Influences: John Berger (1926 – )

John Berger

John Berger

Some my find it odd that I include essayist John Berger among those who influenced (and in Berger’s case, continue to influence) my photography. One of my favorite course to teach, back in my teaching days, was “Urban Paradoxes: New Ways of Seeing the Urban Milieu.” The idea was to learn to see, not exactly between the cracks, but rather what goes on within the crack. In other words, seeing what normally goes unobserved; not because we’re not observing, but rather because our preconceived notions place blinders upon how we observe, and thus what we see.

In this course, one of the textbooks was Berger’s Ways of Seeing, essentially a work on how different classes of people perceive, and why. Brief as Ways of Seeing is, it provides a critical look at how our preconceptions change how we see as individuals, even when more than one of us, are seeing the same thing. Berger asks, can we really believe our eyes? Is what we are seeing the reality? Even photography, according to Berger, cannot be taken at face value because we must consider the intent of the photographer, along with other factors that may have skewed the reality.

Thus, the question for me, the question is twofold: 1. What is the reality of what I am seeing? 2. How much am I obscuring it in my photo?

Berger’s critique asks me to consider how I see through the camera’s lens, and could I see differently if I move past my preconceived notions about what I am observing? It also reminds me that those who view my photos will each see the subject differently. This, in turn, begs the question, can I in some way frame the subject of my photo to cause the viewer to see the subject differently from how they normally would? The conundrum here, of course,is that my intent, no matter how noble, changes the “reality” of the photo. Not in a general way alone, but also in the way that each individual person observes my photo.

There obviously is no way around the paradox; nevertheless, it does make me think about both the subject matter and frame of my photo before it is shot.

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