Photographing is closely related to seeing – in the sense of being able to notice and be aware. But seeing is something so naturally, something we do without even noticing, that the conscious process of seeing with the purpose of photographing almost forces us to start over having to learn it all again. We see, but we don’t notice – we see, but aren’t aware what we see, unless something makes us alert.
Ordinarily, seeing refers to a broad range of experiences: From automatically sensing to complete immersion in the visual realm. At one extreme, you could be driving or walking along, talking with your friends, and then you see a red light and come to a stop, all without interrupting the conversation. At the other extreme, you could be stopped at that red light, and then see it – you see brilliant, saturated colour, the patterns formed by the facets of the lens, the red glow cast by light on the street or the cars, and the light blue sky that surrounds the whole scene. From a purely functional point of view, these two instances could be described in the same way. In each case you have seen a red light. But from an experiential point of view, they are worlds apart.
When you unconsciously notice the traffic light, what happens is primarily conceptual. When you really see that same light, what happens is then perceptual. The process of perception is subtle and complex. Unnecessary to say, conception is clear and straightforward even though we hardly notice it. Usually perception and conception are blended, which makes it hard to distinguish them.
In photography you need to be able to practise perception, to start seeing things as they are and not just take for granted your conception of what you see. To see clearly you need to untangle perception from conception. Let me try to clarify: If you bring your mind to the animal horse, you can clearly see its shape, four legs, a long neck, its mane and tail and maybe its well built muscular body. You have no problem seeing it for your eyes, without even having a horse in front of you. It’s a mental image – it’s the conception of the horse. The mental image is a general image; vague and consisting mostly of shape and form. On the other hand what you see when you look at a real horse is an image that is very specific. It is minutely detailed and complex. The mental image is like an indistinct replica of the actual seeing.
Visual images appear when consciousness connects to the eye. On the other hand mental images appear when consciousness connects with the conceptual mind. What appears to the conceptual mind is only an abstract, general image that encompasses all the views and pictures of a thing you have ever seen. Concepts are useful. Without them, you wouldn’t be able to arrange to get together with friends for dinner, use a computer, or read this text. Abstract thinking can help you navigate the complexities of life, just as maps help to navigate a new physical destination. But in the same way a map is not the real world, neither is conception. Concepts can blind you to what is vivid and real. In photography you want to go beyond the conception of things – you want to see as they are for real. Next time you go out to shoot, try to look beyond what your conceptual mind is telling what you are looking at, and try seeing without labelling or conceptually identifying anything. Slow down and open your awareness, see things as they are without attaching any concepts to them. Suddenly you will discover a whole new world.