This weekend I went for a walk with a friend of mine who is also a fellow photographer. The purpose wasn’t photographing, but obviously, both of us being photographers, we never stop looking for images. So, as we strolled along, every so often one of us—or both—stopped and raised his camera to captured whatever had poked his interest.
Naturally, what we noticed and reacted to wasn’t necessarily poles apart but still different. That’s the natural order of things for photographers. I didn’t reflect much about what we did and what we photographed.
Then something happened that prompted an afterthought. As we passed something I initially didn’t even notice at all, my friend turned around and re-tracked to a woman sitter on a bench. She was wearing the most gorgeous hat in spectacular colours and on her lap, a dog was sitting, wearing a coat with the same pattern and colours. She was a character, to put it that way, and my friend got his best shot of the day. And I didn’t even see it?
How could I miss that opportunity? Not even noticing the lady and her dog? I consider myself to be quite observant, but still didn’t even register the two in the first place. The lady and her dog had simply passed under my radar.
I felt annoyed with myself or at least embarrassed. Yes, a little jealous, too, that my friend had seen the two and I hadn’t. That’s a natural reaction, regardless of the fact that I know that’s the way our perception works. None of us can see all that is surrounding us. Our minds pick and choose what is important to become consciously aware of.
In teaching photo workshops, I experience it time and again. Some participants see the beauty of the universe in everything there is whereas others see nothing at all. The latter may stand there next to the former, bewildered, lost and confused, while the one, who has learned to see, points the camera three feet away and focuses in on something mundane that nobody else has noticed. The others watch with amazement and then ask the most often-heard question at workshops: “Why didn’t I see that?”
We humans constantly receive millions of sensory impressions. Our consciousness is only able to absorb a few of these at any one time. The impressions you take for granted are unique to you, because no one perceives a situation, a place, a mood exactly the same way. As a photographer, you portray reality as you see it, as only you have filtered it. Only the photos you take can be taken by you.
What you see is not accidental. Things you have seen before will control your gaze. We only see what we expect to see. While the world is filled with limitless information and stimulation, our brain cannot, and should not, process everything we see. If we did, we would be overwhelmed with data. Physiology has shown us that ten times as much nerve fibres travel from the brain to the eye than in the opposite direction. Thus, more than anything, it is the brain that controls what we notice. This means that the pictures we take inevitably become an expression of who we are.
You see what you are.
Our photographic vision or our distinctive voice is related to how we see the world. And we all see the world differently. What we see is simply depending on who you are. You shape the photos you take, but the photos you take will also affect you and influence what you see and photograph next time.
What about the lady and the dog? Did I capture any photos of them? No, I let my friend have the experience to himself.