How to Look at a Photograph

Question: What should one look for in a photograph?

Edward Burtynsky: You have to give yourself over to the visual experience and try to drop into the kind of space both intellectually and psychologically and visually of why is the artist showing me this, this place, what in the context of what they’ve laid out maybe in their artist statement, in their… you know and if you look at the book and or the images how do I begin to assimilate these images and some of them may be more…  You know some of the connections may be more oblique and maybe never really meant for you to really fully comprehend because you’re not the artist, but you can still I think move through the work and appreciate the kind of I guess intention of the artist as well as your own subjective reading of it, so that you’re not… every person is going to get a slightly different take off of a group of 50 or 60 or 100 images, so I would say for the viewer to kind of immerse yourself.  You know clear your mind.  Get rid of all your problems.  Have a peaceful moment where you can kind of just flip through and just look at them.  Let them kind of wash over you.  Go back to the ones afterwards that you like a lot and somehow say something more to you than other ones and try to understand the kind of complex set of ideas and narratives and visual kind of connections that might be there to be had and there isn’t any one way to read a visual book.  It’s about a different language and it’s about how our brains respond to imagery which is different than words and it may be more emotional and it may be more kind of a sense of wonder like wow, I didn’t know that our world could look like this or look at you know or I didn’t know we were up to this.  You know there is a whole bunch of things that you can learn from images and they do something.  Like for instance, you can…  You know if all you ever saw of let’s say the Gulf tragedy is just words.  Like if no images were invented.  You just everyday reports, “There is more spills.”  “It shows up as you know brown on the top of blue water and it’s about a quarter mile wide and it’s five kilometers long and the sheen looks like an oil spill near a gas station after a rain.”  And so you could try and explain to somebody what that disaster looks like, but it will never have the same effect as looking at a really good picture and you went oh, that is what is happen, okay, I get it.  You know war is the same way.  You can say there is a conflict and say… but then all of the sudden you see you know the people who have been affected and people have been hurt, legs blown off, whatever.  It’s like uh-oh that’s… there is really something terrible happening here.  So images somehow close the circle that intellectually we can understand that there is something going on in the world, but until the images are really there I don’t think it really lodges itself in our consciousness in the same way, so I do believe that between the words and the images it locks into our consciousness in a much more powerful way and that is where still images and the TV and the news reports and all that also affect us, somehow I think still images, really good still images have a greater staying power in our consciousness.

Recorded June 21, 2010

Interviewed by Jessica Liebman

You have to "give yourself over to the visual experience" and try to understand an image's intellectual and psychological context.

Big Think Edge
  • The meaning of the word 'confidence' seems obvious. But it's not the same as self-esteem.
  • Confidence isn't just a feeling on your inside. It comes from taking action in the world.
  • Join Big Think Edge today and learn how to achieve more confidence when and where it really matters.

USA ranked 27th in the world in education and healthcare—down from 6th in 1990

America continues to tread water in healthcare and education while other countries have enacted reforms to great effect.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The American healthcare and education systems are known to need some work, but a new study suggests we've fallen far in comparison to the rest of the world.
  • The findings show what progress, if any, 195 countries have made over the last twenty years
  • The study suggests that economic growth is tied to human capital, which gives a dire view of America's economic prospects.
Keep reading Show less
Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
  • There are 2 different approaches to governing free speech on college campuses.
  • One is a morality/order approach. The other is a bottom-up approach.
  • Emily Chamlee-Wright says there are many benefits to having no one central authority on what is appropriate speech.