symmetry suggestive of one of those terrible religious (or perhaps I mean sacrilegious) paintings of a few centuries ago, with demons and angels and the devil himself towering above some wretched mortal sinner in a swoon.

Thus the second photograph is one on which I exerted a considered transformative effect, to create a point of view of the event not otherwise available even to an actual eyewitness. It's not staged, but nor is it reality; it's reality transformed, reinterpreted. And within photography, that is the truest artistic impulse. Transformation. So now it's become art. It could be bad art of course (that's up to you) – or it could be good art but still not something for the living room wall – but it is art.

So, that's the two photographs described and explained. And why I hold the one to be a snapshot, and the other to be art.

But which is better? Which is more important? To whom?

It's easily answered. The snapshot is the more important for three reasons. First, because of its provenance: it means something big to me. Second, it cannot legitimately be compared with any other snapshot: it is the only such picture in existence, and the only one there can ever be. Third, it is imperishable: it will not wane in significance with the years, in fact it will grow and resonate with more and more meaning.

The lion kill photograph is already at a disadvantage because there are plenty of other similar pictures, or at least pictures of much the same thing. And quite a lot of them are more technically accomplished, more polished, and have more Wow factor.

I like the picture, because it turned out exactly as I'd hoped when I first saw the smaller tableau nesting within a greater distracting mess. And for once my elementary processing ability was up to the task of the transformation I wanted. But it's not a durable photograph. I'm already a bit bored with it. It's just a momentarily interesting photograph of a moderately uncommon event, with a bit of low art tossed in for effect. Other people will do better pictures of a lion kill, and mine will soon diminish even for me.

That won't happen with the snapshot, the first picture.  

It's my view that the snapshot is the most noble, most durable and most essential expression of photography. For a photographer to dismiss a picture as just a snapshot is to dismiss the blood that flows through your body, because you prefer admiring your beautiful eyes.  

You can live without beautiful eyes; you can live without any eyes at all. But you can't live without your lifeblood. Nor can photography.