I was in Nepal on April 25, 2015, when the already-poor country was shaken to pieces by a 7.9 Magnitude earthquake. As a young backpacker who had never seen anything near that amount of destruction, I thought the small Asian country was done for. How could Nepal possibly repair itself when it was already such bad shape before the quake?
But the above photo opened a new way of thinking about the earthquake, a new perspective on the destruction.
Even though the country I was in was in shambles, there was still hope. That little boy holding the Nepali flag told me about perseverance, and I was able hear that without ever speaking to him or meeting him in person. Through this photograph (taken by my former student Krishna Dulal in his home village), my understanding of the situation around me was expanded. It changed my perspective.
Perspective is the angle at which we approach things, how we interpret our surroundings, how we frame the world around us. Our perceived environment travels into our brain and becomes understood through a set of pathways called perspective. But don’t listen to me, John Berger spoke extensively about this in Ways of Seeing.
What is exciting to me — is how we can bend, twist, mold, and manipulate perspective through photography.
With a camera, our perspective can be moved up or down, zoomed in or out, and then recorded! And shared to others so they can see from our perspective. And by sharing and comparing images, we can become more aware of how our perspectives differ from one another.
“An image became a record of how X had seen Y.
This was the result of an increasing consciousness of reality.”
- John Berger, Ways of Seeing
In the above photo by photographer Marry Ellen Mark, How do you think X (the photographer) saw Y (the subject)? What do you think Mary Ellen Mark thought of the young girls? Did she admire them? Did she think poorly of them? How did X see Y? (To find out, go here.)
What people often forget, is that every time we take a picture and share it, we control someone’s perspective on Y (a subject). Because we decided what is in the frame, we decided how someone else will understand the subject in the image.
“My way leads toward the creation of a fresh perception of the world. Thus I explain in a new way the world unknown to you.”
- Dziga Vertov, speaking about being a mechanical eye, or a camera
Now let’s get you to become more aware of your perspective. Imagine someone you know very well. Could be your family, your partner, even your boss. Now if you were to take their portrait how would you photograph them? Would you photograph that person in a bright room? Would the photo be in black and white? Would that person be smiling or have a serious face? What is your perspective on that person?
Once you done that, flip the coin on yourself and think of how that person would photograph you. What is their perspective on you?
With photography we let other people see from our perspective, and we can see from theirs. We give and gain perspective. This is where the lesson extends beyond photography and into empathy. Because if empathy is feeling with other people, then photography is seeing with other people. In empathy we share our feelings, in photography we share our perspectives. If you want to see how someone else experiences the world or understands a subject, maybe try giving them a camera.
So what perspective do you look at the world through? You already record it every time to take a photograph. What you might not realize, is how many perspectives you gain when you see other people’s photographs.
To test this out in my class, I had every student photograph the same set of household objects, a french press, a bowl, a lantern. Then after everyone had done that, we compared everyone’s photos side-by-side to show them what different perspectives they all had on the same set of objects. See some of those photos below.