Monday, December 1, 2014

Following Point of View to Understanding

In 2007 my family gathered to celebrate my 50th birthday. My nieces were aged 4 and 5. I bought them some inexpensive digital cameras thinking it would be fun to see what kind of images they would create.

Unfortunately the cameras didn’t take very good photos and it looks like we deleted most of them. But it was really interesting looking at their photos at the time, and I did save a couple:  

I was reminded of these photos by an article in The New Yorker about the GoPro camera, “We Are a Camera,” by Nick Paumgarten. The GoPro is a small HD video camera with different mounts that can be affixed to all kinds of sporting equipment. Mr. Paumgarten says an interesting feature of this camera is that
because it primarily points outward it’s a record of what an experience looks like…The result is not so much a selfie as a worldie. It’s more like the story you’d tell about an adventure than the photo that would accompany it.
The author’s son won a GoPro in a school raffle, and
On a ski vacation that spring, he affixed it to the top of his helmet…Even though the camera was turned outward, filled mainly by the sight of the terrain sliding past, it provided, more than anything, a glimpse into the mind of a dreamy and quiet boy…I didn’t need a camera to show me what he looked like to the world, but was delighted to find one that could show me what the world looked like to him. It captured him better than any camera pointed at him could. This was a proxy, of sorts.
You could say the GoPro is an experience recorder. One of my favorite films is “Brainstorm,” a story about the invention of exactly that, an experience recorder. The Brainstorm recorder was mounted in a helmet and recorded brain waves. If I put on the recorder and went mountain biking, or hang gliding, or ate a gourmet meal, when you put on the playback device you would have my experience. You’d re-experience exactly what I had experienced: peddling up the mountain path, or soaring on air currents, or tasting heavenly sensations in your mouth. The tension in the movie came because the military wanted to get their hands on this technology (what a surprise).
But there were a couple of very moving sections. One was between two of the protagonists, a husband and wife who both worked on the research project. Their marriage was falling apart, and they were selling the beautiful home they’d built together. One night the man was inspired by the possibilities of the technology and made a tape for his wife, recording his experience of their relationship. At first what came up were negative memories of fights, but he switched off the recorder before they were put down on tape. Then came a flood of happy memories of love, playfulness, and shared dreams, and these happy memories were what he recorded. When she played back the tape, she realized that she hadn’t really understood him. She was overwhelmed by the love he had expressed and said, “I thought you didn’t like me anymore” when she finished the recording. Their relationship was instantly transformed and their marriage was saved.
Maybe a complete recorder as featured in “Brainstorm” is not feasible now, but perhaps the ubiquity of cameras in general and the GoPro phenomenon in particular could provide an increase in understanding of others and their experience. If you go to the official GoPro website, you can see a lot of videos people have uploaded of their experiences. From what I can see, not many people have grasped this concept of capturing an experience from a point of view, but perhaps that will spread.
The truth is, when two people are together in the same space, their experiences of it will be different. If you and I are both at an event, we will tell different stories about it (if you doubt this, just listen to the testimony of eyewitnesses in court cases). We each have our own internal realities because, first, our eyes are drawn to different things in the scene, and then those visual (and other sensory) impressions are filtered through our beliefs and memories. And our beliefs, memories, and emotions will cause us to look at different things…
To me, this means if I can see what you’re looking at, I can have a better understanding of who you are.
Let me expand on this a little. Imagine we’re in a market in Istanbul (see some more photos here).

I would be looking at the piles of spices, because I love to cook, and at the rugs and other fabrics, because I like to weave. You might be looking at the metalwork, or woodwork, or a good-looking man or woman passing by. I could learn a lot about you by experiencing your point-of-view: what, amidst this feast for the senses, drew your attention.
Perhaps we’re a long way from creating a true experience recorder, but just being able to see as you see would help me understand you. And, to understand another is the gateway to compassion.
Some movies have included “point-of-view scenes,” in which the camera switches from an objective view—the external image of what a character is doing—to a subjective view—what the character is seeing. All of a sudden you’re looking through someone else’s eyes.
The 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde, starring Frederic March, begins with this technique. The filmmaker gives you the sensation of being the celebrated Dr. Jekyll, which makes his downfall even more impactful.
While working on this post I happened to call my brother, who’s the father of one of the girls in the photo above. During the Skype call with him and his two daughters, the younger one, V, who is now about the age of her older sister in the photo above, pulled out an old digital camera and took a photo of the computer screen and the image of Arthur and I. We of course made some silly faces for her amusement. I told my brother a little about the subject of this blog post, and he said V had been taking a lot of photos lately, and many of them were of her My Little Ponies. Hopefully I’ll get a few to add to this post.

My suggestion: try it out. When you look at someone’s photos, don’t just look at them as an objective record, look at them as a subjective window into that person’s mind. I’d love to hear what you discover.

Found some more of my nieces' photos:

No comments:

Post a Comment