Looking vs seeing

How often do you look at the sky?

Me, not so often when I’m living my normal city life. But when I’m out hiking and exploring, quite a lot. I look all around me.

We spend a big part of our life looking in front of us. We experience what happens to be happening in front of us. It’s like looking through a keyhole.

Even so, looking is not necessarily seeing. We look through things, we don’t pay attention, we don’t care that much. We see shapes and details but often what we’re really looking at is our problems, desires or expectations.

In some ways, taking photos helps you see more, because it forces you to focus on the essential. In order to do that, you have to identify the essential and render it visible. Neither of these comes by itself.

Identifying the essential is not easy because the essential is not out there. It has to do with the way we interpret the scene and what we want to make out of it. You may be in the most beautiful or interesting places on earth and not come up with anything more than random snapshots. The scene does not speak by itself. It needs purpose. It needs the right framing and idea to guide it.

There’s a world of difference between the scene as we see it and the photo taken. Compositions that make a lot of sense when we’re absorbed in the scene can result in flat, uninteresting or chaotic photos. The camera does not capture emotion, smell, mood, the whole experience of being there. It does not capture our field of vision. It captures photons from whatever direction you point it towards.

Turning this visual mess into something intesting has to do with things such as composition, subject and use of light. Deciding what to include in the frame and, maybe more importantly, what to leave out.

Composition

Visual content is nothing without some organizing principle or structure. Composition is mostly about setting boundaries and simplifying what we present, what we make visible to the others, so this principle becomes visible.

Aspiring photographers are urged to study the great masters of the trade to improve their composition, use of light and color, and capacity to convey emotions and ideas. You can learn something from people such as Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Steve McCurry, Sebastião Salgado anytime.

But cinematography is also a great place to learn composition, storytelling and expression of mood and emotion. And some directors have perfected their composition to the point where movie stills could stand on their own, as great photographs. Akira Kurosawa is one of them.

Below, a ronin (samurai without a master) prepares for a fight. We do not see his opponent. The focus is on the samurai and his way of dealing with a situation. His posture indicates readiness and calm. The background is specific enough to indicate the context (rural Japan), but discreet enough not to intrude on what is happening front stage.

Image may contain: 1 person
Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

The stage is set. There is dramatic tension created by the contrast between the calm and self-aware attitude of the samurai and his martial position. There is movement. The camera stays at the level of his head, reinforcing the sense of focus. Kurosawa puts him in the centre. All the rest, from the opponent to other characters and to props, is just helping to tell his story.

In this scene, the ronin manages to solve a difficult situation, using his intelligence rather than his fighting skills. A young guy who happened to watch the whole thing is so impressed with him that he insists on becoming his disciple.

The ronin replies:
“You embarrass me. You’re overestimating me. Listen, I’m not a man with any special skill, but I’ve had plenty of experience in battles; losing battles, all of them. In short, that’s all I am. Drop such an idea for your own good.”

Isolation

It’s not until you are forced to isolate that you realize to what degree photography is a social activity. I don’t mean just taking photos but the whole lifecycle of a photo. Planning, travelling, publishing your work – it all depends on a social infrastructure we usually take for granted. From the inspiration we take and the feedback we receive to the coffee we are able to buy early morning, before we get to the location, it is all part of how we organize our life together.

Lisbon/Alfama, Nov 2019. Harsh afternoon light can be interesting. This scene wouldn’t have worked at sunrise or sunset. The sun needs to be high enough so that this church entrance is directly lit, with all the shadows and patterns it creates.

While getting feedback online may have gotten easier, with so many people staying at home, other parts of this social web are not doing ok. That seller of coffee may never reopen. Your retired photographer friend may fall seriously ill. Anxiety and depression are a lot closer than usual.

Is there a silver lining to this?

I think so. I think there always is, even in the gloomiest of situations.

For one, isolation gives a lot of head space. You have the time to reflect on what is it that attracted you to photography in the first place. Or what made you start a particular photo project and invest so much of you into it. Or where you want to go from here, how you want to develop. These simple questions may be at the back of our heads, but chances are we don’t often confront them directly. Even with the activities we love, we are functioning most of the time on autopilot.

Isolation also gives us the chance to look more closely at the work we did so far. Organize it better. Maybe drop the conventional categories that you used so far on your website or blog to group and present your photos. Find more organic ways of connecting them, that goes across traditional categories. Put together portraits, landscapes and urban shots that are all about light – the quality of light and how it transforms the scene.

This may result in more work. Revamping that site. Think differently about what are our best photographs. Go back and re-edit some of them.

This may also result in a radical change of the type of photography that we do. Business as usual is not particularly conducive to revolutionary changes, even if we’ve been feeling stuck or unhappy with that way of doing things for a long time. Disruptions are painful, but they also make it easier to accept change.