The act of looking at a photograph is not passive. We look for familiar signals that we can quickly interpret as a message.

Let’s take a step back here. Our brains are wired to monitor everything around us, interpret it and make predictions on what will happen next. We do this million of times a second and because of built-in efficiencies, we use shortcuts. A lot of them. For example, we know trees are static so we know that they will not move or change location. So we can safely ignore them. In fact, we ignore pretty much anything already familiar and focus on what’s new in our surrounding. Anything moving is considered new. We read and interpret clues  which we decipher using a combination of our memory and education. We also use something much stronger and that is our cultural symbolism. For example, we learn, although no one has really taught us, that the color red signifies danger and urgency. It is thus a color we notice faster than any other because it carries a combined message of imminence and necessity. Another signal that we use constantly is other people faces. For example, we are experts in detecting fear in other people’s faces because it can tell us of a danger we haven’t seen and save our lives. But not all signals we read are about danger. We can interpret joy from a smile or a look. We interpret shapes too, reading sharp edge triangles as more threatening as the rounded edges of a circle. In fact symbolism tells us that we read a lot of significances in shapes like circle and triangles.

We read, interpret and understand those visual signs not only at an amazing speed but also in a non cognitive mode, almost instinctively. They reach us at an emotional level, rather than a rational one.

What does this have to do with photography? Everything.


We interpret photographs using the same tools as we use to process reality. We engage with still images by reading them using the same signal language. When first exposed to a photograph, we immediately process it using our decoding instinct and add our understanding based on what we interpret.

We wrote about this in a previous post on the differences between aesthetics and substance. A pretty pictures is just that, an image with little interpretive meaning, something we like but that doesn’t tell us anything. An image with substance is one that carries strong signals and symbolics, to which we react and engage.

Professional photographers are experts in finding and integrating those signals within their photographs. In the case of news photographers, they can do it extremely quickly and efficiently. They capture those signals that best convey the situation within one frame so that when we see the image, we can immediately decode them. Take the recent Boston bombing for example. Professionals photographers did not shoot an overall picture of the scene but rather ran in to capture faces that showed pain, fear, confusion along with signs of panic and emergencies (like guns drawn).

This ability that pro photographers have to find and capture those revealing signals and include them in their photographs is what separates them from the amateurs.This is why the citizen photojournalists will never replace the professionals. Because they do not know how to use this language. They can read it, they just can’t write it.The same way we can all read Shakespeare but none of us can write it. Amateurs use their cameras as a descriptive tool, making  statements like “I was here” or “I had a beer with so and so” while professionals grab symbolic analogues of our sensory and emotional experiences to create a representation. One describes, the other explains.

The innate ability that pros have to recognize and integrate strong cultural signals into each and every of their images that viewers can, in turn, decode and interpret is what makes the thousand words we so often refer to when talking about photography. It is at the core of their talent and universal appeal. It is, finally, what indefinitely separates them from other people with cameras.

Author: pmelcher


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