Slow Seeing

For a photographer being able to see is an indispensable quality. Anybody can see, one might point out, but the fact is, it requires more than merely taking in the world through the eyes to see beyond the obvious, to become observant and consciously register what is going on in front of your eyes. The fact is that we lose our ability to see—in the finest and broadest sense—that is using all your senses, your intellect, and your emotions. As we grow from birth, we learn to objectify everything we see. The result is that we rather quickly stop being able to see with our conscious mind. When we have objectified or catalogued something, we stop seeing it—really seeing it—because we think we unconsciously know what we see.

This is 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. However, as photographers, who want to make engaging images, we must recognize the value of the familiar.

This need to categorize, to understand the world, is an inherent part of being human. When I reach out and touch a cup, the moment my hands makes contact is pure touch, the sensation is unprocessed. But within milliseconds my mind needs to identify the object, and so the mind kicks into gear. Once we have identified the cup, the process of perception stops, and all other aspects of the cup is lost to us. We tacitly believe that when we have gotten a name for something, we know it. And once we know it, we stop noticing its qualities.

This objectification, categorization and intellectualisation is a very human approach. Animals have a much more direct way of perception. A spider for example, feels the universe through its legs, which touch the key strand of its web. It knows when it’s raining, or when food is available. It doesn’t think to itself, “that is not a fly on the web. That is rain.” Yet it knows. The spider doesn’t deliberate about what kind of fly it would like to eat or criticize the rain for trying to deceive it. A spider just does what it does, effortlessly and spontaneously.

How then can we train ourselves to start seeing again—seeing the world as it really is, not only as we think it is? It would be handy, wouldn’t it, if we were able take a red pill, as in the movie Matrix, and suddenly see the world as it is. Early on in the movie, the protagonist gets the choice between taking a red pill or a blue pill. If he chooses the blue pill, he will stay in the constructed world he has been deceived to believe in, but if he chooses the red pill, the deception will fall apart and he will see the world for what it really is.

Since we don’t have such a red pill, how can we start seeing beyond what our minds have made up for us? The first step to start seeing for real again is simply to slow down. Slowing ourselves and our minds down allow 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 observers. This is not a beneficial state of mind if you want to capture meaningful photos.

I notice it in myself particularly when I do street photography. In the beginning of a session, I run around searching for something, anything that is worth capturing. I am afraid I might miss a moment, I believe maybe around the corner is a better vantage point with more activity on the street. I end up shooting a lot of photos, but nothing worth keeping. It’s when I take a deep breath, slow down and decide to stay in one place, wait and let things happen in their own time and pace, that I slowly start to get images that might be worth keeping.

When we want to see with the intention of creating photographs we need to start getting out of this automated way of seeing, this subconscious registering through which we have trained ourselves to look at the world. We need to de-learn objectifying everything and re-learn to see everything with a pure and uncontaminated vision, everything as something unique and particular, almost as the child when she first learns to see.

86 thoughts on “Slow Seeing

  1. An excellent essay, Otto. And strangely enough I’d started writing something myself about seeing beyond the obvious with regard to writing, but using a photo as a starting point. Something in the air perhaps 🙂 Or more seriously, I was probably thinking that we need to switch on our conscious seeing double quick with all the disinformation – visual and verbal – spewing from sources one once considered fair and reputable. In any event, cultivating powers of quiet discretion, would be good for everyone, whether creating work or appraising what they see.

    1. The overload of sensory input is definitely a problem for our minds. It makes it hard to see what else we really want to focus on. Fun that you have had similar thoughts with respect to writing, and I think you are right in that slowing down and cultivating powers of quiet discretion, as you say, is useful for any creative endeavour.

  2. Outstanding advice for every artist- I read that an artist should spend at least 50% of the time looking, the other 50% creating. Thanks Otto! 🙂

  3. I started immediately following your advice and noticed my computer desk needs to be cleaned up. Seems like there’s good reason to ignore some realities. Great advice for creating though!

  4. Thoughtful post about a concept I believe every photographer/artist can identify with. Sometimes it just takes being reminded of our natural obstacle again.

  5. Photography has actually made me slow down, and look at the world around me. I use to hike from point A to Point B just to get there. Stopping occasionally to enjoy a view, then right back onward. When i met and married my husband, that all changed. He observes everything, taking his time. Now with photography, I take my time, and observe the little details more than I ever have before.

    1. I have a tendency to want to get from A to B as quickly as possible as well, whether I am hiking or driving for instance. So I really have to tell myself to slow down and observe the world around me. 🙂

  6. A timely reminder of the need to slow down to see and understand what is happening in front of our eyes. We all rush about being ineffective far too often! I am guilty as charged in this respect.

  7. Great post, Otto….we all need to slowdown and ‘see’ more. I have found that by having to slow down, it has made me a little more aware. And I do try to pick a spot and see who or what comes into view for Street shots. It’s been fruitful at times

  8. What a lovely post, Otto. I so agree. I have thought about ‘seeing’ a lot. I have noticed that after I started photographing more a few years ago, I have slowed down and see much more. If I, for example, walk around our very familiar marsh with friends, I have to point out most birds for them simply because they cannot see them.

    1. This happens to me every time I go for a walk with a friend, and it goes beyond birds, although I love birds. People will stop and ask me what I am taking a photo of, a tree, for instance, and often reply “Thank you, I never saw that before.” Happy shooting!

  9. After reading another article and yours, I am going to continue to do as I previously planned-go out on a walk with my camera. I think this will be a meditative experience. I relate to Tiny’s comment, this happens to me as well.

  10. I’ve observed over and over how the “fear of missing out” on a shot that may be unfolding elsewhere (sunsets are a great example) sometimes robs me of the images that are right in front of my eyes. Except that you’ve said it so much better, Otto. Wonderful post! Thank you.

  11. There are so many applications for what you’re sharing here, Otto. I appreciate the concept of “really seeing” and it leads nicely to something I’ve personally noticed. For most of my life events stacked up within days, weeks, months and my husband and I have adeptly maneuvered actually priding ourselves a bit in our ability to keep up! Now in retirement “infancy” we are actually having to practice slowing down. We have the energy to keep the motor running, but we feel that we are missing the essential quality of time if we keep running when we have the option to be still. I think we are noticing many things we wouldn’t ordinarily see, whether we’re speaking of literal sight or intuitive sight. I really hope to continue in this journey noticing the world around me without some of the labels I’m so quick to affix. It changes the quality of my life for the better, and I will hope that shows in my photography as well. I’m always encouraged to be hopeful in developing a keen eye! 🙂

    1. Interesting comment, Debra. I never thought that retiring would lead to better seen, but what you write makes perfect sense. I am sure you will continue this new journey noticing more and connecting better than before. 🙂

  12. This post is indeed deep. I think it is more than photographic application. I think if we can train our eyes to see things as they truly are then we can understand what is going on around us much better, adapt better, appreciate what comes to our senses better, enjoy what those things better…

    1. I do agree with you, that it’s possible to train our eyes to become more observant and better see the world as it truly is. As a matter of fact, I am in the process of writing a book about how we can train our eyes for this.

  13. Resonates with me…I always feel I must not miss it, even if it can’t run away. Important for me is now to not perfect things to much but to show/shoot! its heart, how it is, not how you want it to be. Another such a good post from: a paradise to the eyes.

  14. I’ve always felt that seeing things through a child’s eyes is really the key to seeing what is around us. If we could always see things with the wonder they do how amazing our vision and photographs (real or imagined) would be.

    1. Your comment brings to mind a quote by Minor White: “The innocence of the eye has a quality of its own. It means to see as a child sees, with freshness and acknowledgement of the wonder; it means to see as an adult sees who has gone full circle and once again sees as a child—with freshness and an even deeper sense of wonder.”

      1. I love that quote. Thank you for sharing it with me. I will copy it and keep it. After I wrote that comment it sparked something else relating to recent events here in Toronto so I just posted about it.

  15. What an intelligent and thought provoking post, Otto! There are so many people rushing around that I agree, they miss out on savoring life. I’m sometimes guilty of rushing and not taking in the wonderment this amazing world offers. Beautiful and insightful

  16. remember at the end of the matrix movies, when neo finds out he can move magically in the ‘real world’ as well? that meant the real world they had escaped to with the pill was also part of the matrix…. bummer dude lol

  17. What an excellent post. It applies to not only photography, but can be said about life! Especially these days. Thank you Otto, for the reminder to slow down. Words of wisdom!

  18. A very helpful post Otto. Looking, seeing and vision are three related activities. It is vision that distinguishes the creative artist.

  19. It’s always a treat to read your work, Otto. I like the sentiment Slow Seeing very much. Also to remain in one spot (of course, it’s a good one!) and wait and just watch.
    Recently I read “The Soul of the Camera” by David DuChemin. It’s all about having a vision, creating a vision and in order to do so you need to see and refine your way of seeing. To see what the other miss, what is invisible to them.

  20. The cup analogy you use here, Otto, is an excellent one, and so very true.
    Thank you once again for such an interesting and thoughtful post.
    Have a wonderful weekend!

  21. One thing that I deeply resent about my adulthood is that I’ve lost far too much of that incredibly broad, anything is possible type of imagination that I had as a child. It was more expressive, back then, more risk taking, less practical. No matter what type of mind exercises and meditations I try, all of the experiences that I have had to mold me for, and continue to shape my adult existence has permanently diminished that innocent and limitless imagination. That ability to see beyond limits. I want that magic back so badly!

    1. That is so beautiful. You can have that magic back. You and only you control your thoughts. Delete any thoughts and experiences from the past open yourself to live the moment. Thoughts shape your character, your thoughts learning which to nurture and which to delete is the key. Let your imagination go free. You are the only one putting limits to your magic. It takes work but you can do it. It’s “your ship” you are “the captain.” You can do it!

  22. A truly gorgeous image, Otto. I think we often look without really seeing, and of course, we all see things differently. Just taking a few more seconds to observe a scene, can certainly reveal hidden treasures. 🙂

  23. After learning to press the shutter, reams of books and articles discuss the mechanics. Ansel Adams wrote “The Art of Seeing.” The foundation of creativity.

  24. Since beginning my blog, I’ve been involved in a decade-long process of simplifying my life. Writing demands time; it can’t simply be added on to already established routines. The television went, along with too many evenings out with friends, the minimal gardening that I was doing, and so on. Contrary to what we’re often told, we can’t “have it all.” Decisions have to be made.

    In the same way, both writing and photography have made the importance of slowing down quite obvious. Annie Dillard says there are two ways of encountering the world: stalking and sitting. As you point out, we’re all pretty good at stalking. Just sitting (metaphorically or otherwise)? Not so much.

    I do believe that when we slow down, and look at what’s around us without expectation, we’ll see much more. I love this quotation from the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz: “I spent the summer traveling; I got halfway across my back yard.”

    1. Time is a limited resource, isn’t it. So, no, we can’t have it all. At the same time I have found out the more I do, the more time I have for things I want to do, but not limitless. I think by keep doing things instead of sitting down I become more efficient and thus have more time to spare. But I do need to slow down, particularly in the creative process.

  25. Excellent advice, Otto, and I think it’s more and more timely, as the world around us speeds up. I wish you and your students plenty of slow time in Cuba!

  26. We have to learn to photograph with ZEN ourselves and to bring the ZEN through our lens to the people and thus to teach people to consciously perceive the values ​​of life and to expand the mind … You have brought your insight with spiritual wisdom and that I find very interesting, also fits my vision of life and perception … 🙂 Thank you for sharing and completed with a beautiful photo!
    Best regards, Heidi

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