Learning to See: In Photography and In Life

Learning to See: In Photography and In Life

I still remember the first time I heard the word. Senior year of high school. Sitting lazily squeezed into a metallic desk-chair combination unwillingly decorated with the carvings of amateur graffiti artists from years past. The boisterous post-recess classroom went quiet as my favorite teacher, and apparently everyone’s favorite teacher, Mrs. Wallace entered the room. With an ever-present sense of flair, she strode to the chalkboard and wrote out eight letters in big bold type. P-A-R-A-D-I-G-M. I didn’t know what it meant. Heck, I didn’t even know how to pronounce it. But, in that moment, I was introduced to not only a new piece of vocabulary, but given a dynamic tool to develop as an artist, and as a person.

I should start off by pointing out that this particular essay will be as much about life as it is about photography. The older I get, the more I understand that who I am as a person and who I am as an artist are only separated by a barely disinguistable line. So, in discussing certain life lessons, I find them to be equally applicable to life behind the lens. Take the following story as just one example.

Paradigm. Noun. According to Webster's dictionary: “A philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated the Freudian paradigm of psychoanalysis; broadly: a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind.”

In layman’s terms, it refers to the way we see the world based on our experiences and what (we think) we know.

But as our experiences begin to accumulate and our knowledge continues to expand, our paradigms begin to shift. While the narrative moves from one act to the next, even the most seemingly routine plot developments can take on new meaning as a greater understanding of subtext paints those moments into a different context. The action may be the same. But we are different.

I love history. One of the upsides of the often mundane process of retouching for me is to be able to simultaneously fill my brain with whatever knowledge I can glean from the latest audiobook I’ve downloaded. I am a non-fiction guy, so my taste generally leans towards biographies, memoirs, social science, or detailed histories of various events.

What I love most about history is that it offers a great deal of insight into current events. The fascinating and often frustrating thing of it all is that history really does repeat itself. Almost every momentous occasion we experience today has been played out before. The names, dates, and circumstances may be a bit different, but the general causes and effects tend to repeat themselves. An endless loop of universal moves and countermoves that ensure that the more humankind changes, the more it stays the same.

The optimistic side of me often spends a great deal of time wishing the world at large had a better understanding of history. With a firmer grasp on the mistakes (and progress) made by past generations, society would stand a better chance on building a better future and avoiding many of the pitfalls suffered by previous versions of humanity.

Then the slightly more pessimistic side of me steps in the remind me that people’s thoughts and actions are most often governed by their current paradigm. They make the best decisions they can, based on the knowledge they have accumulated so far. And it is the “so far” part of that statement that will always prove to be the most vexing.

I’ll give you an example. A few days after I was sitting in Mrs. Wallace’s class watching her write that fateful word on the chalkboard, I, along with the rest of the students from my class, would be sent home early. We hadn’t done anything wrong… this time. Instead, we were being released early to avoid an impending melee developing just blocks from our secluded campus in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles.

A former NFL running back and rental car pitchman had been accused of murdering his wife and was currently on the run from police in a soon-to-be infamous white Ford Bronco. O.J. Simpson’s house was not too far from campus, and the likely freeway exit onto Sunset Boulevard would take him right past the school along with the news helicopters, “Free the Juice” fanfare, and others just looking for a chance to get on TV.

To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to any of it at the time. At 16, the only things I paid much attention to were scoring touchdowns and accumulating girl’s phone numbers. Also, this is Los Angeles. Crazy things are always happening in Los Angeles. O.J.’s joyride may have invented the idea of the freeway chase as live news entertainment, but the proliferation of high-speed chases on local news outlets in the years to follow shows that they are not exactly rare occasions.

As news events go, this was just another in a long line of them. Just recently, the city had been the center of world attention after the Rodney King beatings and then the Los Angeles riots that followed. Now, I recognize the significance of these events and others from my childhood.  But at that age, this was just another link in the chain.

And there is where that word “paradigm” begins to return to the equation.

I perceived the world at the time from the paradigm of a 16-year-old kid. That paradigm was further influenced by my status as one of a very small number of minority students on an otherwise all white campus. I existed in a context of a city embroiled in racial strife to the point of it just being par for the course. I lived in a city where from Black Dahlia to Manson to Menendez, sensational murder cases were not a new thing. Heck, this wasn’t even the first “Trial of the Century” in the city, with the 1920s murder of Film Director William Desmond Taylor holding the crown up until the events of 1995.

I also want to make absolutely clear that this article is in no way intended to take sides on O.J. Simpson or the American legal system. I recall this memory not to make any statements on O.J., the trial, or people’s reaction to it. For that, you’d be best served watching Ezra Edelman’s amazing seven-part documentary “O.J.: Made In America” and deciding your own thoughts on the situation.

Instead, I use this as an example of the power of context in the way we perceive the events of our lives. When I watched the documentary, aside from the various details of the case which I largely remembered, having lived through them two decades earlier, I was most struck by the timeline.

I remember the Rodney King beating clear as day. I remember the riots and what it was like in the city at the time. I remember the O.J. chase and trial. I remember my fellow students reaction to the verdict and how that response varied wildly based on the race of the person with whom I happened to be talking. What I didn’t remember so clearly was the fact that all of those things happened in the time span of my high school education. Four short years. For a sixteen year old, four years can pretty much feel like forty years. As an adult, four years feels like four months. It goes by in a blink of an eye. Through my current paradigm, I understand that not only did these events influence each other, but they are inseparable when creating an image in our heads of the time in which they took place. Consequently, by extension, they influenced me and the way I viewed the world.

To a certain extent, they still influence me and the way I view the world, except now those experiences have been layered together with 22 additional years of life experience. Some for the better. Some for the worse.

Yet, even as my paradigm has shifted and (hopefully) grown, it is still limited by the amount of knowledge I have obtained “so far.” Whether it be a historical milestone or simply rewatching a favorite movie again after having not seen it for several years and suddenly understanding certain emotional beats that previously went well over my head, I am constantly finding new information that helps to reinform and reshape old beliefs. Life is a continual work in progress and it is impossible to simply wish oneself to be more experienced and have it be a reality. It takes time. It takes effort. It takes failing once in awhile and having to get back up. It takes continually challenging one’s own perceptions and reassessing our own opinions.

Much like, as an artist, you began life with one set of aesthetic aspirations. You had a standard, likely a lower standard than you hold today, that you desired to reach. As time grew and you began to accumulate new skills and a better understanding of what separated good from bad, your definition of “art” shifted. Your fear of certain aspects of the business shifted from intimidation to courage. You grew as an artist and a human being.

So only a handful of questions remain. How are you continuing to grow your paradigm? How are you continuing to grow your understanding of both your subjects and your artform to become more well rounded in your craft? Have a look back at your early work. Compare it to the way you shoot today. If you were to bring those original subjects back in front of your lens the week, how would you approach them differently?

What is your current paradigm? How do you see the world? And how can you continue to learn and grow, both on set and off?

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Anonymous's picture

What a great essay! I would love more of this kind of subject matter. My paradigm is, I'm a Christian. Everything I see, hear, touch, taste, and smell is experienced through that lens. Like you, I continue to change but to refine, and hopefully improve, that point of view.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Absolutely. Life is learning.

Michael Yearout's picture

Yes, getting old does have its benefits. :-)


Anonymous's picture

Thanks Christopher. A great essay. Many years ago I came across the word Paradigm when I started to study psychology. I gave up fairly early as I found there was no agreed paradigm on psychology.I wanted to study something that was"proven". Maybe I should have persevered but we all do look through different eyes and worldviews.I also think of the word "synoptic". This means looking at things from different locations and different eyes.I identify with what Patrick has said. I would be classed as "old" like Michael Yearout says but I picked up on these things long ago.

Stas Aleksandersson's picture

Wow that's deep. And good. I wish the mankind would stop killing each other. And concentrate on the similarities and finally make the world a better place. But who am I kidding?! This is never gonna happen.