You See What You Are

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.

61 thoughts on “You See What You Are

  1. Every time Klausbernd and I go out in the car I experience the difference in looking. He sees number plates but not the driver of the car. I look further afield in nature or, on a country lane, I look for animals along our track when he’s concentrating on the drivers in front of the back and observing something else. The same happens when we go for a walk.

    Yesterday we both had an amazing experience, watching an attention-seeking advertisement for a rather uninteresting Skoda Fabia. Do you know this one?

    1. I do not know the ad, but I agree with your characterizing of the car. The experience between you and Klausbernd that you share with us, says it all. Thank you, Hanne. Enjoy the afternoon.

  2. The only tiny quibble I’d have is with this line: “We only see what we expect to see.” Being open to the unexpected is important, too. It’s the difference between searching and browsing online, or going fishing with a pole versus casting a net. If I go out equipped to find a trout, I’ll probably bring home a trout. But if I just cast a net, and sort through what it brings in, there’s no telling what I’ll find.

    1. However, there is a difference between fishing and seeing. And of course, you know that. I understand your analogue, and yes, to some extent to can cast a broader look so to speak, but you still cannot force your conscious mind to pick up everything you eyes register. The brain is tuned to send to the consciousness what it want you to be aware of. The set of instructions it uses goes back to the time when we were gather hunters: What could be dangerous? What can I make use of?

      1. Sure, that’s right. I’m far more likely to notice an odd flower than an odd insect. But that’s why increasing familiarity with the entire scope of the world is important. It allows us to see more.

  3. Here’s part of the opening of Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”
    My own, my human mind, which passively
    Now renders and receives fast influencings,
    Holding an unremitting interchange
    With the clear universe of things around…

    We might be overwhelmed if we registered every detail our eyes could see. And I guess some of it’s a matter of clearing your head, and not internally viewing thoughts, seeing the scenes in your mind’s eye, rather than what’s in front of you.
    And of course, our eyes aren’t the only ones clamoring for our attention. Sometimes, for example, a beautiful piece of music begins to play on the car radio, and we’ll have no recollection of the next few miles of our drive. We’re able to function, and operate the car competently, but couldn’t tell anyone a single detail of the sights along the way, because we’re preoccupied with the music. And “preoccupy” seems like a very appropriate term to me!
    Do you supposed that dog dressed like the lady, or the other way around?

    1. You are very right, and the reason we can still drive without noticing when our attention is locked into listening to some music, is because the actual driving is controlled by our implicit part of the brain – subconsciously.

      You question about the dressed dog and lady is to the point. Who knows? Maybe it was reciprocal…

  4. I know this is true. When I used to be a runner, and ran every Saturday with a friend at a beautiful park, I was always interrupting her chatter to point something out that was beautiful. She never saw any of it. I think part of why I see so much beauty is because my mom who was an artist, did, and she pointed things out to all 4 of her kids. Sometimes I think I am still seeing the world with her eyes, though I know my eyes are different than hers were, but they are influenced by her for sure. As for the lady? You described her so beautifully that we all got to see her!

  5. Such an interesting post and responses Otto. Somehow I feel the state of mind and even chance has something to do with observation. On any given day it might have been you who noticed the rather eccentric pair! 😊

    1. Oh yes, we see more and better when our brains are focused on seeing. Some days we think about the bills that need to be paid, the quarrel yesterday with a friend, the trip to Italy tomorrow, or anything else, but being aware in the moment. So yes another day, I might have noticed the pair myself.

  6. I understand what you mean. In other fields than photography, I also experience this sort of thing from time to time. I used to have similar feeling as you did but I now see those who see things different and things that I missed as benefits for the team to success. It becomes that it does not matter who has noticed things that should not be missed. I am glad that they caught them. That I believe how we make advancement in many different ways.

    Beautiful picture. I like that it incorporates few people together. During the time that distancing is value this helps keep the feeling of connecting alive. Oh, please do not get me wrong, I am not advocate against social distancing.

    1. In team work it’s great that each member see differently or think differently or have another sensation than everybody else. That’s a good point. Thanks for the feedback on the photo.

  7. that’s how brains work, dude. we are subconsciously programmed and then our conscious mind can take in so little that it screens out almost everything, leaving us with only what our programming deems important… it’s scary lol

  8. This happens to me a lot, on both sides. And if someone else spots it first, I’m always a little embarrassed that I didn’t spot the ‘great’ shot first, or walked right by it. But I have no qualms about going back and grabbing one of my own. 🙂

    1. Usually, I don’t think twice about photographing something that another have noticed first. We won’t get the same photo anyway, and it’s often fun to compare afterwards. But this time I felt like giving my friend space – or maybe it was lady and her dog?…

  9. This is interesting to read, Otto and it confirms what I experience very regularly. Walking with friends I often get the comment that I spotted things they never saw.

  10. I always used to be amazed by the number of walkers ‘glued’ to their mobile phones when outdoors, whilst I was looking at the river, plants and birdlife. Just the same as when I lived next to the Royal Botanic Gardens, I was always incredulous that the busloads of tourists were constantly chatting and looking at each other and not at the amazing flower beds and tree varieties. I used to wonder what they told their friends and family on arriving home after their holidays. Did they actually see anything in the Botanic Gardens or just say they had ‘a lovely walk’.

    I always see something of interest on a walk as did my Father before me. One of the last photos I have of my Father is the day we walked around the lake of my childhood and my Father bending down to run his hands across some unusual tree bark and then examine a broken park bench and listing instructions of how the local council could have fixed the broken seat with minimal effort. My Father was a great observer of nature (and life in general).

    1. Of course, the whole addiction to being constantly online, makes anyone less perceptive. Even the act of photographing has some similar impact as you describe, that we stop actually seeing (not saying that’s what you are doing, on the contrary). Susan Sontag in her book On Photography made a point about it, asking whether we notice what’s in front of the camera, or just see a subject.

  11. Great post Otto, I absolutely agree with you ” What we see is not accidental” . I am aware of what we see as photographers having the desire to capture. Yet as my perspective as a spiritual being, I also believe that we see what we were exposed through our parents sensitivity , therefore there is a certain sensitive antenna within us to what we perceive . So therefore there is never a moment we should feel , ” Oh why didn’t I see this”. I believe our past takes as well a roll in what we see and don’t see. Happy creative picture times to you Otto, if that all makes sense to you.

    1. What we see and notice is definitely formed by past experiences, such as parents’ sensitivity, as you point out. So yes, it does make sense. And I don’t beat myself up for not having noticed the lady and her dog.

  12. Interesting as always – and I of course agree. That is the way we work. I enjoy walking with my children, because we see many details together and we have the same curiosity. I think I am rather good at “seeing”, but my daughter is an expert. She draws and paints, so there is a gigantic potential of “seeing” . I don’t feel bad if she sees things first…I go back and I have my image, and we discuss it afterwards. My son is a very good photographer, and he has opened my eyes to urban exploring – very interesting. talk about details!

    1. Walking along with children is always fun, because they are always so curious and thus perceptive to things we grownups totally overlook. Kids are indeed experts when it comes to seeing.

  13. Such an interesting observation, Otto. I have noted in myself that a bird, even quite small, I rarely miss! A human, such as you noted in this lovely lady and her dog, I’m likely to not notice at all. I don’t really understand why that is, but it is so true of me. I don’t really know what it is that shutters my vision, so I’m not altogether clear how to remedy the situation, but a good photographer, or anyone sensitive to others, owes themselves the practice of taking more time to be mindful whenever we are out exploring. You said it all much better, but I loved hearing your story and your experience.

    1. I am not sure if we should think in terms of what shutter one’s vision. We all noticed the world differently, and finding the reasons we do so, I bet is impossible. If you want to train yourself to see more people, then pick that as a theme for a day of photographing. After doing that some times, you will automatically start to notice people in other situations. 🙂

  14. What we see (and whether we see) depends on how we look. I have become increasingly aware over time that my looking is influenced in varying degrees (often/usually subconsciously) to a search for patterns. I’m sure this says something about me “

  15. C’è sempre da imparare leggendo le tue parole. Mi è capitato molte volte di guardare foto e chiedermi perché io non riesca a notare certi particolari che poi possono essere anche semplicissimi o banali, ma agli occhi di chi fotografa risultano degni di nota.
    Se capita anche a te che sei un grande fotografo allora non dispero, prima o poi avrò anche io una visione diversa di ciò che mi circonda e noterò particolari o scene di vita che per ora mi sfuggono ancora.
    Grazie per tutto quello che insegni, per me è importante.
    Un saluto affettuoso, Patrizia

    1. It’s important not to despair when someone notice something worthwhile and you don’t do yourself. As you write, we simply see differently. I am happy that you feel what I write is worthwhile. Grazie mille, Patrizia.

  16. The human condition wields its usual demeanor. Learning to see, really see is a challenge of constancy. It depends on so many of our personal qualities. Even as we use the camera to frame the world, really the world frames us.

  17. Being chalk and cheese me and Michael seldom record the same things. He has been known to scratch his head in puzzlement when I linger over a leaf or a shadow. But he often points something out that I’ve missed or he thinks would make a better shot. And sometimes I graciously concede that he’s right. But not often 🙂 🙂

  18. What a great post Otto! We sure do see the world differently .. I also know for me that photography has opened my eyes to much. I guess that is what happens when we are looking for photography opportunities. Thank you! 👏👏

  19. Otto, fascinating post and lots to ponder here. I manage to actually see a lot more when I walk alone than when I am walking with someone else. When out walking with my husband, for example, gets impatient with me if I linger too long wanting to photograph something that has taken my interest. But I guess a lot of what makes for a good photo is a particular opportunity and being in the right place at the right time. The other day walking in the forest a baby deer crossed the path but by the time I got my camera out she was gone.

    1. Partly why you see more when you walk by yourself, it’s concentration. When with somebody else we talk, we get distracted – and feel we have to rush it not to let others wait… A pity with the baby deer, but that’s sometimes how it goes. 🙂

  20. Fantastic post and I’m glad you are putting it out there. I am so glad you did not take pictures of what your friend saw. In the past have often told others that I won’t shoot something they saw first and always try to find different vantage points when it’s an agreed upon location. I have stopped shooting with others, as some do not understand the boundaries of self-expression. If we are to be ‘artists’ then we need to believe what you say … “This means that the pictures we take inevitably become an expression of who we are.”

    1. I don’t necessarily mind shooting next to another person. And if we do, we usually have the rule that no subject is “protected”. We would approach it differently anyway. But I think it’s important to agree upon how to handle such situations beforehand.

  21. Well said, Otto. I like the way you introduced the subject with a compelling anecdote from real life. Between genetics and our experiences in the world, we each develop very unique ways of seeing. With the glut of images coming at us all the time it can be hard to maintain the balance of our own vision. I think you have to know when to look at other peoples’ work and when to tune it out. I’m sure you’re very good at that! 🙂

  22. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on what we see, what we photograph, what we remember, and what we miss. I agree completely with you about the impact of our photographs on us, the photographers. The stories, the memories and most importantly the feelings associated with many of my own photographs retain their impact on me even years after the photos were taken.

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