Discover Your Self Through Photography
Selfies and Beyond
Posted Jul 30, 2014
I have enjoyed the hobby of photography for many years. More recently the Selfie craze caught my attention. It suggests we’re living in an age of perpetual self-examination.
Many talk about photography, but few talk about photography as a means of discovering oneself. For amateur photographers photography means people taking pictures of people. I’ve always assumed pictures mirror the photographer in some way, but never explored the subject.
My interest in photography began as a young teenager with a darkroom. I found the artistic and technical challenges rewarding, and besides on the farm after chores there wasn’t much else to do. Over the years, photography taught me to “see.” As a visual hobby it became the perfect escape from my occupation. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill’s thoughts about painting, I found photography complete as a distraction.
But of course it’s more than that. My pictures help me make sense of my journey from the Massachusetts farm to Manhattan. With this in mind, photography has been a good friend! Looking back, I discovered that photographing people who are important to me is more challenging than strangers or persons from other cultures. This gave me something to think about. Photographing nude models in college was even more challenging. This gave me more to think about. Recently I joined a group of Leica Photographers with an interest in Washington, D.C. Street Photography, and this gave me even more to think about.
My occupation involves control when treating patients with serious problems in living: It’s not easy for a man to become a woman, for a lawyer to survive personal bankruptcy, for marriage counseling to become divorce counseling, for students struggling to complete doctoral dissertations on time, for models dating tugboat captains, for secretaries at the United Nations, for a psychiatrist caught dating their patient, for someone who has torn up the clothes of her female lover, for a male model planning to kill his girlfriend, for a shoe salesman with a foot fetish, for policemen in tough neighborhoods, for strippers dealing with customers, for women abused by husbands, for professors with marital problems, for a medical school professor of psychoanalysis with a drug addiction, for combat veterans, former prisoners of war, and so forth. Apart from treating combat veterans at the VA Medical Center, Manhattan is a psychologist’s dream practice, and I lived it until moving to Northern Virginia. I don’t mean to slight my years treating veterans. They are some of the nicest people I’ve ever known. I never cured anyone, but I got paid for what I did. I coached patients knowing that problems don’t “kill” them, and it’s how they “handle” problems that counts. From time to time I needed a vacation from it all and often the vacation involved travel photography to faraway places with faces.
With the Selfie craze, "self-documentation" with GoPro Cameras, amateur Drone Technology and episodes of Candid Camera in mind, I pulled a book from my library that had been gathering dust and not read for years. The title is Discover Your Self Through Photography by Ralph Hattersley; published in 1975 by Morgan and Morgan of Dobbs Ferry, NY. It’s the only book on the subject I’m aware of. I read it from cover to cover during a recent New England vacation and I want to share it with you before plunging into a future discussion of values in relation to photography.
This book got me thinking. I recalled photographing models years ago and how I sought to control the session including lighting, composition, pose and so forth; until I stopped and asked myself what I was doing and how I could take better pictures. I recall turning to the model and saying: “Now I want you to create my picture.” I abandoned my comfort zone of control and took what the model gave me. This gave me a lot to think about and better pictures!
Having read Hattersley’s book, I see I was headed in the right direction. Giving up control had consequences. It gave me a teachable moment consistent with discovering my self through photography before thinking this was possible. I was willing to question what I was doing behind the camera and it paid off.
Review of Hattersley’s “Discover Your Self Through Photography”:
The author begins by asking why most people make photos? He concludes they do so because they want to record important memories in ways that add pleasure and meaning to their lives. Most photography concerns people because people are more interested in people than anything else. Hattersley believes photographing people begins with the premise that people are mostly isolated from each other, communicate poorly with each other, and are afraid of each other. That the photographer must cope with these realities is obvious.
From time to time I experienced ambivalence and anxiety shooting pictures of people and especially in pursuit of Street Photography at Union Station and among the Cherry Blossoms. The rule I followed put the “homeless” off limits, and made people in public spaces fair game. My “security blanket” consisted of other photographers in the street making suggestions and covering my back. This didn’t stop me from thinking about what I was doing before I had read Hattersley’s book.
There is lots of talk about photography, but few talk about discovering one self through photography. It was in the 1970s that Hattersley decided to explore the subject in a formal way; in a way no one had ever done before. A professor and professional photographer, he accepted the challenge and assumed that photos reflect the photographer’s values. He believes they mirror the “wolf” within, borrowing an ancient reference to ego, which happens to interest me scientifically and clinically. He asked his students to take pictures and then look for and decipher the signs and symbols of themselves in them.
The Photographer and Model:
Hattersley believes that photographing the female nude is a great opportunity for men and women to discover themselves through photography. From the male perspective, there are the provocative questions of “will lust cause me to make a fool of myself?” “How do I relate, or fail to relate to women?” “How do I relate to the powerful sex drive within me?” He believes that in our culture, nude photography involving fantasies, cultural taboos, and no sex play, favors the discovery of self.
Sexual Energy vs. Visual Laziness:
Let’s dispose of one fact: knowledge of the camera is basic to successful photography and discovering one self through photography. In the words of a Boston Globe Photojournalist I met on vacation, the effective use of the camera can be compared with Karate. This implies the mastery of camera controls and functions to the degree of not having to think about them. It amounts to quickly adjusting four variables that include focus, aperture, speed, and ISO setting…depending on the camera.
But there is more to photography than attaining Karate-Speed. In our culture, visual laziness, not paying sufficient attention, is epidemic. It is associated with not listening to each other, fear of each other, and poor communication. It’s always in play when looking for photographic opportunities and poised to click the shutter at a moment’s notice
The author believes sexual energy and fantasies help the male photographer overcome culturally conditioned visual laziness and ego problems when shooting nude models. He feels that nothing in photography is more interesting and informative than photographing the nude model. This is especially true where men are concerned for it involves sexual energy overcoming “visual laziness.” I can imagine the author thinking “Lust is Good” beyond professional considerations of camera, composition, and lighting when channeled to the task at hand.
Lazy vision defeats discovering one self through photography, and getting good pictures. Call this conservation of energy. Call this boredom. Call this what you will, it is especially the enemy of photography. As previously suggested, it is likely related to culturally conditioned fears of each other, poor listening habits, and poor communication which must concern the photographer capturing the poses models give us when left to their own devices; as well as the many spontaneous photo ops strangers, children, animals and nature give us.
The Eye-Game vs. Visual Laziness:
The author discusses “eye talk” or the “eye game” as another means of overcoming visual laziness. When glancing at his model, the model attempts to read those glances and vice versa. This eye game exists because face and eyes are always flashing emotions governed by culturally conditioned rules concerning the making and breaking of eye contact. Hattersley believes the photographer should cultivate an awareness of the eye game which helps overcome visual laziness.
Beyond Sexual Energy, the Eye Game, and Visual Laziness:
In addition to sexual energy, the eye game, and visual laziness, there is disciplined listening which also helps one overcome visual laziness; all of which is grist for the mill of discovering one self through photography…beyond anything having to do with composition, pose, abstract close-ups, revealing light, concealing light, cropping, perspective, context, distance, tonal gradients, form, composition, line, contour, texture, and so forth. The counter-cultural effort to listen more carefully to others helps to balance masculine and feminine identities and overcome the lopsided problem of undeveloped feminine sensitivity in men and problems with masculine assertion in women. Where one stands on this lopsided dimension is something photographers need to be aware of.
The photographer knows how a friendly smile goes a long way in defusing a potential clash of wills, the struggle for dominance, perceived visual aggression, a perceived sexual pass, the excessive need for attention, and so forth. This is especially true of Nude and Street Photography. Now we have lust, the eye game, disciplined listening, the smile, and operating the camera, at something approaching Karate-Speed, as grist for the mill of taking (i.e., shooting, capturing) pictures, and discovering one self through photography. These are considerations the more autistic, attention challenged, and narcissistic photographers need to especially take seriously.
Avoiding Negativity and The Imposter Syndrome While Putting Your Subject at Ease:
Improved communication with subjects or models is promoted further by avoiding any hint of negativity suggesting evasion, deceit, cynicism, jealousy, envy, anger, and so forth. With respect to the imposter syndrome, that bugs some photographers, let’s remember models enjoy being models and photographers enjoy being photographers. There are enough rewards to go around; besides photographers willing to “work on themselves” are among society’s most valuable citizens. The willingness to learn and improve one’s life is socially desirable.
There is also the issue of putting the model at ease by laying the camera down, making small talk, and inviting the model to handle the camera. It also buys time to reflect on one’s experience. Photographers should avoid unspoken contracts with models by communicating their intensions. This can be challenging for those with “unfinished business” around problems with assertion such as finding it difficult to to say yes when you want to say yes and no when you want to say no. As with any “unfinished personal business,” this is an opportunity for the photographer to discover himself or herself through photography.
A special case of people fearing others is seen among women. Women especially fear men who are afraid of women, and who don’t know it. As you might expect, this relates to self-esteem, intimacy issues (i.e., bordering on phobias), closely held secrets, and masculine-feminine issues. Such fear disrupts the eye game with prolonged and disturbing glances. It diverts, squelches and perverts sexual energy. It risks being misunderstood. In some cases it causes men to abuse women and vice versa!
The Wolf Within:
Because photographers and models tend to have a culturally conditioned low opinion of themselves, like the rest of us, Hattersley suggests the photographer carefully explain what he or she wants from the model in order to eliminate misunderstanding. This involves taking the time to communicate how the model is found to be exceptional in some way, that there is something about the model that attracts and intrigues, and that the photographer wants to interpret this with a camera.
If the wolf or ego gets in the way with negativity, this becomes grist for the mill of discovering one self through photography. Men photographing women have an opportunity to learn about their fear of women (i.e., fear and anger for these emotions go hand in hand) which can be more valuable than making the best picture. Useful introspection can also be evoked in situations where men are photographing men they find attractive.
Women photographing women may encounter problems with jealousy when photographing the attractive female nude. What about male nude? Hattersley suggests that in their role as photographers, women are less afraid of their masculine identity than men are of their feminine identity; however the lopsided, existential gender balance is common among men and women in our society of rapid social change. Photographers, and the rest of us, would be better off balancing and harmonizing masculine and feminine identities. This is added grist for the mill of discovering one self through photography. The author suspects that disciplined listening is a good way to bring these identities into balance in a culture that conditions people to be afraid of each other, communicate poorly with each other, not listen carefully to each other, and struggle with masculine and feminine sensitivites and identifies in a rapidly changing society.
Women are presumed to be culturally conditioned to spot signs of emotion more quickly than men. They judge men more by character, intelligence, and temperament than looks, and this shapes their approach to photography and what they might discover about themselves through photography. The author speculates that the sex drive of women is weaker when it comes to overcoming visual laziness. This leaves women more dependent on curiosity, artistic sensitivity, nurturing, careful listening, and the love illusion. He cautions that curiosity with women, like sex with men, can become toys which increase visual laziness with distractions.
Given Hattersley’s nearly gratuitous reference to the “love illusion” as an antidote to visual laziness among women, I feel obligated to pause and discuss what he means. He believes “true love” exists, but that it must be learned and earned. The pre-marital “love illusion” can evolve into “true love” which is our highest value and art. The “love illusion” and “true love,” can work for and against visual laziness. In any event, we’re told not to fool ourselves. Marriage is but an opportunity to discover “true love,” If you look closely at your pictures you might discover how far along you’ve come in your general capacity to love and be loved. This is photographic interpretation.
Photographic Interpretation: Know Your Symbology:
In my review of this interesting book, or agent provocateur for some, I’ve focused on two topics: 1. Shooting Pictures, and 2. Photographic Interpretation. Capturing the image involves seizing the moment of the phot-op, pre-visualizing, composing, and clicking the shutter. I believe the act of photographing benefits from asking questions such as “What do I want and how can I get it, what am I trying to do"...until even this becomes automatic. In doing so there are two strategic objectives: 1. Do I want to capture the soul, essence, individuality, and uniqueness of my subject or model (i.e., the Intrinsic Other)? 2. Do I want to use my subject or model as a mirror to reflect my soul, values and fantasies (i.e., the Intrinsic Self)? The former is captured best with Black and White photography rather than Color Photography, because color is a distraction. B&W Imaging captures the soul when it comes to photographing people. Color works best when color dominates. Hattersley is silent on this subject.
In the end, it isn’t enough to know how to take pictures. One needs to know how to think about the pictures taken, dig into them, and decipher them if the goal is to discover one self through photography and make better pictures. This refers to the Symbology of Photographic Interpretation, or the "mirror on the wall." The author tells us that the first premise of photographic interpretation is that ego always finds expression in photography. It is a premise tested by the author and is many students, and it is s consistent with the concept of projection developed by psychoanalysts. Hattersley and his students saw finger prints of ego all over their photos. You might want to consider your pictures for signs of your Intrinsic self (i.e., ego, essence, nature, hopes, fears, values, dreams). Be playful. Begin with imagination. Refine imagination. Form hypotheses and then test them. Invite others to critique your photos with this in mind, and consider any thoughts or feelings this evokes.
Many of the ideas expressed in this review are those of author Hattersley, including his all too brief mention of values which caught my attention. My review focuses on the following: 1. Awareness of the interaction between photographer and subject (i.e., "imaging," “shooting,” “capturing”). 2. The act of photographic interpretation of pictures taken. I also cover subjects like sexual energy, visual laziness, eye game, disciplined listening, balancing masculine and feminine identities, the wolf, and how they are involved when taking pictures, interpreting pictures, and discovering one self through photography.
How your pictures mirror you and your values is something you can look for by paying attention to any signs and symbols of the wolf or your ego embedded in your photos, just as Hattersley and his students did some forty years ago. His findings motivated him to write and publish Discovering Your Self Through Photography at a time when I was just beginning my practice in Manhattan and could afford my first Leica camera.
I leave you with the following: Do you think the author has stretched his psychoanalysis and metaphysical perspectives too far? What about his views of sexual energy overcoming visual laziness? What about his views concerning female photographers? Is his reference to balancing masculine and feminine identities convincing? Do you agree that photographing the nude can be an especially good context in which to discover your self through photography?
The author's goal is to help others understand themselves. He believes photography is a way to achieve this goal. It goes without saying that attaining something approximating Karate-Speed with your camera helps. Struggling with camera controls and functions can sabotage the spontaneity that favors good pictures from beginning to end.
Author Hattersley begins his book with the following observations. These are his words and not mine: “Your personal values are deeply involved in your photography.” “I want to give you a way to think about values.” “Values determine what photos mean to us and therefore what we choose to photograph.” “Photography gives voice to your values.” “Values exist beyond verbal description.” What became of these thoughts? As a student of values I want to know more. Unfortunately the author begins and ends his book without exploring the relationship between values and photography. This isn’t surprising given the fact that in the 1970s there was no science of values and valuations. Those were the days when Professor Milton Rokeach wrote that the concept of value is the most important, least studied and least understood concept in all of psychology, and Professor Abraham Maslow suggested the concept of value might be obsolete in the field of psychology, given its lack of scientific precision ... a precision now found in our values-based, cognitive psychology (i.e., Axiological Psychology)... responding to the challenge and wisdom of Professor Rokeach!
It’s little wonder that Hattersley’s psychoanalytic and metaphysical interests stole the show. That’s ok. I think you’ll agree it gives us much to think about. It also gives me an opportunity to shine with a future Blog addressing the role of values and valuations in photography, and with special emphasis on discovering one self through photography.
For the time being, this book is one of a kind as Selfies, GoPro Cameras and amateur Drone Technology, reflect a growing interest in self-discovery and self-documentation in what some regard as "interesting times" ... perhaps the kind of times cursed by ancient Chinese who believed “it is better to live as a dog in times of peace than a man in interesting times." Maybe we'll discover a better world with discoveries of the self, such that history will stop repeating itself! We travel with hope!
© Dr. Leon Pomeroy, Ph.D.