We See It As We Are

As we all know photographs tell stories, convey information, and express emotion in ways that other modes of communication can’t. And, probably just as obvious, the story, information, and emotions that a given image shares will be different depending on your own background, state of mind, and outlook on life.

As Anais Nin famously said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to see just how true that statement is. I mean, look at the illustration of this point made popular in one of the opening scenes from The DaVinci Code where we see how the symbols or imagery of one culture can mean vastly different things to members of another.

One of my coworkers sent an email to our marketing group today with a link to an article about why language may shape our thoughts. In the article the example is given how when talking about a bridge in the south of France the Germans described it in more “light” and romantic terms while the French spoke about it with words of strength and power. The argument is that these perceptions are built around the language itself. Because the word for bridge in French is a masculine noun “masculine” traits could more easily come to mind, while in German the word for bridge is a feminine noun, likely evoking more “feminine” traits.

An image of someone like the president can bring out thoughts of admiration, anger, respect, hate, success, despair, joy, etc. all based on who the observer is and where they are coming from – both physically and psychologically. A Democrat will have a very different reaction than a Republican. A US citizen will see it differently than someone from North Korea. But even beyond the ideological or nationalistic differences, it’s obvious that a person who has a family history tied in one way or another to slavery, segregation, and racial discrimination will view the same photo carrying a different set of baggage than someone who doesn’t have that personal connection.

The same can be said for a picture of an old bike leaning on a wall. For some it may be a nostagia trip. For others a hard memory of growing up with less, never having what many took for granted. And it can go on and on.

As image makers we look through our viewfinders and capture frames of our world. Usually we’re trying to share what we see, or say something about who we are. But we all see the world through our own lenses that are variously both smudged and clean from our own personal experiences, moods, and beliefs.

I’ve said it a number of times how a piece of art – be it a photograph, a painting, a sculpture, a piece of music, a film, etc. – is never finished until it is experienced by the viewer/listener because it is in the consumption of a work of art that it is finally complete. And, even then, it is forever unfolding new meanings and depths depending on who and where you are when you consume it.

Don’t get me wrong, I definitely feel that a photograph (or any creative work for that matter) should first be done for the photographer. But I ask that you also consider how your creation might be seen through other lenses and understood with other words than our own.

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