Updated: Oct 30, 2018
Author Jenn Mishra
Some photographs have something special about them. They are in some way compelling – asking us to see more in the image, to delve deeper.
Great photographers seem to have the ability to capture in a photograph more than what is there. There’s something different about this photo. We see something in the world that we didn’t see before. We understand the world differently because we’ve seen the photograph.
The photographer found a way to make the invisible, visible.
A Different World
We often talk about photography as capturing the world as it is as if what we see is in some way an objective fact. The truth is in the photograph.
The world can be seen in many different ways. This abstract pattern is created by light and shadows hitting a parking structure in the photo above.
Spend any time with photography and you’ll know that this is too simplistic. If the camera were simply capturing the world as we all see it, than photography would be boring and obsolete. Anyone with eyes can see an objective world. What would be the point of photography if we all saw the world in the same way?
Photography goes beyond seeing the world objectively. There is subjectivity and interpretation in what we photograph and the way we photograph it.
Photographs that show us the world as we commonly see it, don’t move us – they are familiar – we’ve seen the world this way before. Photographs that move us, that we are interested in, show us the world as we don’t commonly see it.
As photographers, we try to see the world as others don’t see it – and that’s what brings the power to our photographs. People are interested precisely because they can’t see the world as we do. We show them something more about the world. We show them a new way of looking at the world or we show them a new angle, a new outlook, a new understanding.
But how do we do this?
The Soul of the Photograph
In a book I was reading recently Zen and the Magic of Photography: Learning to See and to Be through Photography, the author Wayne Rowe introduced a process of analyzing photographs by looking closely at the details. These details and the interaction between the details suggested a greater meaning – a meaning initially hidden by a superficial glance at the photograph as a whole.
Meaning is in the details.
Rowe was looking at previously published photographs, but we can turn this process around and look for details in the scene as we’re composing the photographs.
We can add meaning to our photographs by looking for poignant details in the scene, directing the viewer’s attention and using embedded symbolism. I’m not suggesting studying tomes intellectually describing obscure symbols. I’m talking about natural symbolism that we encounter every day.
A ray of light for instance speaks of enlightenment, spiritual illumination as well as physical light. It also directs attention onto the subject.
Look for connections between details in the scene, patterns for instance. Or we can look for juxtapositions – opposites.
Most people walk right by these connections in everyday life - the details hiding in plain sight - but we can capture a moment within a frame and illuminate them. In a photograph, a fleeting connection is frozen giving our brains time to process it. We can take our viewer’s eye and direct it at a connection. We say, “see how the details work together.”
Photographing the invisible in order to make it visible gets us away from making photographs of something. It’s not the subject – or just the subject that is important.
Learning to See the Invisible
There’s some debate as to whether viewing the world differently can be developed. I believe it can be. However, if it were easy everyone would do it and then we’d be back to seeing the world in the same way.
It takes effort on the part of the photographer to develop a unique vision.
One way to start seeing the invisible details is find a scene that you like to take photos of – landscape or flowers or a street – and wait. Take 20 or more photos. Try to see the scene from different angles. Zoom in and out. Move around the scene. Wait for different light. Get low, go high. Look for foreground and background. Break every rule in the photographic book for this exercise.
Really see the scene. Try to capture essence of the scene. Try to capture the details of the scene.
When something changes, move a little deeper into the scene.
See the world as you haven’t seen it before.
Then do the exercise again – in the same place with the same subject.
Then do it again.
Developing your vision takes time and patience.
You’re training your eye to see the world differently from others. You’re trying to see the scene differently from other photographers who may have stopped by briefly to snap a photograph. You’re trying to see the scene differently from passerbyes who looked at you wondering what in the world you were doing and what you were seeing.
At some point, you’ll start seeing the scene differently. Maybe out of sheer boredom your brain will start looking for interesting things. It may even feel like a sudden burst of enlightenment where we can suddenly see the world differently as if our eyes open for the first time. It may feel instant, but in truth it wasn’t. Had we not spent the time practicing, that eureka moment would likely not have come.
The Photographer in the Photograph
Many photographers prefer to be on the backside of the camera, but as the saying goes, “The camera looks both ways.” The camera brings out not only the person or scene being photographed, but the photographer, the invisible person in the photograph, becomes visible.
Our thoughts, personality, and even the mood we’re in when we’re photographing can be seen in the photograph.
Photography makes visible the hidden soul of the photographer. What we choose to photography. How we choose to photograph the subject.
Nowhere is this seen more obvious than in portrait photography.
Capturing a person’s “essence” is key to making a powerful portrait. It’s something that not all photographs do. The portrait photographer doesn’t just want to document what the person looks like; they want to capture who the person is. This means bringing to the surface something within the person that is not always seen – or seen by everyone who meets this person.
Portrait photographers like Lisa Fioretti of the See Me, See Us project seek to bring to the surface something in the person they are photographing that they may keep hidden or not even realize is there. In doing so, the relationship between the photographer and the subject can be seen in the photograph.
It’s a myth that the world is made up of objective scenes. Psychologists have long known that our expectations and perceptions of the world are subjective. If you doubt this, read about the gorilla experiment conducted at Harvard University.
Photography is an art. It’s subjective. Changing the way you look at the world is part of developing your own unique vision. The world can be seen in infinite ways. It’s a bit of a magic trick what photographers do. To show the world as no one else sees it.
“Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
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Article Written by Jennifer Mishra
Jennifer Mishra is an American travel photographer born in Colorado and based in the St. Louis metro area. She has a background in classical music and academia. She is the founder of PhotoYoga. Her photos are published at Wits End Photography or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.
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