The Habit of Seeing


   Diego had never seen the sea. His father, Santiago Kovadloff, took him to discover it.
   They went south.
   The ocean lay beyond high sand dunes, waiting.
   When the child and his father finally reached the dunes after much walking, the ocean exploded before their eyes.
   And so immense was the sea and its sparkle that the child was struck dumb by the beauty of it.
   And when he finally managed to speak, trembling, stuttering, he asked his father:
   “Help me to see!”

There’s a lot of talk about talent that surrounds photography, as with any other art. While talent has its place, it isn’t enough by itself. Nobody, no matter how talented or capable they may be, emerges fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s head. Even those with a surplus of talent – those once-in-a-lifetime freaks of nature – need a sense of direction to make the most of what they’re born with. The good news is that the rest of us can take a cue or two from them as well, since with the will to learn, to practice, to fail, and never mind, try again, fail better, can make even a little talent go a long way.

There’s a lot of technique that goes into photography. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring different technical aspects of photography related to different functions and settings on this site, and will continue to do so. However, all those settings, all the skill we seek to develop in mastering not only the fundamentals of exposure, all the ways we try to approach and master realizing what we saw in our mind’s eye in the split second before we pressed the shutter, really don’t amount to much if what we’ve got is a frame of perfectly exposed emptiness.

Mind you, there could well be something going on in the frame. A lot of somethings, even, a cacophony of visual input clamoring to be seen and frozen in time. But something can have form and still be devoid of content if it’s not about anything, and there’s no “there” there. Sometimes we have to look a bit harder to see it, or may even have tried our best only to decide there’s nothing there, and that’s okay… as long as that process takes place before the photo is made.

When you’re working in a visual medium, seeking to be understood by being seen, it’s worth asking whether that vision can be learned, or if it’s something you’ve either inherently got or don’t. In the next few weeks, we’ll be talking about ways of seeing, stepping away from the technical into something that might seem a bit obscure, but is really quite practical. You can learn to see, and communicate what you’ve seen in a way that makes it make sense to someone else. And if you already know, you can find ways to do it better still.

Seeing isn’t something that’s handed down, or transmitted as if by some kind of lineage. Neither I, nor anyone else, can confer upon you a way of seeing. As I’ve written elsewhere, there’s a vision only you can have, since nobody else can see the world as you do. A codicil to that, though, is that you have to cultivate a habit of seeing. Be willing to engage what’s in your line of sight. Allow it to be present, without preconception or judgment, and – more importantly – be present to it. Dorothea Lange said once that a camera “is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” If part of the challenge is being mindful throughout the photographic process, then another, no less significant, challenge is bringing that mindfulness back to our everyday lives.

By way of a disclaimer: I don’t put myself forth as some kind of visionary. I struggle with this stuff every time I pick up a camera, and even many times when I don’t have one. One reason that Lange’s words resonate with me is because I suppose we’ve all been there… we’ve all had those lapses in vision, when our eyes weren’t altogether open or our heart wasn’t 100% in it. It takes practice and discipline, but if the photo’s worth making, so’s the effort.

A thought in closing (or in transition, if you’d rather): What do you think? What have you learned from a lifetime of seeing, and what advice would you give to someone who’d like to see more deeply?

The epigraph is taken from The Book of Embraces, by Eduardo Galeano.

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