Mastering the Art of Observation


To understand anything in life, we must do our homework and engage the things we feel, think and act upon. Human beings are dependent on our senses for the impressions we hold of the world around us. We rely on sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste for our survival.

However, as we develop and refine our craft, there is a tendency to favor one sense over another­. The key to becoming better observers of the world, through words and images, is to work with all our senses to remember the impressions we experience and collect.

Seeing vs. Looking At

The art of observation begins with immersing ourselves in the textures and tones of life. Observation requires us to immerse ourselves in looking and listening without passing judgment on the impressions we collect. We must free ourselves from the biases, preferences and prejudices we hold toward our subjects.

Artist Frederick Franck states that “the glaring contrast between seeing and looking-at the world around us is immense; it is fateful. Everything in our society seems to conspire against our inborn human gift of seeing.” Learning to observe people, places, and activities in the world can make us better storytellers, communicators, writers and photographers.

Franck notes:

We have become addicted to merely looking at things and beings. The more we regress from seeing to looking at the world—through the ever-more-perfected machinery of viewfinders, TV tubes, VCRs, microscopes, stereoscopes—the less we see, the more numbed we become to the joy and the pain of being alive, and the further estranged we become from ourselves and all others.

For Robert Wolf, observation is a process of immersing ourselves in listening and looking more carefully. Learn to observe without judging, without letting thought intrude between you and the object. When you see a sunset or a landscape and say, “How beautiful,” you are not immersed in it, and will notice only part of what you might otherwise have seen.

Communication is about acknowledging the value of relationships between things that will provide a context for the experiences we have. Sense of place means making connections to the impressions we collect.

The Rock and How Far You Throw It

Mastering the art of observation requires taking in sights, sounds and smells without judgment. The experiences we choose to focus on are a way of rationalizing, organizing, understanding and illustrating the difference between seeing, knowing and telling. We move through these experiences from the inner self to the outer world.

Our disposition toward what we see, know and tell may reveal itself in a number of ways. How big the rock is (personal experience) and how far we decide to throw it depends on how comfortable we are with ourselves. Go easy on yourself by not trying to find the biggest rock — and don’t try to throw a smaller rock too far out into the pond, either.

Think about what it means to see, know and tell about some experience or issue; then, work slowly outward to connect with the social issues of the day. Remember, though, that this is just one approach to visual problem-solving. There are many other ways to develop story ideas and organize around storytelling.

[tags]photography advice[/tags]


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