The eyes of a baby

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Insert gratuitous infant photo here.

As many of you know, I have a 11-month old daughter. This is not going to be a scientific attempt at trying to replicate infant vision; far from it. Think of it more as a series of observations from the perspective of a photographer observing and observer. All in all: as anybody who’s had children will know, sometimes they have just as much to teach us (or remind us of) as we do them.

Infant vision starts off being both blurry due development of the mechanical/optical systems of the eye as well as limited in hue/color/tone due to limited development of the retina and visual cortex. In short, nothing is fully formed. I suspect there is a solid evolutionary reason for this: imagine if you were dumped with zero understanding or knowledge or preconceptions into a bright, colourful, noisy and unfamiliar world: you’d suffer from sensory overload and probably land up catatonic. It even happens to some adults in the form of culture shock; imagine how much worse it would be for a mind that lacks even the logical framework to attempt to make some sense of their surroundings.

All of the rules of the world you have known up to this point (soft, fluid-filled, pink, dim) have been completely thrown out of the window. It’s not just your visual cortex that’s being bombarded, but also every other sense. Even if there were babies born with fully developed sensory apparatus, chances are they would not have any evolutionary survival advantage over those without: probably the opposite. Slow acclimatisation generally has better results than immersion.

The upshot is an infant’s perception of the world starts off as nothing but blobs of shape and luminance, with almost no color. It is difficult to distinguish one object from another, and I’ve observed my own child struggling to focus on something (eyes moving, crossing, pupils changing size) in the early days. It is no wonder there is no concept of familiarity or recognition of faces until much later: we probably look no different to a round cushion, or a large cookie, or a boulder – depth perception isn’t developed yet, either.

The biggest differentiating factor between our vision and infant vision isn’t acuity, color or spatial perception. It’s pattern recognition. And I strongly suspect it’s also what makes the greatest difference between the really gifted artists and the rest of us plebs.

Pattern recognition* is really a cerebral thing: our eyes don’t do it, our brain does. In fact, our brain is so good at dealing with visual information that it actually filters out most of it without us consciously being aware; if not, we’d have an impossible time functioning because we’d be overwhelmed by stimuli all the time. Pattern recognition allows us to get on with life without stopping to consciously identify and classify every single object we are presented with. (Imagine how difficult that would be in a complex scenario, like say downtown Tokyo.)

*It’s also behind what governs the principles of subject isolation – for something to stand out, it has to break pattern with its background/surroundings (and vice versa).

Whilst subconscious processing enabled us to focus on our lives and accomplishing tasks that require more conscious attention (like not getting eaten by a lion, or driving a car), it actually makes us fairly poor observers. The more complex the stimuli get, the better we are at ignoring it. Take advertising as an example: it’s so prolific in every place and on every possible surface that it goes completely unnoticed unless it’s something extremely different: i.e. it breaks pattern. If I asked you to describe what was on the last three 2-D billboards you passed on the way to work this morning, I doubt you’d be able to. However, if there was say a Mini hanging off one, or an odd protrusion (it’s happened before) I think you’d remember it.

In fact, one of the things I’v personally experienced in other less developed or socialist countries like Cuba and Myanmar (or to a lesser extent, historically preserved places) is the place feels ‘odd’ and ‘old’ or ‘timeless’ until you figure out that’s because there is not only no modern imagery proliferated throughout the environment in the form of advertising, but often there is no advertising at all. Remove other visual cues such as modern cars and you have trouble identifying the year.

This is one of the reasons tourists visiting a new location see things slightly differently to the locals: your pattern recognition hasn’t had time to kick in yet; there are enough differences to hold your conscious mind and force you to actively observe. Stay there too long, and what was once different is no longer the case and it’s all too easy to dismiss as uninteresting and unworthy of our attention and investigation.

If we are poor observers, we are almost certainly bound to be poor photographers since photography is the art of both noticing and translating our vision into something understandable by others. A photograph excludes the rest of the distractions that normally camouflage what we might be seeing from other observers; by isolating the scene, we draw attention to it and force conscious observation/consideration.

My theory is that there is probably a sweet spot when it comes to maximum productivity of observation (and the most interesting images falling out of it): on one hand, you don’t want to be fascinated by the minutae and miss the big picture; on the other hand, you don’t want to be a jaded local for whom nothing stands out at all. Ideally, we should have the ability to see in form and color; odd as it sounds, I actually find that being myopic isn’t a bad thing in this case; removing my spectacles lets me view the world in an abstracted form that can sometimes lead to the production of interesting images by virtue of disabling pattern recognition to some extent.

There is probably a point in a child’s life at which they are really at the optimal artistic point observation-wise; note how creative interests peak for a while before entering the workforce, and then get beaten out of us afterwards. Our task as photographers is to somehow consciously switch that back in whilst not losing the benefit of experience and technique in execution. The only way to do this is through conscious training: try to force yourself to approach a subject with equanimity regardless of what the object might actually be by photographing everything and anything.

Now if only I could also pick up my daughter’s skill of being just as excited about a box as its contents – at the time of writing this, she has yet to figure out that things come in boxes and the packaging isn’t of value…MT

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. So many things developing in their little bodies! Lots of changes and training too. Babies are beautiful. 🙂

  2. I love her expression! Kind of “I’m here now.”

  3. Interesting post.Trying to see things like a child would is hard when you’ve spent years in an office dealing with exciting things like spreadsheets( my previous life!). Now, rather, than trying to make the perfect shot, I’m just getting out there and having fun with the camera- what happens if I do this? What does this look like? etc. I’m learning as I go along!
    Also congrats on your daughter!

  4. “Now if only I could also pick up my daughter’s skill of being just as excited about a box as its contents – at the time of writing this, she has yet to figure out that things come in boxes and the packaging isn’t of value…MT”

    I think she should start doing ‘unboxing’ videos!

  5. Carlos Polk says:

    Hah! A caption. Finally. I miss them. This is a great article. Good food for thought.
    R/Carlos

  6. Luis Fornero says:

    Lovely baby 🙂 congratulations Ming !

  7. Awesome post. Your baby is so adorable!! 🙂
    I am new to this blogging world. Hope you like it.

  8. Franco Morante says:

    Thanks for the interesting article Ming. The cover picture made me smile – your daughter is sooooo cute!

  9. Too often it’s the packaging (in the broad sense) which has the larger value, as it triggers the purchase. The contents then disappoint. Talk about jaded.

  10. Thank you for bringing a smile a long with useful information! There was a time that boxes were the gift for our boys when they were little. Hours of creative fun! All these years later I remember the boxes and have no recollection of what was inside! Value then must be a function of preference, perspective, and utility aside from need or societal expectations. There is freedom in that!

  11. Thanks for this awesome post Ming! As a father of 6 and 3 year old daughters, your points really transported me back to their baby days. There are some real amazing and complex concepts packed within your post (looking for that which breaks the pattern; photography as the art of noticing and translating your vision)! It will take me a while to unfold and deeply delight in those ideas. I have always felt that one thing that defines us as human animals is our innate storytelling traditions. To see artists like you who are adept in both visual and narrative storytelling is a special treat. Thanks for sharing my friend!

    • Thanks Hal – to be honest I only started thinking about the way we process images myself when I see the way she approaches unfamiliar objects. The next natural question is ‘why can’t we also apply that suspension of bias, too?’

  12. Your daughter is gorgeous. What camera/lens did you select from your arsenal for to capture her fantastic eyes?

  13. to see and think like a child as an adult photographer, the results would make interesting (and surprising too?) viewing indeed. the blue rubber bubble mat got me reminiscing, sweet memories, they’re pretty much standard issue and virtually indispensable 🙂 with a newborn in the home.
    have a good weekend, sifu.
    ken

  14. I like the idea that the world is a laboratory and babies are scientists (there are whole books on this). Since some of the strongest pictures convey a feeling of anticipation or concern to draw the viewer in, can you ask your little researcher what gives her most immediately these feelings?

    • We only grow old when we lose our curiosity and stop experimenting and exploring the world. I suppose that’s ‘settling’. I hope never to do that, at least visually.

      Anticipation: I think it’s a combination of uncertainty/unfamiliarity and ambiguity, both in an image and in the real world. When something stands out as being simultaneously new and of indeterminate function, we naturally want to see what it does – or at least we do until existing prejudices take over and we start to make assumptions instead of going in with an open mind.

  15. She looks very wise.

  16. this is a greaat text. I’ve read and learned a lot about vision, but never connected it to the newborn. Great point you make there.
    I personally find it always difficult, to photograph non-subjects (like wide landscapes), whereas I have an easy time, spotting detail.

  17. richard majchrzak says:

    like the hairstyle

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