We live in an age of point-and-shoot immediacy. But pointing and shooting is not “seeing” — not understanding. New technologies, such as computational photography and digital cameras, make it easier for people to think they are seeing when all they are really doing is looking with a camera.
When we look at something, although our mind may be active, we are not fully engaged in creating through seeing and understanding. The point and shoot mentality is all about output with little understanding of input. In the past, what distinguished the professional from the amateur was not only skill with the camera, but also a financial and personal investment in the technology.
Kodaks and Polaroids for Everyone
Our parents’ generation — armed with Kodak Instamatics and Polaroid Land cameras — were sold on the idea that photography was as easy as pushing a button. Marketers pitched products that made photography cheaper and easier, but not necessarily better.
For generations, the camera industry has promoted the “looking, pointing and shooting for the masses” approach to photography because people weren’t willing to mortgage their homes for a camera and a darkroom. Nor were people willing to take the time to develop the skills needed.
In this digital age, camera manufacturers are still peddling the faster, cheaper, easier point-and-shoot way of thinking, from camera phones to pro-sumer digital single lens reflex cameras. This approach, however, subordinates seeing and observing to an act of merely looking and possessing.
Before we learn to write, we read. Before we learn to see, we look. This modest supposition assumes what it means to be a visual communicator today. Writing and seeing are on the flip side of the reading/looking dichotomy. When we write, we occupy our senses through sight and touch. When we learn to see, our perceptual experiences are activated through the senses.
Training Ourselves to See
Frederick Franck suggests that meaning is lost when all we do is “look at” something. To “see” something means to understand it in a deeper way. Seeing is a transformative experience — it suggests action in that it promotes feeling, thinking and responding toward something. Passively looking at something, however, means noticing without acting.
When we open our eyes, mind and heart to the world around us, we become alive in it. In a culture saturated with visual messages, our eyes, and by extension our minds and hearts, have become numb and anesthetized to the desire to seek out the deeper meanings of the things we are exposed to.
By default, we have allowed ourselves to fall victim to the estrangement and immunization of truly seeing things as they are. With so much for us to look at, we have become estranged from the intuitive act of seeing. As Franck contends, “Everything in our society seems to conspire against our inborn human gift of seeing.”
In an age of instant gratification, we must be trained to see in order to encounter the deeper meaning of things in the world. In his book, The Photographic Experience, Jeff Berner notes, “When mere looking evolves into the art of seeing, we experience deeper revelation and perhaps even understanding.”