ON SEEING

David, Florence, Italy

In April 1965, Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson published a stunning photographic essay in LIFE magazine featuring the beginnings of life. Nilsson’s cover image of an 18-week-old human fetus used revolutionary image technology to capture a moment “that allowed the world to see what it had never before witnessed.

In 1958, Frederick Franck went to Central Africa to work as a medical missionary for Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer, a theologian and physician. Before leaving for Lambaréné, Gabon, Franck, a native of the Netherlands, purchased new cameras to document his experiences. After just a few weeks of making pictures, however, Franck put down his camera and started to draw.  What the surgeon, philosopher, and artist had discovered was that using a camera actually prevents us from really experience what we see;  truly appreciating what we are pointing the camera at.  Photography is an act of appropriation and  exploitation that encourages organizing and selecting out parts of our worldly experience that suits our needs.  It is hard to argue with Franck who believes, “The glaring contrast between seeing and looking-at the world around us is immense; it is fateful. Everything in our society seems to conspire against our inborn human gift of seeing” (Zen and the Art of Seeing).

Franck adds, “We have become addicted to merely looking-at things and beings. The more we regress from seeing to looking-at the world—through the ever-more-perfected machinery of viewfinders, TV tubes, VCRs, microscopes, stereoscopes—the less we see, the more numbed we become to the joy and the pain of being alive, and the further estranged we become from ourselves and all others.”

For Rudolf Arnheim, seeing requires “an interplay between properties supplied by the object and the nature of the observing subject. This objective element in experience justifies attempts to distinguish between adequate and inadequate conceptions of reality” (1954, 1972. p 5).

Complex interactions between external visual stimulus and prior knowledge, goals, and expectations are brought into play through visual perception. Even so, looking at something and really understanding its full meaning are different issues.

What we call reality begins with our senses ––  seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching.  The physical environment we experience with our senses is one dimension of living, but we create the outside world our minds.

We cannot separate the mental processes that accompany what our eyes take in. In fact, images are not created in the eye at all, but rather are constructed in different areas of the brain.

Visual perception is a way of explaining the complex interactions between the eye and brain. What we know about the visual system today   

about the act of seeing that . There is no escaping that the visual experience is mix of physiological, biological, cognitive, and mental processes –– all of which occur in milliseconds. The dictionary defines visual perception as the ability to interpret the surrounding environment by processing information that is contained in visible light.

However, before interpretation visual messages, we have to understand how the visual system works. First and foremost, “seeing is not always believing” as the adage goes. For David Minger, “Visual perception is easily tricked, and in the legal system eyewitness accounts are notoriously untrustworthy.” **

For Ira Hyman,  “People are horrible eyewitnesses. We misperceive things. Our memories are limited. We create false memories in response to misleading suggestions. We reconstruct our memories. People frequently choose somebody in a police line-up even when the culprit isn’t there. We are victims of social pressure from friends, family, and authority figures.” **

According to the Innocence Project, “Eyewitness misidentification is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions proven by DNA testing, playing a role in more than 70 percent of convictions overturned through DNA testing nationwide.”