Letter to John: Making the Inwardly Seen Outwardly Visible
Te Ngakau I
Fujifilm X-H1, XF 16-55/2.8
ISO 320, 1/500s @f8
Not long ago, perhaps a few days, I posted one of my works, and made the statement on social media that, as I studied the scene, I could see the different currents of energy moving in the land and air above it. Perhaps that was a presumption on my part, however I will still stand by what I wrote.
My friend John, whom I love dearly, jumped up and shouted that one cannot see energy, that it is impossible to see energy.
Well, John, I beg to differ.
You can see energy. In fact, that is all you see. We just choose to see it as something concrete and affix labels to it that give it the illusion of something that is real and grounded in reality. Whatever that is.
So, let us talk about that for a little while. Let us consider the act of Seeing. Or see it as a series of Illusions.
The first Illusion is that we see with our eyes, and that Seeing stops at (the front of) our eyeballs. It doesn’t.
Light enters our eyeballs and impacts the rods and cones on our retina. The photons are converted to electrical signals and fed into the optic nerve, which transmits them back to our brain. The first crossover is the conversion from photonic to electrical. Who knows what gets lost/altered at this point? Is the data on one side of the switch the same as what comes out the other side? Is there transmission loss in the optic nerve? Does age/gender/ health play a part in the quantity and nature of transmission?
Then the data reaches the brain, and it is interpreted by the mind. And what is the mind anyway? Here we have the Second Illusion, for we really see with our minds. The brain adds such things as our health, hormone stat(s), memory and learned responses and forms a composite from all these factors. The end picture is a product of Mind, and the picture formed is a Mind Picture. If we are in love, or angry, or intoxicated, we will form a picture which may be quite different. There is nothing concrete, fixed or immutable here. Mind is a place in a state of constant change. Memory is even more mercurial, for memories are not fixed, but a swirling swamp of constantly- shifting and evolving sands. Memories have no form and are constantly on the move. Perhaps that is the enduring fascination and promise of photography. Photography is one way of locking down memories. Perhaps. For who is to say that the mind associations we have/assume with a photograph are immutable either?
One of my favourite books is Deepak Chopra’s novel, Jesus: A story of Enlightenment. Put briefly, it follows Jesus as he makes his human journey to an appointment with Golgotha. This is not a Jesus who was born omniscient, as has been sold to us for two millennia, who popped out of the womb knowing who and what he was. In this book he gradually comes to this understanding with time and experience, and study at the feet of various Vedic and Buddhist masters. He grows into his destiny, as the Christ within him takes hold, puts down roots and flowers.
There is one small passage in the book which, when I read it, stopped me in my tracks, and lit a fire. Jesus is marching with his disciples to …. somewhere…when he stops and examines a small plant, utterly fascinated because it appears to him as something quite different, as something Beyond Flower. For the first time. According to the novel, he is seeing things as they truly are. He has seen beyond the labels which we been taught/brainwashed by upbringing and culture and education to see the essential energy in everything. To see things as energy.
Is there, I asked myself when I read this, a truth we do not see? Are we all prisoners in Plato’s cave, believing that the walls around us constitute the beginning and end of everything, believing that our world begins and ends according to the direct data from our eyeballs? What happens then, when we suddenly realise that a river is flowing somewhere on the other side of the wall, that there is more to our world than meets the eye? Are we then to trust our eyes or have they been leading us astray all those years? Is the limit of our world the tiny band of the radio magnetic spectrum between 350nm and 610nm which our eyes can detect? Or is it simply because we have been conditioned from birth to believe that the eyes have it?
Of course, the language we speak, our specific floor on the Tower of Babel, reinforces that. It encourages us to adopt patterns which reinforce our sense of tribe and a sense of shared and an agreed communication structure. Thus, the limits of our world are the limits of our language. If we choose to remain boundaried by them. If we so choose.
Perhaps there is another way. Perhaps it is possible to see with our heart, with something beyond mind and language. Perhaps that is what we mean when we talk about expressing our feelings in our images and looking for emotion, for emotion is a child of the heart.
Perhaps there is a way to step beyond mind, eyes and language and to see solely with our hearts. Perhaps there is a way to shut the former down and/or out and allow our hearts to call the tune. I began to wonder if this was possible when I would make a photograph for no reason, or find I had made an image, but couldn’t remember doing so. It was if some part of me had switched off and allowed me to see in a different way. The results were somehow closer to how I actually felt. It helped that, as time has gone by, I have thinned my decision-making down, to a simple f8, ISO Auto, and Auto shutter speed. Those technical decisions are products of the mind, and the less there is to think about, the more the floor is cleared for another approach, another way of responding. And sometimes, the works which resonate most for me arrive from the edges of my perception, appear from the corners of my heart.
Which brings me to the featured image for this post.
We were flying late one afternoon over Te Wehenga, the Cook River in South Westland, New Zealand. I wasn’t particularly focused on anything, because the job was done, and we were about to turn for home, when something flickered out on the edge of my perception. I got the pilot to pull up and put the helicopter into a hover, doing a slow fly-by, while I leaned out and began shooting, but shooting with my brain turned off, just feeling for the best composition, not the easiest of things to achieve in a helicopter slipping and sliding on the knife-edge of the wind. I knew something was happening, and kept making pictures, until that inner perception (the voice of Heart?) said that it was done. We flew home into the thickening shadows of evening. That should have been it, but something was echoing inside me, and kept doing so all night. I had touched on something at a very deep level. A feeling of recognition, and perhaps even of purpose.
The next morning, I downloaded the thousand or so images from the previous day’s work, did my usual cull and sort, then went hunting for this one. I was keen to see if the echo was still there.
It was. I could feel it, even though the raw file wasn’t yet making it obvious. However, there was a truth there, whispering to me from behind the cave walls. I went to work, brushing away the obvious until the thing that wanted to be seen lay bare, out in the open, in front of me.
At first, I thought that I might have take the idea too far, or that I had strayed into some sort of aesthetic minefield. It was certainly confronting.
Leaving the file open, to enable its wings to dry, I went out for a coffee. I came back an hour later and stared at it. Nope. It still made sense.
Then it came to me what I was looking at.
I was looking down at the heart and lungs of Papatūānuku, Mother Earth, the Earth, my Mother.
I sat for a time, startled.
My partner walked in and looked at it.
Hmmm. O look. The Heart and Lungs of the Earth.
Something had risen to the surface.
Something I hadn’t seen before. Certainly not with my eyes.
A new door had opened.
A new page had turned.