Thinking Visually With DeAngela Napier
The creative path to an open mind
Posted July 20, 2016
DeAngela Napier is a visual thinker. Napier, who works as a photographer, video producer and editor, thinks of her work as visual storytelling, in which she conveys concepts and events through images as compared to words. She told me, “When anyone mentions anything, an image comes to mind. I’m one of those people who learns best by visual things, explains by visual things.”
Napier gives an example of how she thinks about New York City.
“So if someone says, ‘What is New York to you?’ I wouldn’t think about a narrative,” Napier explained. “I would immediately think of a food cart and the smoke coming from the streets and the people. And I think it’s just an automatic thing where I wrap my head around images.”
Developmental psychologist Howard Gardner has suggested that intelligence is not a single, uni-dimensional concept. Rather, people have multiple forms of intelligence or competence, including verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical and visual-spatial. People who have high visual-spatial intelligence may demonstrate creativity in careers such as architecture and photography.
Napier describes how her creativity with visual images manifests in her tendency to focus on images that others might ignore.
“One image that comes to mind is that I was at a restaurant and saw a sugar jar and paprika container. They were leaning on each other,” she explained. “And immediately it looked like people leaning on each other. I showed a friend of mine and she immediately said, ‘Oh my God, it’s people.’”
“But if I would have told her that, she would have been like, ‘What are you talking about?’”
More, Napier has developed a propensity to engage in perspective taking – or being able to understand how others see the world. The ability to see another’s perspective is considered a sign of good emotional development. In contrast, poor perspective taking is seen as present in people with conduct disorder and is seen as integral to the development of prosocial behavior and creativity.
While her perspective taking has developed in part through her interest in how people understand the world visually, Napier feels that her curiosity about how others see the world goes back to her experience moving around as a child in a military family – and resisting the pressure to conform.
“Maybe it goes back to being a military kid and moving around all of the time and wanting people to understand how I see the world. People didn’t understand me when I thought differently,” Napier said. “And it got me into this mode of being super curious – wanting to meet and talk to people. Trying to figure out how to filter all of the new experiences into my own world.”
What Napier found, however, was that rather than embracing alternative perspectives, many people engaged in groupthink in which they sought out conformity rather than individuality. And at times, Napier actually felt that she was succumbing to this pressure.
“People would try to put me into a box,” she said. “In high school, people would say my name was so different and hard to remember, so I would say, ‘Just call me D.’ But then I realized that I was falling into that lull of wanting to fit in. I now insist on the use of my full name.”
Interestingly, Napier felt able to resist the impulse to conform because as a child in a military family, she knew she would be moving shortly.
“But because I saw that so many people thought alike, I think it gave me the desire to show other people what my point of view was,” she explained. “I didn’t try to fit in so much, because I knew would be leaving soon. I would try to get kids to see how I see or think about things and that it didn’t all have to be the same. But if they didn’t understand, it didn’t really matter to me. I would tell them my opinions anyway. I knew I wasn’t going to be staying for long and I would meet new people – and they’re going to want to know what I think.”
“I don’t ever want to fall in step with people who feel required to think alike.”
This approach was not always easy. “I didn’t always love it. I didn’t always love having my best friend and things being great and then we’re moving. But I would find the people who weren’t in the cliques – and try to see if they would be part of my way of thinking.”
Unfortunately, Napier found that it wasn’t just kids at school who embraced conformity. She found that even as an aspiring photographer and video producer, other professionals were strident about their artistic orthodoxies.
“People would say, ‘Well if you don’t always shoot manually or know everything your camera —you can’t call yourself a photographer.’ And that just sat wrong with me,” Napier described.
“I said, ‘Why?’”
One of my most popular images was shot on auto because I didn’t have time to change my settings and I didn’t want to miss the shot. When people look at images they want to feel something. They don’t care how you got it.
One of the ways that Napier felt she was able to assert her individuality and still develop her interpersonal relationships was to seek out others who also embraced divergent perspectives.
“Ever since I went to college – I’ve always had that’s sense of let me find my tribe,” she said. “I don’t want to be around people who think exactly like I do. I want to learn and grow from people and give them my point of view.”
Napier feels that embracing the perspectives of others has allowed her to be curious of, rather than critical or fearful of, people whose opinions differ from her own. Napier feels that this fearful response underlies issues such as racism. She recalled her experience of being the only black woman at a concert and how she chose to embrace rather than fear the experience.
“I’m a black woman – and I’ve always known that things are going to be different for me. I was at a rock show – Korn – and I immediately realized that I was the only black person in the entire space,” she recalled. “And it wasn’t a, ‘What is going to happen? What if this? What if that?’ For me, my reaction goes straight to curiosity.”
Napier finds the notion that music is only relevant to a specific race of people to be an absurd concept.
“Are people writing off this amazing music just because they are white and it’s a rock band? Music should never have a color. As a matter of fact, when My Space was big, I started a page called Black People who love James Taylor,” she explained. “Because someone once said to me, ‘I’m surprised you like him. Black people don’t like James Taylor.’ I wasn’t surprised when the page became very popular and friend requests were coming in from all over the world.”
Napier explained how she is able to manage fear of new and potentially threatening experiences.
“I was taught growing up to put myself in others’ shoes. It is easier to see all sides of any story if instead of filtering a situation through our personal experience, we try to accept that it is real for that person.” she said. “If somebody’s different from me – until they’ve shown me I should feel threatened by them – why not be curious about them and try to find out who they are and what they’re about? And try to tell them who I am and what I’m about.”
For Napier, one of the ways that she manages differences of perspective and opinion is to defer to what she feels would be the kindest response.
“There’s no one answer and no right way. But if we think about the impact of what we’re doing, what we’re saying, what we’re seeing and give concession about the things that don’t harm you or you don’t feel that strongly about, we will know that it is ok to agree to disagree and still love each other.”
“Whatever you do, do it with kindness and compassion.”
Napier described how she employs a kindness and perspective taking when discussing issues facing transgender people.
“I had a friend who was talking about transgender people and said, ‘There’s so many terms and I can’t remember them all’ and blah, blah, blah,” Napier explained. “And I just said, ‘Well, how about just asking people what they want to be called then call them that. If that’s what makes them feel comfortable then that’s a kind thing to do’ And she said, ‘Why do people have to force other people to change what they say, think or how they see things?’ My friend was black as well.”
“And I said, ‘If people didn’t look at things from our parents generation’s point of view and change, we’d still be called colored.’”
For her part, Napier enjoys addressing these issues through her art.
“In my opinion, we all need to change our perspective on fearing what is different. One of the things I try to do with visual storytelling is to show different perspectives on things,” she said. “My hope is that the viewer will expand their mind about things they may not understand. Perhaps if we start viewing each other with a common lens of humanity then it will be clear that we are supposed to be uniquely different.”
Recently, Napier produced and edited the Gary Lucas and Jann Klose’s video, Nobody’s Talking, from the album Stereopticon. The song examines the issue of our ongoing debate of the effects of social media. Consistent with her approach to life, she tries to visually present various and perhaps divergent perspectives in the video.
“I want there to be multiple viewpoints out there. I wanted to show how social media usage could be a negative or it could be a positive,” Napier explained. “It can keep us apart from others and at times its how we connect. Some people are going to be plugged in constantly or it may be just a part of your life – you have to make your own choices about how it fits into your life.”
And she hopes others are inspired by her example when they are confronted with different people, situations and ideas. She said, “Instead of it being an immediate I don’t like that. I don’t understand that…take a moment and try.”