On Photographic Perception

Kaohsiung, Taiwan, 2018

Earlier today I posted a story on Instagram about this photo that I took in Kaohsiung in 2018. It is an image of a wall that I saw while wandering around on the streets. I have no idea what the thing on the wall is, how it came to be, or what processes resulted in those specific patterns. Was this intentionally made? Is this what is left after a different piece of art was removed? Is it meant to be art itself? I have no idea. All I know is I was very drawn to whatever it was, and decided to take a photo. In fact, I liked it so much that I shared the photo on social media (of course, no one cared about it or liked it), and even set it as my computer’s desktop background for some period of time.

Fast forward to 2021, I went back to Kaohsiung for a short vacation, and was walking around with my friend in the same area where I took this photo. When we happened to pass by that same wall, I felt a sense of shock/surprise, stopped, and glanced at my friend, as if she was supposed to be familiar with this random wall. Somehow, I had a sense that the thing on this wall was a famous work of art or something. The first time I saw it, it was interesting; the second time I saw it, I was astonished and greatly impressed.

The only way I could make sense of this is that because I looked at the photo I took so many times, had it as my desktop background, and shared it with people, my perception of the thing itself had changed. At first I found it interesting enough to take a photo of, but after repeated exposure to the same image, it seems I had conditioned myself to view it as something more profound than I originally perceived it to be. This is similar to how when some of us first saw the Mona Lisa, we may have not thought much of it, but through repeated exposure and the narrative surrounding the painting, we became aware that it is one of the most famous paintings in the world, and our perceptions shifted. This would also apply to things like famous geographical formations, landmarks, monuments, etc.

Another example of this is when I first encountered Eric Kim’s blog. I remember initially thinking some of his photos were just mildly interesting at best; however, after reading his blog hundreds of times and seeing those photos over and over, my perception of them changed. One time after considerable time had passed, I saw one of the photos and paused for a second thinking, “isn’t this some famous photo I’ve seen somewhere else?” I guess it may be “a famous photo” because Eric Kim is a famous photographer, but I’m fairly certain his blog is the only place I’ve been exposed to that photo. This is an example of exposure to photographs changing our perception of the subject in the photograph, but it could also be said that the act of taking photos can change our experience of an event or situation itself.

Imagine yourself attending a small gathering with friends without taking photos; you play games, have fun conversations, and share a lot of laughs. Now imagine yourself taking photos at that event so that you can record that enjoyment for later. Finally, imagine yourself taking photos at the event so you can post them on social media.

In these three different scenarios, we are likely to experience and remember the event differently. In the first scenario, we simply enjoy ourselves and leave. In the second scenario, we take photos so we can remember and relive the enjoyment later. In the third scenario, we take photos so that we can show others what we did. So essentially, the variables are: whether or not we take photos, and the reason for taking photos. The decision to take photos or not would, at the very least, shift our focus at the event, since we would be considering what to photograph. It may also affect our perception of the event as ‘something worth recording’ rather than just another random gathering. As for the second variable, we could assume that the reason for taking photos would also affect our experience and the aspects of the gathering we choose to focus on – will the photos primarily be for our own memory or to be shown to others (possibly with some agenda)?

I don’t really use social media for personal stuff, so I can’t really relate to taking photos of a personal event with the intention of posting them for many people to see, but I have experienced the effect of taking photos of an event for my own memory, and to share with the people who attended the event. The event I’m referring to is a small gathering at a friend’s house in Hawaii. Of course, there is no way for me to know how my memory of that event would be had I not taken photos, but that particular gathering is one that stands out from others in the 3.5 years that I lived in Hawaii. I also later used the photos I took to make a “comic strip” type of thing to send to my friends who went to the party, which was a fun process and ended up being pretty funny. Was it just a memorable night on its own, or was it more memorable because I took photos? Did engaging creatively with the photos later affect my memory or perception? No one can say, but it’s something to think about and possibly explore further.

One example of the purpose for taking photos affecting the enjoyment of the process is taking photos in a more ‘professional’ capacity vs just for fun. When I’m at work and I need to take photos to document some school event, I still enjoy it in some way and I like having a reason to take tons of photos, but I just don’t really enjoy the process as much as if I’m wandering around taking photos with no agenda, or taking photos with friends. Maybe this is because I’d rather be completely free to do whatever I want and select any subject I want. On the other hand, if I attended the school event and didn’t have the job of taking photos, I’d imagine I would be a bit bored and/or counting the minutes until I could go home. From this I conclude that, for me, taking photos freely > taking photos with a specific agenda > not taking photos. That’s not to say that this would necessarily be the same in all contexts.

At the moment, I’m not sure what the ‘practical application’ of any of this is, but the potential for shifts in perception due to engagement with photographs and through the process of taking photographs is important to consider, especially given the massive number of photos we come in contact with and create on a daily basis.

After writing this, I ended up stumbling upon this Psychology Today article on a similar topic: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/school-thought/202107/how-social-media-harms-our-attitudes-toward-photography?amp

I have barely even scratched the surface of this topic and I’m sure there are many factors or angles I haven’t considered. I look forward to hearing what others think. Feel free to contact me with any of your thoughts or experiences.

5 replies to “On Photographic Perception

  1. I enjoyed your perspectives on taking pictures. I mostly take pictures to remember special events. I enjoy looking at all the pictures of you growing up.

  2. Its a good point you make about photography for fun vs for work. I have the same thing with most things actually. If I’m writing a blog post for work, its much harder to do and I can’t seem to engage with it as much as if I’m writing a blog post for fun. Even if my work blog post is on a topic I enjoy (teaching languages for example) I still struggle to write it. What barrier do we create in our own minds that stops us from enjoying work stuff as much as fun stuff? The followup question is, why do we do it? Does it have a purpose?

    1. Maybe it has to do with our sense of agency – if we ‘have to’ do something, it feels like we are not in control of ourselves in some way, whereas if we do the same thing for fun we are 100% in control and have a choice. I’ve noticed a similar thing when it comes to studying – when I had to study for school I was kinda like “meh”, and then sometimes I would procrastinate by reading 100 pages in a book on some other subject unrelated to school 😂 – using studying as a form of putting off studying something else.

      1. Thats a good point, I wonder how I can make myself feel like I have more agency in my work projects. That might decrease the stress and ‘rushed’ feeling I get. That would probably lead to better results anyway. It would free up my mind to actually work on the project!

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