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.