Photojournalism as Psychologically Aware Seeing

| By Paul | | Comments (13)

Portrait Reflection Dissociation

There has been a push from inside over the past couple years to do more "meaningful photography." What I mean by "meaningful" is work that speaks to my own experiences more fully. Put another way, I want to do photography that is psychologically aware.

I got interested in photography around the time my kids were born; that was more than a decade ago. And since the kids were the focus for so many years, photography had been mostly about happiness and documenting happiness.

It didn't take me long to realize that photography was about seeing and not just looking. For someone who had lived a life based on dissociation, this was a real breakthrough and insight for me; a small first step in healing and becoming aware.

I have developed what was a small hobby into something a bit larger. I do some portrait work professionally, but my main interest has been photojournalism and sports which I shoot for local news outlets. Portrait work is intensely personal and requires a huge amount of "presence," engagement with the subjects, and directing. Sometimes I am simply not able to do that, which poses a problem if people have made appointments with me. So, I tend to minimize those kinds of assignments now. I sometimes become scared and forget all my skills and the images come out quite lousy, at least by my standards. It's too unpredictable, because sometimes I can be perfectly "on" and sometimes I can be "not at all there."

Photojournalism, in contrast, is a style of photography that is more detached and a bit less personal, but one could argue has a larger payoff because the images look spontaneous. The idea behind a photojournalism style of photography is that you become an impartial observer and document the details of the event. Mostly, the goal is to document all the scales of detail that you "see", from those that most everyone would recognize as the describing the event to those small elements that nobody really pays any attention to (e.g., the little kids poking their heads out from under the Bride and Groom's head table). It is really the only way to shoot live sports or any event where there are people going about their business.

Photojournalism is a microcosm of what healing from dissociation is all about. To see an event photographically, you must be prepared to do it from an "all of you" perspective. From this whole perspective, you can capture not only the range of length scales (from macro to micro) but also the range of human emotions. Sports is one great example, because there is always "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat." Another is a wedding. And a third is any news event.

The photograph above was taken at a local elementary school's art show. I took many real-life people pictures at this event. But as I was looking at some of the art on display done by children, I stumbled upon this scene. In a self-portrait of a boy, I saw the reflection of other framed artwork several feet away. There were rows of art on display, and if I had to do this over again, I would have swapped out the reflected images that weren't self-portraits with ones that were. One of the tricks of photojournalism is that if you can unobtrusively change the scene, you assume you have the authority to do so, granted to you by your press badge, and just do it.

The obvious composition of this image would have been to focus on the boy, and the reflected images would blur. But that's what you see with your eyes and that would be boring. That image would scream "amateur mistake" because who would want reflected images in the background? Since there was no way to remove the reflections from the flourescent lights, I had to think about it in a different way and see beyond the obvious.

This is an image I would never had been able to make just a few years ago. I took me a while to get the meaning of what the reflections were telling me, for my eyes did not see this interpretation. Once I did, I composed the frame with the boy and the green background, focussed on the reflected images and opened the aperture to wide open at f/2.8, knowing that would blur the boy's face. Then, of course, the other trick to photojournalism is to not be shy to shoot because with digital, images are essentially free. So, I fired off about 30 other frames with various compositions and exposures. Then later I can decide which image works best.

There are multiple meanings behind this image. On one level, it could say that nobody really sees the boy as he is (i.e., he's a blur). On another, it could say that behind the boy is a complex world with various compartments and other selves.

What does this image say to you?

For those who are interested, there are some excellent books on photographic "seeing" and composition. They are:

  • Andreas Feininger, Principles of Composition in Photography (1972, not in print so you would most likely find it at a local library)
  • Michael Freeman, The Photographer's Eye (2007)
  • Freeman Patterson, Photography and the Art of Seeing (1985, but updated in a 2004 edition)
  • Bryan Peterson, Learning to See Creatively (1988, but updated in a 2003 edition)
  • Henry Poore, Pictorial Composition in Art (1976 and still in print)

For other psychologically meaningful photographs on Mind Parts, see my Photography Gallery.

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Praises for this article. I will append this site to my bookmark. My acquaintance just stated to me about this just last week. Thanks again.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to Louise Gigstad:

Thanks! Awesome website and great photography!

Ivory said:

When I look at the picture, I see a young child who stands looking at artwork through a window, or protective glass. The child likes what he sees.

In another life, I took photographs, too. I have a fairly new digital camera and am waiting for summer when I hope to take some pictures - some meaningful pictures. Thanks for the encouragement!

Paul Author Profile Page replied to Ivory:

What a wonderful way of "looking" at it, Ivory! Thanks!

castorgirl said:

Hi Paul,

I'm always wary of interpreting others creative expressions - my differing world view and stage of healing will mean that I look at the work from a certain viewpoint and bias. This was highlighted when I looked at this photo at different times, each time I saw the picture from a different perspective. Once I had read Ivory's interpretation, I saw yet another way to see the photo... I don't think any of them are "right", but purely how we are seeing the world at any given moment.

I like that you didn't exchange the landscapes for portraits, as the landscapes give the photo a different feel - to my eyes, they soften the photo. It's almost as if the landscapes broaden the boy's horizons or possibilities, making it less regimented and hopeful.

Take care,

Paul Author Profile Page replied to castorgirl:

Yes, Castorgirl. I do get that others may look at this differently. For me, the importance is mainly in sharing it and making it public. Thanks!

castorgirl said:

I hope you didn't read my comment as a criticism Paul. I enjoy looking at different ways of expressing how people see the world, but I'm not good at saying what that means to me. It also seems to vary from moment to moment, so I tend to avoid saying my interpretation(s).

It was interesting to hear the story and reasoning behind the photo... thanks for sharing it.

Take care,

Paul Author Profile Page replied to castorgirl:

No, not at all. But I was aware that you may think that!!!

Kerro said:

Hi Paul

I'm not really sure what I see, but I like how it makes me see the world differently. My attention is drawn from the boy to the other pictures and back again, repeatedly.

Thank you for sharing the resources, too. I'll follow them up.


Paul Author Profile Page replied to Kerro:

Thanks Kerro. Yes, that's what I like about photography... that you can see the world differently!

OneSurvivor said:

I love taking photos and seeing the world through the camera lens. It is interesting what sometimes comes up. I get frustrated at times because I cannot get my camera to do what I want it to, but I have managed to make do fairly well. I have been thinking about putting up a shot I took that has "accidental" insight... kind of like what you had with this photo. The difference is that I did not see it until later, while you were able to see it right away and get several kinds of shots. I am planning on going back and getting more when I can.

I, too, love those little things that others tend to miss. I relate to that a lot. I wish I had a camera with a macro lens. What a world to see...and put together in collages, too.

So glad that you shared this.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to OneSurvivor:

OneSurvivor... Definitely put it up... Or if you feel more comfortable e-mail it to me.

OneSurvivor said:

I need to find it. Then I can put it up. Thanks.

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This page contains a single entry published on March 7, 2010 9:14 PM.

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