Barriers to Seeing

Seeing is where all photography starts. We need to see in order to find subjects and discover the potential for a good photo out in the world surrounding us. However, it’s not always as easy to see as we would like to when we are photographers. The reason is partly the way our eye and brain work against discovering the photogenic in our everyday environment. Another challenge is various barriers to photographically seeing.

In most cases our seeing is hindered by a range of mental barriers when we photograph. 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.

It might be easier said than done to cease all those trivial thoughts that take place all the time. There is a constant inner dialogue going on in our minds. We are always preoccupied with thoughts and internal exchanges. If we can’t let go of self-concern, these constant thoughts act like a shield to both new impressions of the world and creative insights that otherwise might have been released from the subconscious. Although the mind never rests, we can learn to defer our attention away from this never-ending inner dialogue.

If the mind is not overcrowded, not preoccupied, and blocked by thoughts of all kinds, then without effort it can perceive the dog running after a bike, see the couple kissing on a bench and be aware of the flower about to burst into bloom, all those small details that we normally would overlook. A quiet and unoccupied mind can perceive it all without labelling it. Such a mind is a living thing, intensely so, and by far from dead as otherwise could be associated with an unoccupied mind.

A variation of not being able to let go of self is the desire to be original. When we hold on to such an idea as being “original”, we inhibit the creative process. In doing so, we are not creating anything original, but just trying to be different. By forcing ourselves to be original, we close ourselves down to what is, we see nothing with open eyes any longer, but apply a contrived and limiting approach to seeing. Don’t worry about originality. It will find you; you do not need to find it. There is nothing new under the sun—except for you. You will be shaped by what has influenced you, but your way of seeing, and your approach to photography is yours and yours alone.

Yet another barrier is expectations. If you expect to find something in particular, that’s exactly what you will find. Think of a colour and suddenly you will see that colour everywhere, in everything and more often than you would usually notice it. Likewise, if I am going on a trip to Cuba—a country I know all so well—I go with a head full of mental pictures of what the country will look like and what kind of photographs I’ll expect to find and make. If I remain unconscious about these expectations, they will more likely than not prevent me from seeing what is there and seeing anything but what I already have made my mind up about. What we expect to see blinds us from what is actually there.

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 tunnel vision, which gives us a clear view of the rut ahead of us, but prevents us from seeing the world around us.

This is another excerpt from my soon to be published eBook “Photographically Seeing—Seeing Better, Seeing Deeper”. It will soon be made available. And of course, I will announce it here.

37 thoughts on “Barriers to Seeing

  1. So, let’s get away from our preconceptions! Many thanks for this highly interesting explanations:) By the way, does the book “The Cubans” by Anthony DePalme (should you know it) show you inknown sides of Cuba? All the best Martina

        1. It’s hard to generalize, but I see them – generally – more happy than people in many other countries, although they might still complain about the state of their conditions. But they have so much positive energy and joy in them, almost no matter what.

  2. Quite an interesting post, Otto 🙂

    I haven’t really read this kind of an analysis on our mind frame and it’s impact on our photography.

    I could very well relate to each and every point you shared here.
    Many a times, I got totally frustrated at the photos I captured, may be numbering in hundreds, after some of my family tours.
    The reason is obvious, as you said, mind was somewhere else …

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and I am sure, your suggestions and advices will really help 🙂

  3. We thoroughly enjoyed this post, Otto and are now very much looking forward to your upcoming book. I for a fact can relate to every point you have made and find great comfort in your words and the fact that others can relate to the same. Do you publish “Photographically Seeing—Seeing Better, Seeing Deeper” in Norwegian and English? Please put me on the list for a signed first edition, preferably in English!

    Last year I visited a photographer in Norwich, a fellow of the RPS, to get some advice. I’m a very bookish person so of course, I had a look at his bookshelves. The only books he had were on photography, nothing else, I asked him to pick his favourite book, if he could only show me one, which one would it be? He didn’t hesitate for one second; “Seeing Things” – A Kid’s Guide to Looking at Photographs” by Joel Meyerowitz. It’s wonderful and has made a deep impact on me.

    1. First of all, thanks for the lovely encouragement about my forthcoming book. It will be in English, but as an eBook, I will have to see what I can do to make a sign edition of it…

      And then thanks for the heads up about the book by Joel Meyerowitz. I will look it up as soon as I get a chance to travel to an English speaking country (a little restricted right now).

  4. I have often gone out to some local unimpressive park thinking there will be nothing to photograph there, I’ve been there a million times, what will I find, only to be surprised in a good way by something fun or colorful or small or large and always unexpected. You just never know. I try not to go with an expectation. But sometimes, like when I’m trying to do star photography, I do go with something very specific in mind. Still, you never know. I shot the comet this summer and ended up with one image of the comet with the space station going past. Pretty cool, but not what I was intending. Another time I was shooting a flowering bush in my back yard at dusk and I heard a flock of geese coming. I had no idea what they’d look like, but I turned the camera up and shot, and ended up with a lovely half V of the underside of geese shining in the evening sun. You just never know.

  5. Otto, as you know John Berger was a proponent of how we see our external world and how it affects our interpretation of that visual universe. His book, “The Way of Seeing,” is a classic. A series based on his book can be seen online.

  6. Great post, Otto, there is an art to see and as you say it’s not always as easy to see as we would like to and it can be frustrating. I remember I went shooting with a friend in a market and we often ended up shooting the same subject. When we later were looking at our photos, I could not believe how well some of my friends shots turned out compared to mine. We were side-by-side on many of the photos, but they way she framed them made them into art, where mine were simply snap-shots of a scene. One of the more fascinating experiences I had with photography and first time I really understood how one “sees a scene” is as unique as the personality. Even going back and trying to duplicate her shots, it just wasn’t the same ~ and it was eye-opening 🙂

    1. Again and again I see how photographers shooting next to each other get completely different results. I notice it on workshop I teach, and I notice it when I photograph alongside my peers. It only goes to show that we all see differently and personality is what makes photos unique – not the subject, or less so.

  7. Your article helps us to identify and recognise our own barriers and distractions. It can be helpful on occasions to visually explore the scene we are about to photograph as we might analyse a finished print – taking our eyes on a journey round the scene, noticing shapes, lines, colours, relationships etc. Such a process can sharpen the focus of our attention, particularly if circumstances permit the description to be quietly spoken aloud!

    1. I do actually recommend (in my book for instance) to just take a moment every so often and spend some time observing and noticing. Not necessarily to photograph but simply to train your awareness.

  8. I think that’s one reason I like photographing nature on my walks. I never know what to expect! There is always something different to see. I appreciate your pictures of people – they reveal scenes to me that I would never have noticed walking down the street.

  9. you know, i used to walk around with my music on, and music has a way of calming your mind… just a thought!
    i love the picture you posted here!

  10. Great post Otto. I am looking forward to your book! Being in the moment and shutting out internal dialogue is something I am working on. I find it helpful to go to a spot and just observe, while quieting my mind before I even pull out my camera.

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