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.