Incubation Time

Last week I spoke with a photographer. She told me she had lost inspiration and hadn’t photographed for a long while—despite her love for photography. The frustration was radiating out of every word she spoke. She so wanted to find a way back to her muses.

Of course, I had no wonder cure for her ailment. I certainly couldn’t bring back the muses just like that. Nobody would, included herself. Nevertheless, I told her that any photographer, anyone doing creative work, experiences times of lapses when nothing seems to move forward, but rather the creative life comes to a standstill.

Creativity works in a flux. Sometimes we are on top of everything and creativity seems to ooze out of every pore. At other times, the head feels embalmed in cotton or some thick substance that keeps every creative thought out of reach.

It’s just the natural order of things.

The more we experience this lapse of creativity—and the regaining of it again after some time—the more we can accept the condition without panicking. In addition, what is just as important to realize, is that those dry spells are not only part of a natural flux, but in fact part of the creative process itself.

We may feel uninspired, but our subconscious is still working for us. It’s the natural way of replenishing our creative well. As photographers, and as any artist, we need to realize that we have to maintain a balance between what we take out of the well and the need to replenishing it. Sometimes we experience dry spells because we have drawn heavily on the creative well, even over-tapped it. It’s like overfishing a pond, it leaves us with diminished resources. We fish in vain, for the creative ideas we require. Our work dries up, we lose inspiration, and we wonder why, “just when it was going so well”.

Creativity needs replenishing. Sometimes because we have overfished the pond. Other times because we need the small fry to grow big before we want to catch it. The latter corresponds to a variation of replenishing: Creativity needs incubation time.

We do so by letting it all go, and letting the subconscious work its own mysterious ways. Suddenly it’s all back again, fresh and eager to express itself again. We can even help the process. By doing something totally different. Going for a walk. Visiting a gallery. Cooking. Go paragliding. You name it. Even sleep. Haven’t we all experienced, struggling with some Gordian knot, going to bed without having resolved the problem, only to wake up next morning—eureka—having found the solution.

It’s like on an overcast and raining day. It might feel disheartening and dark, but if you think about it, you know that the sun will eventually shine upon you again. It just needs some incubation time to burn the clouds away.

Easter Ponderings

Easter is a special time for many Norwegians. Not so much for its religious significance, not at all in fact. Easter is when we seek up in the mountains, to go skiing and enjoy the last spell of winter. It’s one of our major holidays, and as such I think Norwegians are almost alone in the world to have institutionalized the whole week between the weekend of Palm Sunday and the Easter Weekend, included Easter Monday, as days off. That is 10 days of holidays in March or April—depending on when Easter falls in any given year.

For many Norwegians having a cabin in the mountains it what means to be Norwegian. Almost as their birthright. And part of that legacy is the pilgrimage up in the mountain during Eastern.

Certainly, plenty of Norwegian don’t own a cabin in the mountains. Some prefer one along the extensive coastline. And some don’t have a cabin at all. Me being one. I have never wanted the bonds and the limitations owning a cabin impose on you. I want the freedom to roam wherever I desire. Of course, it’s an economical question as well.

Even without my own cabin, I have sought out the high mountains during Easter, but then rather backpacking; sleeping in a tent, snow caves or public cabins or lodges spread out in the mountains. That is another special feature of Norway. An outdoor organization runs a network of cabins or huts all over the country. Some are run like lodges—with full board and lodging—but some are unattended, with only food you may use, stored in the cabins. The system is based on trust; that you leave payment for the lodging and the food that you use.

The alpine region of winter mountains can be quite weather prone. I remember one Easter, many, many years ago. A friend and I was captured by a full storm with heavy snowfall and strong winds. It lasted for almost a week. We dug a snow cave, and spent the next many days inside the cave. Safe, but pretty bored by the time the storm dwindled.

Despite both the danger and the nuisance of possibly bad weather during winter in the mountains, I have learned that waiting for good weather, will only make sure you never get going. In fact, I have discovered that defying foul weather often gives the strongest, most exquisite and most memorable experiences (at least as long as you play it safe). Not the least for a photographer. It’s in the moments of transitions between bad and good—or good and bad—that the mountain show off its best. Besides, I live in the part of the world where, if you wait for nice weather, you may wait for a long time.

And here comes what this is all leading up to: It’s exactly how inspiration and creativity works. You cannot wait for it to show up. You will have to go after it with a club, as the writer Jack London once said. Or as the American painter, artist and photographer put it: “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us show up and get to work”.

Inspiration isn’t prone to show up when you need it—just like nice weather in the mountains isn’t. If you wait for it, you might wait a long time. Instead, get yourself properly dressed, to use the outdoor metaphor¸ and get going. Set yourself down in front of the computer or the drawing pad, or grab your camera and get outside. It might be hard work and rather unpleasant in the beginning, but suddenly everything changes. Suddenly, you find yourself in a magical moment, the light of inspiration spiriting you away, the flow of creative taking you to unknown places.

Enjoy Easter, whether you celebrate it or not. And enjoy being creative.

The photos in this post have been captured over several Easters.

Capture Unique Photos

In the first months of 2021, we have been blessed with some lovely winter here in Bergen, Norway, where I have been grounded for the last year. Blessed for those of us who like winter, that is. Right now and for the recent weeks, winter is receding, though, but it might still show up again for an occasionally appearance.

Of course, when winter showed up in its full splendour, I had to take advantage—photographically—of the snow, which suddenly adorned the city (contrary to what one should expect, we only irregularly have winter come for a visit).

While walking the snow-covered streets and photographing Bergen in winter garb, I came across another like-minded fellow photographer, who was out on the same errand. I noticed he was both capturing stills and shooting videos. Naturally, we ended up talking with each other.

It turned out he had only been photographing for little less than a year, but already had a Youtube channel up and running. About photography. He told me he was adamant about wanting to capture images that weren’t like anybody else’s. If he had already seen another photo of a scenery, he would go out of way’s length to find a different angle, something distinct. He wanted to capture unique images.

That is a worthy approach, something most of us aspire to. However, in retrospect I thought a little more about the desire to create original photos. You see, there is a danger. In wanting to be original, we might just end up been possessed by what is different, and instead of capturing something unique we end up with a result that is rather contrived. Maybe different, but most likely uninspiring.

We risk losing ourselves in the search for the different.

All good photos emerge from a personal engagement; they materialize through our hearts. In fact, that is all it takes. Yes, you still need to know you craft, understand the visual language, be able to use your camera, but to create captivating and compelling images; you need to become emotionally engaged with your subject. If you do, you don’t have to “look” for the different.

You are unique. Your person is exceptional. No one is like you. That’s where the creative uniqueness surface from. Be yourself, involve yourself, lose yourself in the process, and your photos will be yours, different from anyone else’s. The point is; everything has already been done, been photographed. However, nothing has been done with your eyes and through your emotional filter.

That is the secret to captivating, compelling—and unique photos.

The Curse of Hit Rate

The photo above was captured on my last overseas photo workshop before the world closed down. That said, I am not going to rant about the pandemic and what it has deprived us of—we all know that too well. Neither am I going to write about photo workshops I hope to get going again—if the pandemic will allow me to do so.

The reason I chose the photo has to do with the photographic process, the workflow of capturing images, if you will. As much as it isn’t depicting something I could plan, but rather capturing the unpredictability of life as such, neither is it an accidental photo.

The photo was taken in La Higuera, a tiny village in Bolivia with only a handful of dwellings. It’s where Che Guavara, back in 1967, was captured by the Bolivian army—or more precisely in a gorge right outside the village. Irma Rosada, the woman in the photo, was only a girl when the world came crashing down on her village. She clearly remembers the capturing of Che Guevare, his imprisonment in the local school and the subsequent execution the next afternoon.

Today, Rosa runs the little store in the village, and the photo shows her baking bread for her store.

Everything in the photo tells the story of Irma, or adds to the story; obviously herself, the bread and the brick kiln, but also the water melon, the dirty ground, the sunset behind trees, indicating the landscape beyond, and even the bit of laundry hanging out to dry. And more so I captured Irma as she was about to empty the kiln from a batch of rolls. Her gaze, her lifted right foot, the habitual handling of the baking tray, her facial expression—all say something explicit about Irma.

The photo tells a story about Irma Rosalind. I took the photo, and it turned out very nicely. I am happy with the result. However, as mentioned, it wasn’t accidental. First of all, I was ready. Secondly, I took a lot of photos to ensure I got it.

The latter, I am not the least embarrassed to say. I take a lot of photos that are crap, not working, looks like shit and will never make it out of my archive. The thing is, I don’t care about all the bad photos I end up with. What I care about is the few left that I can be proud of or feel good about.

Too many photographers have a thing with “hit rate” and being good enough. They think that some day they will be able to take 40 photos in a day that are all masterpieces, because that is kind of the idea you get when you look at exhibitions or a photo books and see the masters’ images. You somehow think they did them all in one take.

Reality is that every photographer who ever did any master images only did a relatively few good photos and even fewer great photographs in a lifetime.

If you look through the negatives, slides or digital files of master photographers, you will see plenty of photos out of focus, too over- or underexposed, empty streets (because the subject hasn’t entered the frame yet or has left before the photographer pressed the shutter release button). Even more importantly, when you study the best photos that define history, you will see that the photographer actually captured a lot of photos of the same scene—and only one survived.

As Elliot Erwitt once said: “It takes a lot of photographs to make one good”.

If you do an internet search on “hit rate in photography”, you will find a lot of articles and posts about how to boost or increase your amount of so-caller keepers. Why would it even matter if it’s 5 percent of 20 percent of captured images that are good? What matters is how many good ones you have in the end. All the rest, and how many, is of no interest at all.

Yes, some photographers blast away and aren’t mindful when photographing, but usually I see the opposite; that is, most photographers are not photographing enough. I see that in every workshop I teach. They may capture three or five images of a situation—and think they have photographed a lot. When in reality they have hardly started.

As you can see the screenshot beneath, I took a lot of photos of Irma Rosado, to get then one I was satisfied with. That’s why it isn’t an accidental photo. And I don’t care for a second how many captures it took to get the one. So, don’t worry about your hit rate. Just photograph.

Are We Making Things Better?

A couple of years ago, I came across a post written by the Canadian photographer David duChemin. He was telling about an episode when eating in restaurant in London, during which he happened to eavesdrop on a dialogue next to him. The conversation was between two tech guys. At some point, the discussion turned into whether their technology is helping people make better things, or make things better.

The distinction has philosophical, ethical as well as practical implications, as duChemin continues to elaborate on in his post.

Ever since I read his post, I have wanted to pick up on duChemnin’s pondering. Not the least, because this goes to the core of what I do as a photojournalist.

Of course, in my line of work, I want to capture better and more compelling images, but in the end, I also hope and wish that my stories may have a positive impact, one way or another. In fact, at least judging purely journalistically, without the latter, journalism becomes meaningless. The whole point is to inform in order for members of a society to be able to make informed decisions for necessary changes. That said, I have been in the business long enough to know that any single story of mine will not change the world in any direction. However, I believe—or at least hope—that every piece will add to better our combined knowledge so that over time it all together will lead to positive advancements.

Right now, for instance, I am working on a story about the impact of isolation. How do we cope with being isolated and how does seclusion affect us? The story will have a broad focus on various aspect of isolation. Of course, the idea springs out of the corona pandemic, which holds the world in its grip. Everywhere we are all affected and forced into various degrees of isolation. I will meet with students who have lost their social arenas because universities have been closed down, I will meet with elderly, who will not receive visits in order to protect them, but I will also meet with inmates, who are isolated independently of the pandemic. To the latter, I originally had set up to go to prison tomorrow, but this week newer and more severe restrictions have been imposed here where I live. In fact, my city has been completely locked down due to the new mutated strains of the virus, so I have become secluded myself.

Anyway, the point is, yes, I want to capture strong and compelling images, whether showing students, elderly or prisoners, but when push comes to shove, I hope the story will have some sort if impact, if only educationally.

And isn’t that the case for anyone photographing, or anyone involved in creative activities, no matter at what level? Of course, we want to improve and develop our skills so that we can make better photos (or things), but don’t we all hope that our images will have some positive impact? You want your image of a magnificent winter landscape to produce some kind of awe in the viewer, you want your photo of a newborn to touch others, and you want you art, whatever you create, to bring joy or enlightenment or amazement—at some level.

One doesn’t exclude the other. However, maybe we sometimes forget the question about making things better. Or at least becomes less aware of that side of the creative coin. As duChemin writes: “Does making this thing, whatever it is, make the world a better place? Does it add a little more light? Does it bring me joy as I make it? Does it help me ask (or answer) bigger questions? Does it contribute to the experience of being more fully human and alive?”

Let’s not be oblivious about that part of the equation. In fact, being aware of how to make things better, will help us make better things. Creativity is at the very core of what it means to be human. Nevertheless, the equation is reciprocal by nature. Pushing myself to make better things will most likely result in making things better.

Therapy of Now

The raw material for photography is right now. You can’t take a photo tomorrow. Of course, you can wait until tomorrow, for that particular now when you press the shutter button. But you can’t capture the photo, neither before nor after, if you didn’t do it then. In the same way, you can’t capture a photo yesterday, if you didn’t do it then, in that now.

Photography forces you to be in the present. It’s all about finding the right now to press the shutter button. You can’t vast the moments if you want to photograph. Whatever you didn’t capture now, is forever lost. Photography forces you to pay attention and notice whatever is happening right in front of your eyes. Right now.

The camera is an instrument for presence. By default, photography facilitates mindfulness. No doubt, all creative activity, which allows us to enter flow, will have that affect, but in particular, photography is a forceful catalyst for mindfulness, exactly because it forces us to be so aware of the now.

You can’t worry about what has happened before or about the future, when you are fully aware of the present moment.

The photographic process pulls us into the moment, makes us seize this precious time we never get back. The ability to concentrate and be present is a prerequisite for taking good pictures. What more is, practicing being in the presence when photographing, makes it easier to be present even without a camera.

Whether you capture a photo at a fraction of a second or with a minutes’ long exposure, your mind will be focusing on what is happening right now. In our modern society we all too much think about and plan the future, get stressed by all the things we need to do, have regrets and are bothered by whatever we didn’t get a chance to do or did do but erroneously; there is so much to think about, that we forget to live. In this very now. No matter what, life happens here and now. Not tomorrow and not yesterday. Future plans have no value before they actually happen, or even worse, if they don’t ever come to be realized.

Thus, photography is a mental health catalyst. It gives us a feeling of mastery. Because the way to master the present moment, is also the way to master everything else. It all starts with the first, uncertain step, the first, terrible photo. Right now. Photography is therapy for the mind. It keeps the mind healthy.

Embrace Failure

Here the other night, I was visiting an artist friend of mine. He wanted to discuss early artwork he has created years ago and have rejected, to see if some of the paintings were worth keeping or make changes to in order for them to become complete.

My friend is a successful artist. His paintings have been bought by national galleries and museums, but are quite different from these early works.

We had a constructive and good discussion, talking about reframing, or cropping as we would say in the world of photography, or adding elements or do other changes to the paintings. A lot of the early work came out as really good, and those paintings that weren’t, could be worked into something that would make them great, too. However, quite a few there were no hope for.

All these paintings represent a time when my friend was experimenting a lot with materials, techniques, approaches and artistic expressions. Although they are very different from his later and much recognized work, it was clear, seen in retrospect, that they were necessary steps towards his maturity as an artist and the level that made him renowned and successful.

What stroke me, while it’s something I have often enough emphasized, is the necessity to be willing to experiment and take changes if you want to develop your artistic expression, be it as a painter, a photographer, or anything else creatively. If not, you won’t develop, you will languish as an artist.

However, by taking chance, you risk making something that might become a failure. That lies in whole idea of taking a risk or a chance. If not, there wouldn’t be any risk involved, you wouldn’t be taking any chances.

I think this is so fundamental to acknowledge for yourself if you want to develop as an artist. It means embracing the idea of failure, not as failure in fact, but as necessary steps towards higher artistry. Failures are only failures if you seen them as such. If you take them as possibilities to learn and expand, suddenly they are only part of the process to become ever better.

If you don’t fail, it means you are not developing. If you do fail, it indicates that you are trying to become better or more profound in your skills and artistry. A positive, rather than negative, adaptation.

It’s easy to feel miserable when you fail, whether you don’t achieve what you had set out to accomplish, artistically, or don’t get the recognition you think you deserve. I know, I have been there plenty enough.

The important point is to try to turn it around, so that what you see as failures do not stop you, but rather encourage you to keep on trying. Failures are not failures. But necessary steps in the learning process. No renown artist has gotten his or her recognition overnight, without any prior trying and failing, without labouring and taking chance. The only thing different between them and us is you don’t see all those mistakes and disappointments that they had to prevail.

So embrace failures. They are much more important for your artistic development than your successes. That has been confirmed as well in cognitive behavioural research.

Photographically Seeing

Are you ready to learn and understand how you eyes work—and how to make your visual perception sharper and better fit for the task of finding potential photographs? My new eBook “Photographically Seeing—Seeing Better, Seeing Deeper” will take your seeing—and thus your photography—to the next level.

For a photographer, seeing is where it all really starts. If you don’t see anything that interests you, you won’t be able to take any interesting photos. Obviously. However, there is a big difference between seeing in general and seeing with the intention of taking photographs.

“Photographically Seeing—Seeing Better, Seeing Deeper” will take you on a journey into how our eyes and brain work and teach you how you can develop and train your perceptive skills.

By training your perceptiveness, you not only improve your ability to discover and see potential subjects better and thus are able to create stronger and better photographs, but the opposite is also true. In the process of photographing, you train yourself to see more deliberately and clearer. The camera can consequently help liberate your awareness to see clearly and keenly, to know something about who you really are, and open your being to an unfading swell of empathy and compassion for those you meet along the way.

Maybe it’s time to discover how to see again? By taking the time to truly focus on what it is you see you’ll be able to create more engaging photos. Rediscover what it is you really see, and you will probably find that your photos will change dramatically. Good seeing doesn’t ensure good photography by itself, though, but a captivating photographic expression is impossible without it.

“Photographically Seeing—Seeing Better, Seeing Deeper” is 106 pages packed with useful information and practical exercises to make to see what is rather than what you believe is there.

Order the book “Photographically Seeing—Seeing Better, Seeing Deeper”

Seeing before Seeing

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I often ponder about how we see a photograph before we actually push the button. How do we see in our mind what could potentially become a photo? What triggers us to take the photo before we even think in photographic terms? In some cases—well probably in most cases—we are obviously triggered by the desire to keep the moment as a memory without necessarily being too concerned about whether the subject is photogenic or not. We want to capture the big moments in our kids’ lives, our grandmother’s 90 birthday, holidays with our family, the big party with friends and acquaintances, and the day we bought a new house. These moments we will capture no matter how bad the light might be, how impossible it will be to compose the subject well, or how technically terrible the final result will be.

I am not saying we won’t use our photographic skills in these situations. Of course we will. We won’t drop the camera and let go of taking the photo even when we know it’s going to be far from a perfect snapshot. The question I raise is related to the more creative act of photographing, when we look for aesthetics or subjects or content that expresses a broader and more universal connection. How do our minds first see the image that could potentially turn into a captivating photograph?

Many times I have tried to formulate my own processes of seeing and discovering images—or the commencement of the process before I start to transform those first inner visions into photographs. But words come hard to describe the process and so far I have not found a way to translate it into a sound, written description. Of course, many other photographs have done so, and transformed their knowledge into valuable understanding of the photographic process. Some of these statements have become classical quotes for the photographic community. Still I feel there is some kind of detachment between my own reactive initiation and most of the rational explanations.

One thing I have become more and more certain about is that there are many ways which lead to that initial activation of our photographic vision. Take myself as an example: Many times I have captured a photo before I am even aware I did—while in other cases I am working around the subject until I find a way to capture it in a most compelling way. Right there I guess, I mentioned one element that may trigger the whole photographic vision: The subject itself. In these cases I don’t necessarily see a photo for my inner eye before I start shooting, but I work the subject and use my photographic skills to twist and turn something out of what is an interesting subject for me—interesting not necessarily as a photograph but more for political, social or cultural reasons. The before mentioned family snapshots are a variation of this approach. A lot of my journalistic work could be placed into this category, too. Often these photos are contrived and less fluid than images I have a more intuitive approach to. They don’t necessarily have that emotional connection that is so important in a photograph.

However, sometimes I manage to transcend this rational approach and instead I will enter a more unconscious flow. That happens when I get more emotionally attached to whatever I am photographing and lose myself in the process. This I described in the post Tunnel Vision I posted some time ago. For me this is a much more interesting process. The question still remains: When I let go of the rational mind, what does it instead look for? How does it see the photo when I decide to press the shutter button?

I know from my own experience that I often don’t see whatever I photograph as the picture will appear finally processed. I still see in terms of pictures, but in a more abstract way, seeing relations, seeing light, seeing the potential more than in terms of a finished photo. The classical understanding is one that the renowned landscape photographer Ansell Adams described. He was very adamant about the necessity of pre-visualizing. As part of the so-called zone-system he developed for black and white photography, he thought it was required for a photographer to be able to see how the final photo would appear—and already during the capturing make adjustments for that final expression. If are able to see any of Ansell Adams’ photo as real photographic prints, you would be amazed about the richness and tonal depth of his photos. To obtain that technical superiority with the analogue process of those days I think it was indeed necessary to be able to pre-visualize.

Maybe I am not so concern about a technical perfect photo, but am more interested in capturing emotional content and connections in a photo. And maybe I process my photos in different ways depending on what my intentions are—even after the fact. I am definitely more trusting intuition than using pre-visualization as a tool. However I still think my brain has learned how to see in terms of pictures. After a lifetime of capturing and seeing pictures (I don’t know how many hundred thousands it will be by now) I have a certain understanding of what works and I think I see that in a glimpse of moment before I trigger the shutter. I clearly see a subject in terms of compositional placement—unconsciously—and move myself around without thinking in order to arrange the elements in an as strong as possible relationship. I think that accounts for one of my strengths as a photographer; to be able to capture compelling photos in situations when a lot goes on at the same time. And then I really see—and look for—the emotional or connecting moment.

How do you “see” a photo before taking it? What is your mind looking for? Do you recognize for your eye previous seen images? Do you approach the subject with an open mind? Do you use pre-visualization more than intuition—or the other way around? I would love to hear more about how your mind see the images you take—before you take them.

It All Starts with Seeing

There is a saying that “some people see more in a walk around the block than others see in a trip around the world”. This is a reminder that for the most part we see only what we expect to see. That is why it’s so easy to hide something in plain view.

It’s quite obvious that being able to see is an indispensable quality for any photographer who wants to create engaging images and surprise the viewer with a fresh vision. 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. Yes, most of us “see” equally well if you talk about the physiological process—more or less that is, of course. However, seeing with the intention of really seeing is not merely a physiological process and not something most people do, no matter how sharp their eyes might be. Seeing—in the finest and broadest sense—means using all your senses, your intellect, and your emotions. It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being. It means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you, even when it has become habitually mundane.

There is a whole process of internalized steps behind capturing a photograph. It all springs out of you as a person. You bring yourself, and whatever you are, into the visual world. Your whole previous life experience and personal development becomes part of the equation. Being who you are, you see the world differently than any other person, simply because you are who you are. Perception is shaped by values, upbringing, and culture. No two persons see the same way. Your way of experiencing the world is unique. However, most of what you see goes unnoticed by your conscious mind. Then suddenly something triggers you, visually and emotionally. There is what could be called a momentary encounter between you and the world. It might be anything from a strong colour splash or an odd object to extraordinarily beautiful light or some human interaction. This initial flash of perception sparks a desire to take a photograph and finally results in your camera registering a photo when you push the shutter button. Somewhat simplified the process can be described this way:

Personality → Perception → Picture

Who you are is nobody’s business but yours, and not something you necessarily need to work on or improve, not to become a photographer at least. I certainly have no say in who you are or ought to be, but let me just point out that it does ardently affect the way your photography will manifest itself. In the end, that is what makes your photographs different from any others.

Personality aside, for a photographer, seeing is where it all really starts. If you don’t see anything that interests you, you won’t be able to take any interesting photos. Obviously. However, there is a big difference between seeing in general, as indicated above, and seeing with the intention of taking a photograph. In many ways, we have to unlearn the regular way of seeing. If you “only” see as you do when you walk down the street without a camera or when you are socializing with your friends or whatever you do when you are not photographing, you will miss out on the interesting and captivating photos.

This is an excerpt from my soon to be released eBook “See Better, See Deeper”, a book about seeing with the intention to take photographs. It’s an in depth study into all aspects of seeing and learning to see better. I will get back with more information when it’s ready.