Advancing toward the light of increased awareness
In this image I reflect on the notion of “reality,” that what we experience and know is both an individual and social construct. There’s the reality that I, as the photographer, experienced—the bright sun and the people on the hill. Part of that reality includes cars in a parking lot and an observation platform to the right of the walkers, so the reality within the frame is a small fraction of what I experienced. The realities of the individuals walking down the path are entirely different from my experience, each having a unique perspective based on a complex of references, preferences, relationships and motivations.
Then there are the realities that people will read into this image: perhaps humanity’s exploration of the planet, it’s advance into the future or the scale of the Earth and human beings relative to the immensity of the sun. Yet another reality is the image itself, experienced differently on a screen or on paper. These and other realities are quite easily seen and understood because our senses provide our brains with input that constructs meaning based on both our personal and social experiences.
What we do not see is objective reality. While our sensory systems evolved to maximize the potential for survival and growth, they do not detect the realities that gave rise to life and form, the worlds of atoms and quanta. For instance, the photons stimulating our retinas as we look at this image. Objectively they have no color. What the brain interprets as color has everything to do with the reflection and absorption properties of surfaces. We say a fabric is “red,” for instance, because the combination of threads absorb most of the colors of the visible spectrum other than red. Put another way, “blue” is the experience of a lack of yellow wavelengths. So while eyes perform the critical task of gathering wavelengths and generating electrical stimuli, it’s actually the brain that “sees” color. The same is true of shape, texture and dimension, properties the brain uses to interpret and construct our visual reality.
Even the experience of a solid is a mental construction. In the realm of the atom, nothing is solid. In metals and even diamonds, the hardest of rocks, there’s mostly space within and between the nucleus and electrons. At the quantum level of reality, there is no matter.
For whatever reason, the above image reminded me that the realities of everyday experience are personal constructs, moment to moment brain-interpreted creations where all sensory inputs are filtered through a myriad of past experiences and influences including physiology, ethnicity, psychology, family, education, peer associations, socialization and work to name a few. Even the realities and the symbols that represent them, such as words and images are momentary constructions. Consider how your personal reality would be changed without the concepts and words for “television” or “time.” I’m reminded of the indigenous people who experienced Spanish galleons for the first time, regarding them as monster canoes and rifles as barking sticks or fire sticks. New realities rely upon established ones to make sense of them.
On the one hand, the awareness that what we call “reality” is a construct is humbling. It leads to the observation that we live somewhere in the middle between the ephemeral and immensity. It’s also empowering because, if my personal reality is a construct, I can alter it. Make it better. What’s more, the leading edge of consciousness and technology that’s expanding our understanding and capabilities in both directions suggests that something grand is in the process of being born. In the above image, I see humanity walking with hope and determination into the light of a more awakened awareness of and appreciation for the reality that gives rise to and sustains all forms.
If an almost limitless field of action lies open to us in the future, what shall our disposition be, as we contemplate this march ahead? A great hope held in common.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin S.J.
About This Image
I’d been photographing the magnificent landscapes in the Badlands of South Dakota when I saw a turnout where people were walking back and forth on a walkway that led to an overlook and a grand vista of mountainous forms. There were so many people going back and forth, so I had to see the attraction. Also, a lifetime in photography has taught me that unusual and powerful images are much more likely to occur when walking rather than driving.
“Happy accidents” happen so often, it didn’t matter to me that the lookout was crowded with people taking pictures. I set up my tripod beside several others and got the same shots. And they were nice. But the one that I celebrate most is this one, taken from the parking lot.
Photography Monographs (Click on the pages to turn them)