Does it matter how we capture an image? The answer is yes! I justify my answer by musing about the nature of experience.

But, I might argue, when we read a poem, we don’t ask whether the poet wrote it with a pen, or typed it or dictated it. We simply immerse ourselves in the poem, experiencing it as its meaning emerges.

So, one might think that when we look at a photograph we see it for what it is, a resemblance of what the photographer saw. We should be neutral about whether the photograph was taken with a smart phone, digital or film camera.

But is this right? Well, yes and no. I read a hand-written poem differently to a typed or voiced poem. The experience is quite different. But reading a poem and looking at a photograph are quite different. The former relies on sentences that have syntax and that are read in a particular order. The order and the content of sentences shape the thoughts we have. However, there is no underlying syntax to pictures. Yes, pictorial content, (shapes of light and dark), enable us to recognise the resemblance of the picture to actual objects but how we see those objects is partly determined by the manner in which those shapes have been portrayed. Whether the image was captured by a digital device or a film camera, choice of lens and aperture, and many other constraints contribute to how the image is visually experienced.

We don’t see objects simpliciter. We see them in a certain way. For example, we never just see a rock. We see a smooth rock (we see it smoothly), or a rough rock (we see it roughly) or a black rock (we see it blackly). The how we are being presented with a picture (the adverb) helps to determine what we are seeing.

Having a visual experience is always having it in a specific way, that is, adverbially. We see ‘the rock is smooth’, but under the bonnet what we are actually doing is engaging in an activity of the rock’s being smooth. This might seem a pedestrian way of describing something so simple, but in my view it emphasises what it is to have a visual experience. Actually, this is the wrong way of putting it. We don’t ‘have’ experiences, we simply experience. Having an experience suggests that we possess something, that it is separate from us in some way, like a set of clothes. That is the opposite of what I am trying to convey. When we look intently at an object, in the way of a photographer, we co-exist with that object. That object actually forms part of what I define as ‘me’, and vice versa. Existence is only possible if there is an ‘other’. Seeing is a type of co-belonging.

But can’t we say the same about a poem? I think the answer is yes! Although poems have to be accessed in a linear way and there is no immediate transparency to a poem in the way that there is with a visual experience, the way the poem is presented to us has a bearing on what meaning we find in it.

What am driving at here? Nothing simply happens. Things, events, occasions always occur in a certain way. As Whitehead puts it: ‘how an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is’ 1. For the later Whitehead, ‘feeling the world’ comes before any intellectual analysis of it.   

Don’t let yourself be convinced that it doesn’t matter how an image is captured. A photograph taken on a film camera and printed in a darkroom elicits a very different experience to a photograph taken on a digital camera and printed on a digital printer. Both ways have their delights, but they are different.

  1. Whitehead, A. N. ((1978 (1929)), Process and Reality. An Essay in Cosmology (Gifford Lectures of 1927–28), ed. D. Griffin and D. Sherburne, New York: The Free Press.

6 thoughts on “The experience of seeing

  1. Do you mean a difference of experience for the photographer ?
    Once out in the world an image has its own “life”, quite separate from the photographers intention of experience in making it.

  2. I agree with Frédérique, your posts are always thoughtful, indeed I would say that of all the web posts around, I find them unique in their degree of focus and thoughtfulness. Please keep posting!

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