It’s quite obvious that being able to see is an indispensable quality for any photographer who wants to create engaging images and surprise the viewer with startling visions. Anybody can see, you might object, but fact is it takes more than merely observing to see beyond the obvious. Seeing – in the finest and broadest sense – means using your senses, your intellect, and your emotions. It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being. It means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you.
Usually we don’t really see the world as it truly is. Instead we switch our mind to automatic mode, let our subconscious take over and impose previous learned concepts of the world onto the world actually surrounding us. We don’t see anymore, but make abstractions of what our eyes have registered. In most cases our seeing is hindered by a range of mental barriers. One of them is not being able to let go of self. Preoccupation with self is probably the greatest barrier to seeing, and the hardest one to break. You may be worrying about your job, or kids, or other responsibilities, or you may be uneasy about your ability to handle a new lens or to calculate exposure. There always seems to be something standing in the way of fully and consciously seeing. Too much self-concern blocks direct experience of things outside yourself.
Another barrier to seeing is the mass of stimuli surrounding us. We are so bombarded with visual and other stimuli that we must block out most of them in order to cope. We develop a tunnel vision, which gives us a clear view of the rut ahead of us, but prevents us from seeing the world around us. A third major sight barrier is the labelling that results from familiarity. We have become accustomed to catalogue everything we see. We rule out visual exploration and seldom discover the myriad of facets of each object we encounter in our daily. It’s a survival mechanism in order for our brains not having to deal with every sensory input as if it was a first encounter. It makes us stop seeing the familiar. And a photographer, who wants to make engaging images, must recognize the value of the familiar.
Even the camera itself can be a barrier to seeing, in at least two ways. Susan Sontag, in On Photography, describes the first one: «A way of certifying experience, taking photographs, is also a way of refusing it – by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.» What she is saying is that making pictures can be a substitute for seeing and participating. Finally the camera is also a sight barrier because it doesn’t see as the human eye does. When we look at a landscape, we observe and remember only a few dominant features – enough to give us an impression of the landscape, which is often all that we need. But since a camera has no experience, it cannot select, so it records everything in its field of view.
How then can we train ourselves to start seeing again – seeing the world as it really is, not only as we think it is? The first step is simply to slow down. Slowing ourselves and our minds down allows us to observe the world more deeply, and to shift our brains to examine more clearly those depths. It makes us see really what it is we’re trying to photograph. Our lives are normally so busy and so packed that we don’t have time to see anymore. I certainly find myself too often running from one place to another to get to a meeting or an appointment on time, or to catch a train or bus. I bet most of us do. By literally speeding up our lives, we don’t take the time to see the deeper levels of things and so, without meaning to, we become shallower thinkers and observers. It’s really not a beneficial state of mind if you want to capture meaningful photos. Photographs are moments, pieces of time that are captured to look at again and again. In order for you to capture these moments, you must learn to slow down and see them. Freeman Paterson calls it «relaxed attentiveness», the ability to shed all of the other things that are competing for your attention and focus on a single object or event. By doing this, you begin to see photographs and not just subjects. You give yourself time to observe and consider the photograph you want to make in order to show the rest of us what it is that you see – perhaps showing us things we’ve never seen ourselves.
In addition to slowing yourself down enough to begin to observe your world more closely, you must begin to look at it a little differently than you have before. One part of this is recognizing the difference between conceptual seeing vs. perceptual seeing. Put simply, it’s seeing the photograph that is there, rather than the photograph you think ought to be there. In short it means breaking the before mentioned third sight barrier. Conceptual seeing means seeing objects not as they are, but as you have previously catalogued them. Your conceptions about an object can lead you to photograph it in a certain way because that’s the way you’ve seen it photographed before or that’s the way you think it ought to be photographed, rather than focusing on what that subject represents to you. Just identifying an object by its name will lead you to think you need to make a photograph of it in a certain way. Perceptual seeing, on the other hand, simply observes things as they are. You start to look at an object without labelling it, but seeing its forms, its colours, its shapes, its beauty or its structures, not how you think it is, but how it actually is. Part of encouraging perceptual seeing is to empty your mind beforehand. Focus on the object you want to photograph and let go of everything else in your mind. Stay with it and just look and try to discover it as if it was the first time. Empty yourself of any preconceptions. One cannot fill a cup that is already full. Right?
Maybe it’s time to discover how to see again? By taking the time to truly focus on what it is you see you’ll be able to create more engaging photos. Rediscover what it is you really see, and you will probably find that your photos will change dramatically. Good seeing doesn’t ensure good photography, though, but good photographic expression is impossible without it.
In my post Seeing Beyond Seeing I write a little more about the idea of perceptual seeing vs. conceptual seeing. If you really want to learn to see the world as it is again, I can strongly recommend the book The Practice of Contemplative Photography by Andy Karr and Michael Wood. You may find a review of the book in my post Different Perspective.