Wow vs Wow: Two Visual Experiences

Wow vs Wow is about two visual experiences that have profoundly different qualities.

The first is a response of surprise to an image that meets our expectation or  comes close to it. These expectations are shaped by what we consider beautiful and popular. While this Wow is exciting and enjoyable, its half-life is short and soon forgotten.

The second Wow is of a different kind. It reaches much deeper. We are surprised or even stunned because we are confronted with something we did not expect, something we were not prepared for. It may feel like seeing something the first time and may lead to a more profound way of seeing. In addition it stays with us for a long time.  For the second Wow to occur we have to be open and receptive. We call it a direct visual experience because it is unfiltered.

I am always curious when people respond to a picture with a Wow. What does it mean? What is the viewer responding to? Is it the first Wow or the second ? What is it that I respond to when I react that way? This is not always easy to figure out because our eyes are greedy and easily seduced by what we see.

At times I respond to an image by feeling perplexed, not knowing how to respond because the picture does not seem to ‘fit’ any where. It does not address anything familiar to me. However, when you start to wonder about what you see it means you are beginning to open up. It is an invitation for exploration that may lead to a new way of seeing.

About Seeing and Looking – A Zen Perspective

Seeing and looking are one but they are not the same. When I talk about ‘seeing’ I am not talking about a perception of an object that you and I perceive. I am talking about that that makes perception possible. This is difficult to talk about, because it refers to a reality that goes beyond appearance. Perhaps an analogy will help. When you go and see a movie you identify with the content, with ‘what’ you see and you are oblivious of the screen on which the movie is projected on. You take the screen for granted in the same way as you take ‘seeing’ for granted. Of course, in practice the two are one and can not be separated.


The ‘what’ is reflected in our images in two ways. One is the way of ‘looking’ and the other one of ‘seeing’. In looking our picture-making expresses our personal view which is conditioned by the environment we have grown up in. The picture on the left has this kind of conventional footprint. We look at it as an object and immediately label and judge it and move on. Labelling helps to recognize everything around us. We can then judge, choose and manipulate what we see to our purpose. I’ll call this ‘looking’ and not ‘seeing’.

Both, ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’ have sense perception in common. But the similarity ends here.

Helmut_141010-18‘Seeing’ happens when we are stopped in our tracks or when we are captured by what we see. It establishes an intimate connection that we can sense in our guts. It is spontaneous and cuts through all the stuff we imagine, feel, worry and think about because it stops our processing machine – our mind. When we no longer ‘look’ at what we see but connect directly with what is in front of us we are contemplating. There is no longer any room for labelling or judging. The picture on the left is a reflection of such a direct experience. If this experience has been authentic one feels alive and creative.