Just as religious practitioners strive to see with the heart and not the eye; or to walk by faith and not by visual cues, so too of photographers and other visual authors. Seeing one’s subject, one’s setting, and the art of the possible by converting a vision of the mind into a picture on paper or screen takes practice and it calls for exercising muscles not necessarily well developed or well toned. Here are some of the layers of seeing:
- Visual language of lighting (source angle and intensity and dynamic range, temperature), composition, shutter speeds, apertures, focal length, color arrangements.
- Social science language of psychology (point of view, developmental placement, cognitive function, emotional response, etc), sociology (institutions that intersect a given moment and personal path; normative and deviation from expected ranges), economics (source of support, distribution of assets, ways of prioritizing needs and communicating same), political science (conflict resolution, accountability, decision making locus, authority and counterbalancing powers), anthropology (comparative organizational cultures, language and cognition, material culture, longitudinal changes, individual and society).
- Natural science and technical language of engineering, established codes for construction and electrical goods, performance of heating, air and water circulation, systems of supply and waste water, control of perimeter – who may enter and exit, who has access to subsets of information of health, finance, and so on.
- Commercial or business language of promotion, rights and entitlements, markets and distribution, engagement with segments of audiences defined by demographic sets, competitors and alternative outlets of people’s attention, caring, and money.
Taking this unedited snapshot as one instance of a subject that can be interpreted with these many lenses, the VISUAL language offers little originality or expressiveness; it is a grab shot with TV screen centered and seems to carry no momentous message, timing, or display of technical prowess. It does not catch the eye for its location or for its quality of light, for instance.
Turning next to the SOCIAL SCIENCE language, the scene is a much more promising springboard for discussion: there is a rerun of a once popular sitcom which unto itself is worth of analysis (castaways of diverse social standing forced to interact for mutual survival and frequently bumping against the social conventions of the day for such mutually exclusive social-types). There is the programmers choice of what appears in the lunch hour timeslot on this particular themed cable TV channel. There is the material culture of the common living area for the dementia care residents, such as the person in the special wheeled activity chair+table. There is the US flag prominently displayed and the congeries of historical and present-day meanings that carries for workers, visitors and the generation of residents currently living there. There is the artificial tree-like large plant at the left of the scene which indicates a token presence of the natural world even in this climate controlled, medically supervised space for assisted living needs to be met gently and expertly. Needless to say the economic dimension, the political science aspect, and the resident-by-resident cognitive histories provide much space for further discussion, too; all within the small frame of this grab shot.
There are is the NATURAL SCIENCE and PROFESSIONAL language of engineers, researchers of biological and chemical and physical conditions, as well as those qualified in medical, financial, and legal fields of practice. The photo includes audio-visual technology (leaving aside the production of the sitcom and the running of a cable TV service to subscribers) that was engineered and distributed in retail networks. There is the engineered design of the specialized day-bed/table/chair of the resident on the left. There are the conditions of temperature, humidity and lighting appropriate for daytime and nighttime at the facility, along with all the infrastructure in the building and connected to the municipality (electric, water, gas, telecommunications, road, emergency services and protocols). No live plants are in the common spaces, although some residents’ rooms have plants requiring watering. Still the likeness of an indoor tree somehow humanizes or softens the man-made interior space.
Finally there is the layer of BUSINESS (achieving a net positive cash-flow of an ongoing concern) and COMMERCIAL language (striving for success in engaging and keeping good relationships with the fickle minds of consumers in a capital, free-market economy where bigger and cheaper often beat smaller and more personalized products and services). Regarding this image through the lens of business and commerce, it expresses how mainstream, national programming reaches down to the subscriber level (sitcom on TV). And the well-cared for facility indicates that the business model balances cost with level of care with the result that rooms are occupied, staff work for multiple years, and the connected families to the long-term residents are satisfied (all these observations come from repeated visits; not extracted purely from the pixels in this digital image).
In conclusion, all these languages for reading a scene and then going about capturing it so as to communicate some of the perceptions with others takes practice, persistence, and continuous checking to discover what does or does not successfully come across in the effort. Like the fox said to the Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly,” not just with the eyeballs and point-and-shoot or megapixel dSLR.