September 8, 2006
Am I nuts?
I’m an impulsive person who easily gets in trouble. Consider this – I’m doing the “On Reality” essays. Those writings are mushrooming into all kinds of controversial issues. Now, I’m heading into another “deep” issue – Ethics – just on the whim of my mind. I’ve got no real good reason for doing either series. Both subjects – reality and ethics – have been on my mind for most of my life. But like many of you, I never really thought about either that much. Now that I actually do think about it, it’s a different matter. I keeps me up at night. It occupies my mind. I’m compulsive.
The reason I got into a series about ethics is quite trivial. Today, I read a pretty ordinary story about a photographer who questioned the ethics of street photography after being challenged by some one she shot. I’ll quote and reference the story later in this post. After mulling it over, I decided on this Ethics series as a complement to my Reality series. Get a life, Karl.
My starting assumption is that Ethics is another of these “self evident” truths that are not – just like Reality. Many of us take for granted we know its meaning. But after scratching the surface, a different view soon arises. Ethics is just a point of view. None of us think about it in exactly the same way. As we shall see ethics play an influential role in our lifes. This influence is sometimes good. It might mean, say, a fair justice system. Or the influence is bad – such as serving as an inspiration or excuse for race crimes or even major wars.
I’ve quickly found that ethics is a far more complex issue than reality. As with Reality, Ethics can easily lead us into danger. Serious danger.
Here is a simple example. I don’t really want to sound political, but here goes. George W. got to have a totally different concept of ethics than a) the rest of the World and b) an overwhelming majority of Americans. He lies. He condones torture. He imprisons people illegally. He fights for his right to illegally wiretap and do surveillance of anyone. He lies about the reasons to sacrifice thousands of lives in a non-winnable war. This is the short list but it serves as my introduction to Ethics. And yes, I do realize there are plenty of others as bad as or even far worse than Mr. Bush. But he is (or wishes to be) the leader of the World.
Like Reality, Ethics is not a new subject. Discussions of Ethics go way back. There is a fair degree of common sense agreement of what ethics are, to many of us. It is the process/rules of doing the right thing as well as the knowing what the right thing is. Not knowing the right thing is bad. Not doing the right thing is bad. Those who do not conform to or agree with the value of Ethics are sometimes labeled as sociopaths. Being moral and being ethical is about the same thing – being Good.
So far so good. This must be easy. But hold it – let’s look at what I said. “Right”. “Wrong”. “Moral”. “Immoral”. “Ethical”. “Unethical”. “Sociopath”. Or “Good”. These are just words. All of them are subject to interpretation and disagreement. That’s what we will discuss. Things won’t stay easy.
There’ll be two major parts – the first one is looking at ethics in general. The second part will look at ethics in photography. After all, this blog is about art and photography, not philosophy. Or politics. This post will just lay some groundwork. Much more to come.
As usual, a few comments on the images in this post
Illustrating very abstract ideas such as reality and ethics in a relevant manner is not easy. There are no photographs of either. We don’t know what either looks like. So adding illustrations to my narrative is comparable to adding yet another abstract layer. But I try.
The two images above are just a couple of light hearted cartoons. Can ‘t take ourselves too seriously. Then, the two photos accompanying Jodie’s article below are mine. I did not want to mess with her rights, so I choose a couple of street scenes I’ve shot. These are related to the ideas in the article. The rest are portraits of the actors mentioned in the text. First comes Plato, then Socrates. Kant is followed by Nietzsche and Wagner. I’m sure you recognize the last one.
A few quotes to get us going
Let’s define one kind of non-ethical person – the sociopath:
“Individuals with this disorder have little regard for the feeling and welfare of others.” ….. “may exhibit criminal behavior. They may not work. If they do work, they are frequently absent or may quit suddenly. They do not consider other people’s wishes, welfare or rights. They can be manipulative and may lie to gain personal pleasure or profit. They may default on loans, fail to provide child support, or fail to care for their dependents adequately. High risk sexual behavior and substance abuse are common. Impulsiveness, failure to plan ahead, aggressiveness, irritability, irresponsibility, and a reckless disregard for their own safety and the safety of others are traits of the antisocial personality.” Source: here
Ouch – that’s sure bad. No doubt many of us “normal” people have experienced people like that. I have, to my sorrow. But look closely at what the quote says. How many of us can honestly say we have not, perhaps, done SOME of those horrible things? At some point? Be honest, now. Immediately things get murky.
Let’s check a few other quotes (Source: here ):
“Albert Schweitzer: “Ethics, too, are nothing but reverence for life. This is what gives me the fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, promoting, and enhancing life, and that destroying, injuring, and limiting life are evil.”
“George Bernard Shaw: Do not do unto others as you would they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.”
“HH the Dalai Lama: Consider the following. We humans are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others’ actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment of our lives when we do not benefit from others’ activities. For this reason it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others.”
“Mark Twain: Always do right–this will gratify some and astonish the rest.”
“Omar N. Bradley: Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”
“T. S. Eliot: The highest form of treason: to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”
“William Penn: To do evil that good may come of it is for bunglers in politics as well as morals.”
Perhaps my favorite one is that of the good General Bradley above. He died in 1981 but his statement is oh so true today. But for the rest of it, again, look closely. I don’t see much more than largely empty words although expressed cleverly. Perhaps I’m dense. Where’s the meat?
The article that was my trigger
Here is a link to the article I read this AM, but the full text follows except I skipped the picture in question. There is a link to Flickr where the picture is published together with a great deal of comments you might find interesting.
“A cheap shot at street photography
CAREFUL who you photograph – you could be assaulted. Or at least be ordered to hand over $5.
Jodie is a Melbourne photographer with an attractive folio of work who spotted a chap sitting on the steps at Flinders Street Station, so she snapped him. She was startled by his reaction. “He came over and said that I had to give him $5 for the picture I just took of him,” she says. “I told him I didn’t have $5 and things started to get slightly ugly. He then told me to give him the film. When I told him it was digital he got more pissed and I deleted the photo – well one of them – in front of him.
“I (moved) away and he started abusing me with all kinds of insults, telling me he would smash my camera in my face.”
Jodie escaped but was faced with a dilemma: should she upload the photograph to her Flickr website? She did, but with the reluctant subject’s face blacked out (follow link HERE). Now she wants to know if she did the wrong thing.
You might say that $5 is a reasonable fee to pay a model. You wouldn’t get Megan Gale for five bucks. But perhaps paying an angry person in this situation is tantamount to admitting that you have done something wrong.
We have explored the legalities of street photography in the past but this is more an issue of ethics and etiquette. Should photographers always ask before snapping just because it is polite? Or does that destroy the spontaneity? Many of the greatest photographs ever taken are of unsuspecting subjects.
But another issue arises in the context of discussing Jodie’s picture, and that is to do with the pornography of poverty. This is a term coined to damn aid agencies that use photographs of misery to boost their fund-raising efforts or to describe the tourist in India who takes pictures of crippled beggars because they are so “colourful and exotic”.
Marshall McLuhan called the photograph “the brothel without walls” – the most voyeuristic medium of them all. But while we understand erotic voyeurism, it is not so easy to understand the appeal of poverty as a fit subject for photography.
The simplest explanation is that seeing photographs of paupers excites schadenfreude – smug pleasure in the misfortune of others. Or perhaps pity. But these explanations don’t stand up to scrutiny. Schadenfreude is the intense pleasure you feel when you see two Mercedes collide. And pity does not attract – it repels.
The poverty-as-art photograph is always a picture of a stranger. It is unthinkable that we should photograph someone we know in misery. Occasionally a photographer breaks through the anonymity and forces us to get to know the subject, as Eugene Smith did with his photographs of the Minamata victims – the people poisoned by mercury in their environment, above. Smith’s photographs are both great art and a compelling document. He crossed the line from observer to participant and was severely beaten by thugs hired by the offending company. But this does not describe the tourist photographs of the beggars in India. As McLuhan says, this type of photography turns people into things.
Smith told his students: “Humanity is worth more than a picture of humanity that serves no purpose other than exploitation.”
The Imaging rule is this: it’s OK to take a spontaneous photograph of any person who looks as though they would be able to take a picture of us in another time and place. We draw the line at snapping people who look as though they will never be able to scrape together enough money to buy a camera.
Jodie did the right thing. She agonised over the rights and wrongs. She was not indifferent to the implications of what she was doing.”
As I said, this is not a remarkable event, nor even a very good article. The article actually contains two distinct parts – the first covers the event it self, then comes the “pornography of poverty” tirade with its absurd “Imaging rule” conclusion.
As to the first part, the ethics issue, to me, is very simple: It is perfectly ethical to shoot a picture of anything wherever it is legal to do so, unless there are common sense reasons not to shoot, such as it might endanger someone. The man demanding money was simply a jerk. The photographer does not have to destroy any pictures or paint out the face of anyone.
If the picture is used commercially, then the rules are different but that was not the case.
The second part of the article makes an ethical issue out of nothing. It rambles about how you can only ethically shoot people who are on the same ” level” as yourself. What? That would sure make life difficult for National Geographic photographers on assignment in some godforsaken part of the planet. Or taking pictures of Saudi princes. I stand by my statement on ethics in the previous paragraph.
The article raised some pretty trivial ethical issues but they were sufficient to set me off on MY tirade which you are currently reading. It does not take much to set me off like Don Quixote. I do quite a bit of street photography. I’ve been through the same experiences as Jodie above. I believe in standing up for my rights and ethics while using common sense and a smile.
I also do a lot of shooting in private places such as music clubs and bars, as is obvious if you check out my portfolios. That’s an entirely different matter – you better get appropriate permissions. So far, I have never been denied such permissions. Be up front, honest, considerate and friendly. It’s certainly ok to offer something in return, such as a few prints, unless you are on an actual paid assignment. which again is a different story.
Street photography does carry ethical issues. I’ll return to the subject later.
This was a bit of everyday ethics that we photographers deal with all the time. There is much more to our story, though. Let’s go climb a few ivory towers and check out the view.
The philosophers – does it matter what they think?
Ever since studying philosophy in high school, I’ve had nothing but trouble attempting to understand what philosophers talk about. Every time I try to find out what they think about some subject, they seem to talk about something else. But I can’t ignore this wealth of thinking about human conditions. Bear with me. There is a point. A pretty important one.
In ancient Greece a few hundred years BC, there were Socrates and Plato. Both have shaped quite a bit of philosophical thought and influenced other areas as well. Both are credited with “ethical” insights. It seems, though, that Socrates used his ethical thinking to somehow inspire him to view his self inflicted execution as the ethical thing to do. Then Plato seems to have viewed ethics as a way make himself feel good or, then, maybe not. He felt the same way about appetite. Or not. Try this:
“… human well-being (eudaimonia) is the highest aim of moral thought and conduct; the virtues (aretê=‘excellence’) are the requisite skills and character-traits. If Plato’s support for an ethics of happiness seems somewhat subdued that is due to several reasons. First of all, his conception of happiness differs in significant ways from ordinary views. He therefore devotes more time to undermining the traditional understanding of the good life than to describing his own conception. Second, Plato regards happiness as a state of perfection that is hard to comprehend because it is based on metaphysical presuppositions that seem both hazy and out of the realm of ordinary understanding. Hence there is not — as there is in Aristotle — much talk about happiness as a self-sufficient state of the active individual; the emphasis is, rather, on problems and difficulties that need to be solved. Third, Plato’s moral ideals appear both austere and self-abnegating: the soul is to remain aloof from the pleasures of the body; communal life demands the subordination of individual wishes and aims. The difficulties of assessing Plato’s ethical thought are compounded by the fact that it was subject to various modifications during his long life.” Source: here
Quite a mouthful. “Difficulties of assessing Plato’s ethical thought”? Right. Perhaps this ethical thing isn’t so self evident after all. Which is my point so far.
Jumping ahead some 2100 years. Here is Immanuel Kant. His famous view was “it is the representation that makes the object possible rather than the object that makes the representation possible”. A bit cryptic. However, he is a proponent of the deontological view of ethics. This means:
“…. particular kinds of acts are morally wrong because they are inconsistent with the status of a person as a free and rational being, and thus should not be carried out under any circumstances whatsoever. Conversely, acts that further the status of people as free and rational beings should always be carried out, under any circumstances whatsoever.” Source: here
Trying naively to decipher this, it sounds to me like an excuse for the “free and rational” to do whatever they want. I’m not alone in that thought. Let’s check out some real meat:
“What is so bad about Kant? According to Peikoff, Kant downgraded the physical world to which we gain access through our senses as a mere “phenomenal” realm. It was nothing but an appearance as compared with the “noumenal” world, which only faith, not logic, could grasp. In ethics, Kant spurned individual happiness as a matter of no moral worth; instead, persons were to subordinate themselves entirely to a duty that bore no relation to their interests as human beings.”
“These doctrines, Peikoff holds, paved the way for Hitler. The Nazis rejected reason – Kant taught that reason can teach us nothing of the world beyond mere appearance. Hitler’s movement demanded that individuals sacrifice themselves for the common good – again, a theme straight out of Kant’s ethics. So pervasive was Kant’s influence. Peikoff argues, that no important group in the Weimar Republic dissented from the baleful doctrines of irrationalism, altruism, and collectivism. The decadent expressionist artists of the left shared the same Kantian irrationalist assumptions as their right-wing detractors. No one in Weimar Germany had the intellectual resources to mount an effective resistance to Hitler, hence his triumph in 1933.”
“Peikoff does not put all the blame for Nazism on Kant; other philosophers, like Plato and Hegel, must take their share of responsibility. But, however implausible it may at first sight have seemed, I was not exaggerating in stating that Peikoff regards the mild-mannered sage of Königsberg as a proto-Nazi. Peikoff goes so far as to say of life in the Nazi concentration camps: “It was the universe that had been hinted at, elaborated, cherished, fought for, and made respectable by a long line of champions. It was the theory and the dream created by all the anti-Aristotelians of Western history.” Source: here
Suddenly the air is a bit chillier. The guys I have been quoting are responsible for Nazism, Hitler and concentration camps? Not all agree with Mr. Peikoff’s quite provocative views. In fact, some completely disagree.
Here are not one but two points.
First, perhaps this ethics/philosophy deal should be viewed with some seriousness. Maybe the questions around Reality, Ethics and Philosophy aren’t just little mind games played by people that matter little, or not at all, to most of us. Maybe these abstract things influence our lives in a major way?
Second, issues about ethics are arguable. People openly disagree on matters. Lively discussions follow. There is also the matter of social stigma. We all like to appear to be nice, law abiding, “ethical” citizens. We seldom brag about cheating on taxes or shoplifting. Rarely do we admit we just loved getting back at that boss of ours by placing a python in his desk drawer. Or talk about that little DUI matter – much overblown as it was.
Yes – Ethics do count
That’s about it for now. I started out with some loose statements such as “Being Good” is ethical. “Being Bad” is not. Then, quickly, things started to slip downhill. Perhaps more than a few of us share some things with those dreaded and very unethical sociopaths? Then the big one. Were scholars such as Plato and Kant inspirations to the deaths of millions of people? Some think so. The quote above by Mr. Peikoff is not unique although highly disputed on theoretical grounds. Such as, it is not fair to blame the creator of an idea if it is misused by some deranged lunatics. Either way, ethical concepts are not clear-cut. They are complex, controversial and influencial to power centers all the way down to the common man.
Kant, Hegel and Plato are not the only philosophers who may have influenced the Nazi murky ideology. Nor is Nazi ideology alone in misusing ethics as a part of manipulating our heritage. Friedrich Nietzsche – viewed as a brilliant philosopher who famously stated “God is dead” – was widely admired by the Nazis, much because of Nietzsche’ Ubermensch theory. Hitler himself said Wagner and his music were great inspirations but took an active interest in Nietzsche as well. Here is my final quote, about Nietzsche:
“Nietzsche, the self-described “Immoralist” and “Anti-Christ,” rejects moral discourse, rational moral principles, and indeed morality altogether. Morality is for “slaves” who are unable or unwilling to seize the power that they want. The (aesthetic) ideal is the Übermensch (Superman or Overman), who is beyond good and evil, who acts on his Will to Power, and who is completely indifferent to the needs, rights, and claims, or existence, of other persons. Grassian presents this as a disagreement over the nature of morality, but it is really a disagreement over whether morality, in any recognizable sense, even exists.” Source: here
Pretty ugly words about someone viewed as a major influence to not only Nazis but also today’s psychiatrists, psychologists, philosophers, students, Ayn Rand followers, the French Left Wing and many others.
Now, what does this have to do with photography and art? I believe art is by necessity closely related to values, in particular those of the artist. Values do not exist in a vacuum. They are made up by many individual influences – good, bad, inherited, learnt, forgotten, misrepresented, enforced and invented. Our personal perceptions of Reality and Ethics influence our value systems. Understanding Reality and Ethics means we can create, judge or simply grasp Art and Photography with some rationale. The same goes for life itself.
September 6, 2006
Reality is beyond our reach
It is time to return to the roots of this series after a number of digressions. I’ll recap earlier points, such as what we “see” is not necessarily the Truth. There are many distortions between the object and the image formed in our minds. Placing a camera, film, scanner and/or a digital chip between the object and your brain results in even more issues.
This series deals with “things we see”. It is not hard to generalize many of the arguments to a broader part of our lives. Are our emotions independent of our perceptions of “reality”? Is touch and feel less off the mark than what we “see”? What about our hearing – is it accurate? Does a burger really taste the way we think is tastes? For all I know, the answer to each question is “No”.
Not only that, our perceptions are unique to each of us. No one sees things the way the next person does. That truly has wide reaching consequences. Answers below.
Nothing is what it seems
The On Reality essays started early August 2006 by stating that we humans see nothing but light as it is emitted or reflected by the various objects around us. We don’t actually see the objects themselves. Since light is a highly variable and unreliable element, an object constantly looks different to us. Nevertheless, our brain makes us believe we know what objects look like. The brain, together with our eyes, does that by introducing additional distortions to “compensate” for the original fallacies. How can we call any of this “knowing reality”?
Part 1 of On Reality concluded that we do not know what reality is, nor do most of us care. But for me as a photographer – and a documentarian as well – this is an important subject. So it is, or should be, to anyone judging what reality is – such as newspaper editors, historians, investigators, CIA spooks and anyone actually interested in the “Truth”.
A view aside – “Reality” as seen by philosophers
Discussions of Reality are hardly a new subject. Philosophers have made mighty deep and complex statements on the subject for thousands of years. Practically every philosopher of fame has his own view. There are additional “schools of thought” for those that don’t quite have a unique idea.
I did study some of these views as a background to this series. Many of the ideas are way above my head. I’m not a philosopher, I’m an artist photographer. I did reach some conclusions: to many of these geniuses, reality is a very suspect phenomena. Many agree we have no idea what it is, except perhaps on a limited level. So far so good. I agree.
Now, these essays of mine are no attempt to compete with these guys. All I do is try to relate simple physics and well known, down to Earth facts to the subject of photography and our minds. End of story.
The previous posts
On Reality – Part 1 – discussed light being a highly suspect basis for establishing “reality”. In Part 2, I digressed onto a somewhat different path – photojournalism and faked/staged photos, largely because of the Reuters Beirut scandal. This digression lasted through Part 3 and 3a. In Part 4, the passing of Joe Rosenthal set me off on journey through photography of war. This became a personal statement on the “reality” of war itself, in particular its horrible effect on those unfortunates directly involved.
This post returns to our perceptions of Reality, hooking up to the discussion of light alone. I’ll cover three additional sources of distortions: the camera, our eyes and our brains. The simple conclusion is that each of these three elements add more complexity to our perceptions. It becomes even more impossible to objectively know “Reality”.
We make up our personal views of reality and argue endlessly with those having a different perception of the same thing. Sometimes such differences lead to war, perhaps only in your house but maybe on a far grander scale. Sometimes a journalist gets fired after “improving” reality. Sometimes friends cease being friends. Occasionally strangers become friends. Some get married while others divorce. And so on.
Images in this post
It is not easy to illustrate what goes on in our brains. Especially since that is a highly personal subject. I ended up with five pairs of two images illustrating some aspect of reality as seen in various ways.
- Two commonly used “illusions”. They show how easy it is to fool our smart brains.
- Two images of George W. discussing reality. The guy perhaps has too much power given his really strange view of reality.
- Two images of recent presidents in a context that defies any illusion of reality. At least it does in my senses.
- Two faked images very popular in the late 1800’s. Photographers seriously attempted to capture a reality beyond our senses.
- Two cartoons illustrating the fallacy of expectations. Reality is not always what we expect it to be.
Where is the Truth?
Cameras record the “Truth?” – Sorry
A camera essentially is a very simple mechanical object. It consists of a lens, a shutter system and a back end device such as a digital chip or a film. This device catches the light remaining after passing through the lens and the shutter system. That’s about it. Of course there are additional elements supporting the three basic ones – light meters, flashes, digital software and much else. Let’s stick with the basics.
A lens is just some pieces of glass or, occasionally, plastic in a tube. It gathers light to be recorded by the back end of the camera. We’ve discovered, over the last 150 years or so, that it is not possible to build an accurate lens. Today’s lenses are incredibly complex. This complexity is caused by attempting to correct the distortions caused by using the lens in the first place. No matter how hard the engineers try, no lens passes on the light hitting it accurately. Each brand, focal length, focusing system and even individual lenses have different and, to some extent, measurable characteristics. A lens passes on only a part of the light it receives, depending on engineering and the amount and quality of the glass involved. As a result of all these factors, the lens records a distorted version of the light it receives, no matter how much money you spend. Don’t look for accuracy or “Truth” here.
Then we have the shutter system. Better yet, we might include the aperture device and call it the light control system. While we are at it, let’s add the light meter present in most cameras. There are endless engineering variations of these systems. All of them share one characteristic. They are inaccurate. Don’t look for accuracy or “Truth” here.
Finally, the poor back end receives this distorted junk. As you might guess by now, any variation of back ends introduce their own set of inaccuracies. If you are a Photoshop affectionate, you may have played – or even used – some of the fancy plug ins that attempt to change the characteristics of various back ends. There are plug ins that “compensate” for or “emulate” all kinds of film brands. You can make your digital photo look like it was shot with HP 400 black and white film. Or Velvia color film. Or anything else you may fancy. There are other plug ins that make your film images look like they were digitally shot. Or take your digital shots and correct for white balance, exposure, grain and much else.
Scanning software often contains similar controls.
Now, if the back end of the camera was accurate, then none of the above would be needed – right? Right. Here are some facts. In a film camera, you load a particular film. That film possess unique features starting with brand, batch, age all the way down to the individual roll and how it was stored from manufacturing and on.
In a digital camera, there is a chip with various unique characteristics ranging from resolution and sensitivity to size. The chip is associated with onboard software doing who knows what to the image. RAW images may – or not – bypass the onboard software to produce an “accurate” image. Of course, that image is not accurate at all. Some digital cameras allow you to modify the onboard software for white balance, shooting situation (”Hawaiian sunsets”, “Cathedrals” etc.) and much else. Removing “red eyes” has become quite an industry because most camera manufacturers knowingly put the flash in the wrong place.
In short – as to the back end of the camera – Don’t look for accuracy or “Truth” here.
All we can expect of a camera is that it gives us images we like. Or images we can “improve” using various tools. We must control the images as we shoot. We must deal with the distorted images produced by the camera. These are subjects for later posts. Please just accept the unavoidable fact that the camera gives you a highly distorted view of the light from the subject you’re shooting. No truth. No accuracy. Plenty of distortions. No matter how much you spend. Sorry.
A last comment about cameras. They give us an image frozen in time. You press the shutter button. The shutter fires for a given period of time. The back end records the light received in the period of time. The image is done and reflects only that period of time. That leads us to two very different devices – our eyes that record images in an analog manner and our brain that processes those analog images in real time. This is way more complex and sophisticated than that poor camera.
Eyes tell the “Truth?” – Sorry.
Superficially, our eyes share some characteristics with a camera. They have lenses, irises and corneas with aperture and focusing controls. They understand and adjust for different light levels. There is a retina back end consisting of seven layers of light sensitive receptors that pass information to our brains. The eyes’ focusing, aperture and light controls are infinitely more sensitive and fast than those of any camera, however costly or “digital”.
So do our eyes accurately record the Truth and pass it on to the brain? No. Your eyes have limitations as well. Some of us are near sighted, others far sighted and some color blind. Others are simply blind. Not to forget crossed and/or wandering eyes. To older people, focus muscles get worn out. The eyes may contract illnesses. The lenses and corneas are easily damaged. Many lenses are shaped in an inaccurate way, resulting in distortions. The receptors may get temporarily blinded by sudden changes in light levels.
There are big businesses involved in fixing your eyes. Eye glasses, sun glasses and contact lenses eat up billions of our dollars while introducing even more distortions. Many of these devices change the focus and color of the light reaching your eyes. Some even change to color of the eyes themselves. Surgery chains happily operate on your eyes at a remarkably low price, changing your point of view completely.
The eyes and the rest of the visual system do not operate on light or colors the way a camera does. The system transforms the light entering the eyes to initially straight lines that eventually combine into curved lines and contours. Colors and light levels are judged by comparing the curves. Colors are no longer represented by K values. Light is no longer measured by absolute levels, as is done in the photo cell of a light meter. This process introduces a fair degree of inaccuracy. It is the basis of the many illusions with which some (such as psychiatrists) like to work or play. I added two if these illusions to this page.
Add the analog feature of our eyes and visual system. There is no such thing as one view of our surroundings. The eyes constantly receive new information. They react to the information in an eternal cycle of adjustments deemed necessary. Consider the fact that most of us have two eyes. Each eye receives a two dimensional view. The visual system combines the two dimensional views into one three dimensional view. Take that, you one-eyed, two dimensional cameras.
Think about it. Here are your relatively tiny eyes that have incomparable power and flexibility relative to any camera at any price and size. But accurate? Don’t look for accuracy or “Truth” here. Sorry.
Ah – the brain fixes it all – Sorry.
The brain does fix it all, in a manner of speech. It is in complete charge of our perceptions. It even adds a whole emotional dimension to the the information from the eyes. Of course, the brain controls the eyes themselves, not to mention all of you. A regular control freak, your brain.
The trouble is we don’t quite understand what our brain does with that relatively straight forward stream of distorted light entering the eyes. We can’t control the process. We do know that what we see is an interpretation created by the brain. What are the rules for this interpretation? Here you enter a real complex issue studied by many very clever people with lots of theories, some of which are contradictory.
One theory states that the brain creates an interpolated view that is based on incomplete information from the eyes. This, again, explains the visual illusions mentioned earlier. Manipulate the incomplete information reaching the brain and it makes predictably bad decisions. There are various theories how this interpretation works, such as the one claiming the brain uses the complex math of Bayesian science.
The brain also makes basic assumptions such as light is usually coming from above. It relies on prior experience to produce a predicable, safe interpretation. It is almost like the old (very outdated) saying in IT circles: You will never go wrong by buying IBM. The brain produces an image that it thinks you will like. It even goes as far as making sure that image won’t hurt you too much.
Then there is the “Gestalt” theory. It states that the brain receives a bunch of sub components of the visual image. The brain then combines these sub components into the whole according to a set of rules. This theory claims the brain uses six distinct rules to achieve its goal. Perhaps, perhaps not.
Other theories claim the rules depend on personality, race, gender, occupation, education, age, attitudes, values and so on. I suppose that makes intuitive sense.
A completely different theory discards most of the above. The brain receives sufficient information and does not make interpretations as stated above.
There you are. Full circle and total confusion. Does any of this sound like the visual system is capable of presenting Reality? Is it even designed to show Reality? It doesn’t seem so to me. Apart from pointing out to me that I have no idea what goes on, it appears clear that presenting reality is not even a major concern. And it’s not a damn thing we can do about it.
It seems to me we, again, have to state: Don’t look for accuracy or “Truth” here. Sorry.
So what? Distortions can be dangerous
Let’s play with a few examples and quotes dealing with the meaning of this.
First, a simple one. Doesn’t food look much more appetizing if you are hungry? The brain uses some rule to tell us we better get ourselves some food to satisfy our needs. This sure can kill you financially if you are in a supermarket.
Second, look up at two tall buildings side by side. Take a picture of the same thing. Compare the picture with what you saw using your eyes. Do the two representations of the same objects look different? Of course they do. You figure it out.
Next, let’s look at all the theories of witness reliability in criminal and other investigations. Most say that reliability is quite low. But why? There are many explanations, opinions and studies published, discussed, disputed and trashed. There is a whole industry of hired “experts” apparently able to judge witness reliability. Perhaps who is paying the expert’s fee influences the conclusions. Perhaps not. Eitherway, this is an issue worth looking at to understand how our brain treats “reality”.
For instance, there are the questions surrounding the crash of TWA Flight 800 outside Long Island. Law officials found no less than 348 eye witnesses to the crash. A little over half saw the plane being on fire before hitting water. The rest – almost half – saw no fire. There was and is the conspiracy rumor of a missile attack on the plane. Investigators compared the witness accounts to the black box and recorders information. There are many opinions why different types of evidence seemed so contradictory. Some say the discrepancies have perfectly normal explanations – the accounts from witnesses were largely correct and the flight data was too incomplete. Others say witnesses were subject to a mind game fueled by the publicity and thus totally unreliable. The truth – who knows. Probably somewhere in between the two theories.
Then we have the debate on a child’s reliability as a witness in possible sexual abuse cases. Here is a quote:
“It has been learned and amply documented that the issue of TRUTH when applied to children’s statements is multidimensional. The focus on how children’s statements might differ from adults’ statements has compelled a scientific return to an understanding of child development in moral, cognitive, emotional and social spheres. Many volumes have recently appeared on the suggestibility of children, the creation of false or distorted memories, motivation, and other aspects of truth-telling, all of which attempt to explain why some children’s reports of sexual abuse are not true, even though the child may appear to be sincere. “
So the reliability of this class of witnesses is low. Interviewing techniques very much influence the child’s eventual testimony and actual memory of the incidence (if any).
Here is another quote:
“Numerous psychological studies have shown that human beings are not very good at identifying people they saw only once for a relatively short period of time. The studies reveal error rates of as high as fifty percent — a frightening statistic given that many convictions may be based largely or solely on such testimony.“
50%? It appears the brain might be wrong as often as it is right. Just like meteorologists. Don’t decide on bringing an umbrella along based on the weather forecast. Don’t bet your life on the recollections of others.
A final set of quotes:
“Visual perception is one of the most complex processing tasks that the brain is called upon to perform. It is not surprising, therefore, that when it goes wrong, the results can be dramatic. It is significant that …. ‘visual perception disorders’, e.g. agnosia, cause only gross errors in perception (sufferers are unable to identify objects as a whole, e.g. a face, a deer..).” Source: here
“Most people assume that what you see is pretty much what your eye sees and reports to your brain. In fact, your brain adds very substantially to the report it gets from your eye, so that a lot of what you see is actually “made up” by the brain (see Seeing more than your eye does). Perhaps even more interestingly, the eye actually throws away much of the information it gets, leaving it to the rest of the brain to fill in additional information in its own ways. A characteristic pattern ….. provides an excellent example of how the brain is organized to actively “make sense” of the information it gets, rather than to simply absorb and respond to it. In so doing, it provides some valuable insights into the sources of our sense of “reality”. Source: here
I can’t say the jury is out on this one. Clearly, there are so many distortions that any view or opinion of “reality” must be suspect. After thousands of years, we still do not really know much about reality. Reality is largely a personal perception with limited base in true reality. The consequences of this are very significant. The false reality starts wars, puts innocent people in jail and destroys others.
Distortions are part of life
Light comes from objects emitting a specific type of energy. Such objects include the sun, stars, lamps, fires, chemical and physical reactions, certain animals, insects and other creatures. Even if we only consider the light emitted from one source, the light is not a constant. For instance, the distance between us and the light source is a very significant factor. So is the question whether or not the light source is visible (”on”). Few light sources provide similar light. K values and spectrums are different. Then we have all sorts of distortions impacting the quality of light, such as dust, clouds, wall colors, bending of light and much else depending on the circumstances.
Light makes it possible for our eyes to “see”. Light makes it possible to make photos. Light is very variable and distorted. So seeing should not be believing.
Cameras, eyes, brain
All three of these items add distortions to the already distorted light. Perhaps the brain is the biggest culprit of all. Depending on who you believe, the brain may make up a fair amount of our view of the environment. We do not know how the brain accomplishes that. We do know the brains of different people use different rules. People see things differently. Sometimes that is a good thing. Sometimes it is disastrous.
We cannot honestly say we know reality. All evidence, most of it quite trivial, speaks to the contrary. We simply have to live with that fact. Most people do not care. But they should.
Upcoming posts in this series
The series is not over with this fifth post. I’ll expand on photo staging, faking and plain lying. I’ll cover propaganda photography. I’ll feed you my view on censorship in photography. I’ll try to explain how artistic manipulation differ from “unethical” manipulation. I’ll reveal what really goes on in those darkrooms. I’ll tell tales on what a computer can do to “reality”. Finally, what does this all mean? Are there rational ways to deal with these fallacies, considering much of our culture depends on the mental traps?
As always, thank you for your visit to my blog. I hope it was worth your time.
September 1, 2006
As those that return to this site will notice, it has a brand new look. I’ve used the optional WordPress CSS editing facility to make changes to the template used originally. I felt several items needed improvement. They are:
- Better readability. I’ve increased the font size a bit to make it easier on your eyes. I’ve changed the color scheme for the same reason.
- Easier navigation. I changed the headings’ look and feel so it is easier to see where one post starts and another stops. Headings and other parts of the posts are now a bit more consistent.
- Better compatibility with my other sites. Part of this is a look and feel issue – this site now is more “part of the family”. But over the years, I’ve picked up a trick or two that I will now be able to use on this site. That should improve your experience as a viewer.
Incidentally, this is by no means meant as a criticism of the original theme author. He or she did a great job and I still use much of the original code.
For those interested in CSS and, in particular, WordPress publishing, I’ve set myself up so I can use DreamWeaver as my editor for editing posts based on the relevant stylesheets and page layouts. This means I don’t have to go through as many cycles as before to make things look right. It also makes it easier to use, and improve, the private stylesheet I now use. I can do a lot of the required testing off-line. For those that don’t quite understand why I do this testing: there is not one major browser that renders a WordPress site or post the same. Everyone of them – IE, Firefox, Mozilla, Opera, Safari or Netscape, not to mention a myriad of versions for each browser – differ in how your precious posts present themselves to viewers. I’ve learnt the hard way.
Earlier, I tended to favor Microsoft’s new beta “Window’s Live Writer”. It’s one of the best entry level editors around but, still, it is nowhere close to Dreamweaver. Of course, it helps that I’ve used Dreamweaver for years. Maybe, I’m in a different category than the intended audience for, say, WordPress’ built in editor.
I should tell you that you need to consider – as I do – the current site as a beta site. No doubt there will be usability issues coming up and, gasp, bugs to be fixed. There will also be frequent changes to the site as I refine it.
I’d be eternally grateful for comments on the site, any difficulties you may run into, bugs and any other suggestions. In return, I’ll do my best to answer any questions that may arise from my statements above. You can post comments and questions or email me personally here.
Thanks a million,