Pictures don’t lie, right? They’re literal. If you see something in a photo, it’s true.
Except when it isn’t.
What is reality anyway?
Those are some of the questions I found myself pondering today after an experience with some photos. I’m not sure I have answers to those questions. I certainly don’t have an answer to that last one, which has been batted around for centuries by keener minds than mine.
But I realized today that my own perception of reality is more flexible than I believed—and I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that realization.
One of the things I like about Guatemala City is the year-round profusion of foliage and flowers in some areas. I was lucky enough to catch the bee on the flower this morning as Sister S. and I walked in the city’s embassy district a little east of our apartment building. Then this afternoon as I was processing this photo in Photoshop, I stopped to think that what’s here is not really what I shot. I focused in on the bee and the flower as I raised my camera and fired, mentally discarding the rest of the photo that wasn’t interesting. And then I did the same thing at home when I pulled the photo up on my computer screen and began to crop it. The bee and the flower you see here is what I was seeing in my mind’s eye—what I wanted to see. But it isn’t all that the camera captured. Far from it.
The same is true of the four ferns here.
The first is what the camera saw.
The second is what I was seeing in my mind’s eye when I shot that frame.
The third is what happened when I “enhanced” reality a bit more with Photoshop’s capabilities.
And the fourth, created in the mind and with digital tools, is what could happen in some alternate universe where all plants are red.
I like the second one because I wanted to emphasize the structure and patterns of light and dark made by the fronds of the plant. Is this photo “real”? Maybe not. Or maybe yes; maybe my camera just wasn’t capable of capturing what my mind “saw.”
The third photo moves more toward fine art. I might have painted the plant that way if I wanted to emphasize its line and color. Is it “real”? It’s at least as real as any painting.
The fourth photo is something I might show if I wanted to tell a story about an alien world somewhere. But what happens if I like reality number four best of all? Does that make me crazy? Not necessarily. It may only be a preference—unless I start basing critical decisions on this alternate version of reality created in my imagination and my computer.
Most of us like to think of ourselves as rational individuals. I do. I am a journalist. I like to believe I was objective in a 40-plus-year career of reporting. I tried not to let my own perceptions or preferences govern the way I let other people tell their stories. I confined my interpretation of reality for others to the novels I have written.
And yet—to what extent might my thinking be influenced by the things I perceive selectively in any situation? To what extent is your thinking similarly influenced?
I try never to discount anyone else’s personal experience without hearing him or her out. I cannot know what he or she heard or saw, of course, so I try to weigh every account carefully as I listen. But today’s realization is a valuable reminder that I need to review my own experiences carefully sometimes to be sure I am not filtering out valuable information by focusing only on the things that interest me most. The difficulty is to avoid “analysis paralysis.” It’s hard to remain objective, carefully weighing all available information, and still act decisively and quickly.
Learning to balance those two needs takes real wisdom.