thinking with pictures – metaphors that let you see the subject from new angles

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Hungry to see through… how much to satisfy the appetite?

House demolished, south of central Echizen-city, Japan - memories lost

House demolished, south of central Echizen-city, Japan – memories lost

Early to bed, early to rise makes it easy to go for a morning walk when things are quiet and the light grows strong enough to perceive colors. Generally, two sorts of scenes can catch my eye and call out for a panorama, a photo, or a video snapshot (holding the composed scene still with usually few moving subjects or sound). Certain qualities of light (mild or strong, clear or suffused by dust or mist or haze) and the shadow that is half-filled by light from indirect reflection of sky or nearby structure is one kind of scene that attracts my attention. The other kind seems to be about things that demonstrate something about the social life here in rural Japan, or changes to past ways of living and making livelihoods – abandoned worksites, dwellings, public spaces in disrepair when certain recreational pursuits go out of practice or fashion (jogging and gateball grounds seem to be going away but ‘woh-kingu’ [walking] in the fitness sense is gaining ground, at least among those age 50 and above who have the time, or else who make the time to do so).

A detective, an archaeologist, and a forensic specialist all can read the scene while most others are functionally illiterate to clues in plain sight. They can view a situation and interpolate, extrapolate, and extend the time frame of clues to come up with a picture or movie that most untrained eyes miss. The same is true of a farmer’s eyes when reading a field, an architect when reading a ruin or a blue print, a pianist when looking at written music or hearing it performed. For the person with a camera though, the subjects of light and subject matter itself are what speak with the loudest voice. Light is a subject of universal interest and a source of beauty, but social observations are specific to a place and time. A trained social observer can see through the surfaces and read a more complete story in the scene. Extrapolating to a few more weeks or even decades of morning walks with camera in hand, the question arises, “how much (seeing) is enough”? Or “when will you have captured all there is to say on the matter”?

It is true that walking around with a lens in one’s hand or camera-phone in one’s pocket can lead to a preoccupation with composition, patterns and textures, visual rhythms and quality of light that shifts with the sun’s progress across the sky and then the motion of moon or artificial source(s) of light at other times. But the ability to point and shoot social observations, too, as an aide-de-memoire or writing prompt is a great tool for opening up subjects that otherwise might pass unnoticed and without remark. But after a dozen or a hundred of these visual records, (1) what is the result? (2) What do we see or know different to before? (3) What of significance comes from it? (4) And how much picture taking is enough to accomplish the goal of figuring out what it is that the eye encounters (when enough dots are in place, the overall shape can be seen without the need to complete the picture with all data points in place).

1) Result of accumulated social observations (visual or written notes).
Many things happen after capturing, annotating and sharing sets of visual observations. For the person making the pictures there is a learning curve whereby observations are sharpened, a taste for such matters grows, interest in other’s similar work gets stronger, and the ability develops to verbally express what the image points to. In other words, for the person with the eye and the lens, thinking is enriched and vision begins to reach beyond the surface (or maybe this urge to see and know is a function of middle-age, a point on the life course that is equally distant from one’s birth and one’s death). As a result, whether imagined or real, there is an increasing awareness and sensitivity to what one witnesses in the many social contexts public, commercial, or private, such that some of the underlying intentions, ideals, and tensions are perceptible; that is, what was invisible before can now be perceived in one’s glimpse of a place or person, taking into account the moment, but also being attuned to what came before and what likely will come after the frozen moment – one’s angle of view (to use a lens analogy) is both wider and longer to see not just the minute or the calendar day, but also the generational changes and continuities. Even the lives of the plants and animals enter into the frame of view when gazing at a social setting.

So the eye (sensitivity to light and meaning), the hand (lens work), and the heart (aware of lives outside one’s own; even outside of one’s own species and one’s own culture/language) all amplify their earlier range of powers as a result of feasting on social observations and capturing them with camera. To a lesser degree these same results echo in people who view, read, watch the body of visual materials coming from the person who is making these pictures.

2) What we can see different to before amassing those images.

Before undertaking sustained effort at recording those places and moments that speak loud enough to attract one’s lens, the landscape of meanings and materials is mute, or they mean something just instrumentally. The subject matter is only important to those who work there daily, or live nearby or who built and maintain an organization or structure. To all others who are passing by, the location or activity is no more than background to their own purposeful patterns of life course, life stages, and arc of life story with self as the main character. But by framing the picture and then commenting on it, the subject gains definition, presence, and meaning for people other than those directly (instrumentally, functionally) concerned. In other words, the act of describing and engaging others who normally have no interaction builds a bridge to introduce the subject into their own worlds of meaning. And even among those who daily interact with the subject, the location, and the structures, there comes a certain routinization that leads to blindness or taken-for-granted feeling for the thing. But now by re-seeing (literal roots of the word ‘respect’ is re+spectating; or seeing with new eyes, seeing for a 2nd time) the familiar subject from an outsider’s point of view, the thing is put into a new frame or a new light. In conclusion, what is revealed was always there, hiding in plain sight. But by going through the exercise of the visual project, now the outlines of meaning are traced in bold line and stand out to reveal: (a) the passage of time so that the present closely ties to what came before and what will follow, and (b) those connections between the people directly engaged and knowledgeable of the place or subject and the people who have regarded the thing as mere background and cut off from their own concerns.

3) What of significance comes from the project.

For the picture maker and for those who appreciate the results, the surrounding settings and moment in time becomes richer, more resonant with meaning, and more relevant to one’s own place in the passing seasons and lives. And in the event that one of these viewers or picture makers occupies a position of decision making (public arena for discussion, or seat of authority), then perhaps this wider angle of view on the world will lead to actions, budgets, enforcement, and public campaigns that will encourage others to take the wide view; something like the “7 generations” philosophy among some Native American peoples: in addition to the concerns of those living at present, taking into account the wishes and accumulated wisdom of one’s parents, grandparents, the generation before them; but also into the future, taking into account the impact on one’s children, grandchildren, and the next generation that follows them. A person’s life experience and scope of direct memory can only apprehend that window of 150-200 years, but that is sufficient to spread the weight of a decision beyond one’s own immediate lifetime. By gathering and verbalizing scores of social observations sparked by visual observations, then perhaps something of this wider experience of one’s cultural landscape and social geography will gain prominence as part of one’s everyday appreciation of one’s place in the scheme of things during their individual “3 score and 10 years” of lifetime.

4) How much is enough to outline the project’s subject of Social Observation.
The appetite for reacting to scenes that speak to one’s sense of social significance varies according to the person holding the lens. One person may just make a handful of social observations, while another may go on for years, taking the same picture to express sentiments again and again that first appeared in their earlier work. And for the viewer, too, some will grasp the meaning after seeing a few pictures that intersect their own place or time. But others will never tire of seeing familiar things framed in an unfamiliar way; or to see things altogether novel and unfamiliar for the first time. Perhaps the point of saturation or satisfying that appetite and responding to that hunger comes when the general trajectory of the project emerges; when one can see where the effort is leading and can articulate that sentiment. After that point, not every potential picture needs to be actually captured. Instead, it is enough to compose the image in one’s mind’s eye, then to give a nod or a wink as the moment passes, and to feel satisfied with the idea of capturing that observation, without actually going through the motions. Of course, when there is no longer any physical trace of the a-ha moment, then the possibility of communicating the insight to others is lost. So maybe the most productive and valuable circumstance comes after one’s eye has begun to respond, one’s lens is well practiced and one’s heart is interested. That middle ground –no longer naive or unresponsive, but not yet fully understanding where the exercise will develop into– is maybe when most of the pictures and commentary are made. But while the light and the social settings of built-landscape or seasonal events speak to one’s eye, then let the picture making continue!