How can an image maker know what the viewer of his work will see? This seeming little problem became a major one for me when what I thought of as a wonderful photographic study in human motivations and behavior was passed over for a colorful photograph of a duck. It is my responsibility, of course, to submit pictures to a competition which will appeal to the judges, and to provide what in their view will appeal to the audience which they are trying themselves to please.
There is a real conflict for me personally in this question, because what I seek to create in a new photograph is a revelation of a new reality. That usually means seeing what is there in front of me in a way that is different enough from the usual to be new, but that is probably not what a viewer will see, because they have their own personal habits of perception.
But what will the viewer see? Most people will see what they are looking for, what they expect to see and if the picture is revealing something which is outside of their expected experience they will be unconsciously blind to that new thing. We don’t see what we aren’t looking for, because the whole of human learning is aimed at excluding that which isn’t important to us from our consciousness, and paying close attention to that which is important to us. Of the vast blizzard of potential input into our senses we limit what we perceive to less than one part in a thousand. Only when something blasts our senses out of what we are expecting do we give any new attention to it.
Big snarling animals get our attention instantly, but so do tense little ones looking fixedly at us. Loud noises in an otherwise normal environment make us flinch, but a barely audible squeak that is out of place can give us the willies too. Things which are dangerous to our survival have a built-in reflex of avoidance, which even an amoeba will respond to. Other things which are discovered to be dangerous, like hot things can hurt, can be learned to be avoided, even by animals like dogs, but there are some things which only humans can fear like seeing a volcano erupting twenty-five miles away with its cloud drifting towards us. There are even more abstract threats which only people prone to forethought about abstract issues can discern and fear.
Each of these different levels of observation will have their photographic counterparts; for example, some people will not be able to see or comprehend anything beyond basic threats, or various primal emotions; thus anything which doesn’t touch one of these genetically programmed nerves will be ignored. Unfortunately, the most far-sighted people will have few things presented to them for their refined future-oriented dangers and pleasures, because there are few people capable of observing in that way; therefore few will be capable of creating things on that level. For a work of art to be provided to these people it becomes necessary for it to function not only in their future realm, but also in each of the lower ones simultaneously so it can be promulgated. That seriously compromises the far-seeing artist’s ability to bring these types of images to the public. Until now – when it is essentially free on the internet. Therefore, expect wonderful new things to be created in the near future.
A second group of ideas is in the prey versus predator orientation of the viewer. That attitude potentially transposes one from a prey position, responding to a threat stimulus, to a predator status seeing the environment from a position of watching for opportunities to grab prey, or enhance personal status. The prey may be in many forms for humans, starting with the most basic forms of vegetables, through the non-dangerous prey animals like rabbits, on up to very dangerous prey animals like elephants, and ultimately human social prey.
But what is referred to here is the attitude of the viewer, and thus to his orientation to what is before him to observe which determines how he will relate to that stimulus before him, such as a photograph. If one were to watch a person look at a new image is should be immediately apparent what their orientation is to that new thing; is it on a personal scale, that of being the prey or the predator? If someone is relaxed, happy and seeking to approach the item it is certain they are in the predator mode – at least for the moment relative to that object, but if they are tense, worried and are attempting to withdraw they are surely in the defensive mode of believing they are being preyed upon somehow, and that they are about to become a victim of some sort.
It is the context that makes anything come to our attention as well as the thing itself.