Two Ways of Seeing: The Seeing and the Seen

My Zen teacher used to remind us that language is a wonderful creation and at the same time a trap. Why ? It enables us to separate ourselves from experience, creating two ways of seeing.

For György Kepes, a photographer, painter, designer and teacher, language was also a tool and a trap.  It selects and deselects certain aspects of what we experience, he explains in Language of Vision. What is true for verbal language  is true for visual language as well, he goes on to say. We match what we see, the seen, with images, clichés and stereotypes according to the way we have been conditioned to see.  Mistakenly we take these labels or concepts for the real thing and think they are identical. The map is not the territory! The world is not an abstraction.

When we live in a world of mental concepts only, we separate our self from life, from experience. In such a world we are distant observers and ‘what’ we see is located ‘over there’ or ‘out there’. We then see the world objetcively, filled with analyzable objects whose appearance can be endlessly transformed and embellished with our rich imagination.

In contrast, contemplative photography changes this conventional perspective. It emphasizes a way of seeing in which the ‘seen’ and the ‘seeing’ are experienced as ‘one’. We see it in the ‘flash of perception’ when this dichotomy has dropped away and all the conceptual filters have vanished. At last, for a moment we can feel complete and see without intellectual interference. There is no longer a separation.

 Nisargadatta Maharaj in one of his dialogues says that the painter is in the painting. Freeman Patterson, a Canadian photographer, says “the camera looks both ways, meaning a photograph is as good a description of who is behind the lens as who or what is in front of it”. Whatever we do we are in it and affect the outcome. Our objectivity is always tainted! We can not eliminate the observer, the one who sees.

An example, that highlights very well how we separate ourselves from experience, not just in photography, but in other areas of life, is given by David Suzuki. He categorically states that there is no environment “out there”, separate from us. “We are the environment”, he reminds us forcefully. Unfortunately, ‘environment’ for many is just another lofty concept. In contrast, aboriginal people speak of earth as their “mother”. What a difference ! The difference between the two perspectives feels real and enormous as is the difference between conventional and contemplative photography.

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