Why most images are compromised (or, so much for the decisive moment)

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Following the previous article and questions ensuing, I felt this earlier (read: probably forgotten) post would be a good explanation of just how much of a grey area the whole idea of a ‘decisive moment’ is…

A photograph is an observation of a scene at a given moment in time. It’s an effectively instantaneous snapshot of the state of a scene or person or other subject, given the relative rate of change of those subjects. If we extend the duration of observation – i.e. with a long shutter speed – we might see some hints at that change in the form of motion blur, or eventually, averaging. If we get lucky, or observe for a long period of time, we might eventually be able to capture an interesting change or temporary state of the system; however, this assumes two further things. Firstly, that we can differentiate what is ‘interesting’ and have a good benchmark of what to look for; secondly, that we are aware and responsive enough to capture it. I think we can already see why there are some serious challenges here.

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Aside from the inherent limitations of defining how long a period of ‘peak action’ or ‘peak interest’ lasts – the very interpretation of what action is ‘interesting’ is so subjective that it lies entirely with the eyes of the observer. There may be nothing interesting at all in a given subject to some people; say if you’re not a motorsports fan, the position of the cars means nothing, nor does the instant of determining exactly who crosses the finish line first. But to somebody heavily invested – say one of the team principals – that can be a very significant moment indeed. To a spectator, the best part of a crash might be the biggest point in a crash’s fireball, but to the engineer, peak action is the point at which the component that precipitated the accident failed. To a photographer, it might just be when the scene is at its most aesthetically balanced.

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I see this problem most frequently in photography of what I think of as ‘continuous’ subjects – places, locations, things that change at a very slow pace but might have local spikes of interest or activity. It’s the comment of something does/does not represent a particular city or town because I’ve missed X, Y or Z event or characteristic with certain other visual cues (usually location- or culture-specific). Decompose that statement for a moment: firstly, the definition of interest and peak action is clearly different between audience and artist; secondly, there’s the effect of cumulative observation. If you see something often enough, the average state of that object tends to create an expectation in the mind of the observer that suggests to us what we should expect to see if we view the scene a further time. It’s how our brains process large amounts of visual information quickly; at a subconscious level, we see the changes – not what remains the same.

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However, if we’re only transiting through the scene and have not seen it before – we do not have an expectation of how that scene should look, and so we are evaluating the whole scene without the bias of history. We see merely what is, and not what was previously. This is an important difference, because it’s probably one of the few times at which we can observe something with a minimum of biases (of course, personal preferences cannot change as a function of physical location). As far as creative interpretation goes, it means that the local tends to notice only what has changed in their frame of reference, and can result in their getting bored or uninspired or somewhat tunnel-visioned; you tend not to shoot so much in your home town because nothing stands out as being interesting or different: you’re familiar with it already. It’s difficult to observe anything objectively if you’re already somewhat biased against it. For the traveller, you’re almost ‘too sensitive’: everything stands out because the whole environment is different, and you may be overreacting*.

*>And here comes my theory of why the best images are made towards the end of a trip: at the start, one is somewhat overloaded/overwhelmed and is reacting too much; after a bit of ‘acclimatisation time’, it’s easier to determine what stands out to both a local/familiar audience, and an unfamiliar one – hence ensuring the image is at least a cut above casual passive observation. For the same reason, some sitting time is required for objectivity in curation: we need to be familiar enough to remember the intention of the image, but not so familiar as to be dismissive.

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I think you can see how the problem develops now: on one hand, the person who has a lot of time and opportunity to actually observe a wide range of situations and changes and thus be in a better position to determine what is really exceptionally interesting is biased against doing so by familiarity. On the other hand, the fresh observer may not have had sufficient experience to make a more calm and fair judgement. In mathematical terms, the spacetime path of action and observer do not overlap for long enough to find a true local maximum (moment of interest, or peak action). What the observer thinks a moment of maximum interest might be only true for the limited time they are observing, and even represent a rather boring period in the overall lifespan of the subject. All they can do is spend a bit of time observing before and afterwards to make sure at least they have a true local maximum for that very limited window of observation. Even if you stick around a particular street corner for a day – that’s nothing compared to the lifetime of possibility, which might be decades or longer – the chances of capturing the most unusual, most interesting moment during that day are vanishingly small; in ten years, say 1/3653 assuming you are 100% observant, 100% responsive, have a 100% perfect memory of what else happened that day, and accounting for leap years.

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Thus, the concept of the decisive moment is looking a little shaky: how can we determine what is ‘decisive’ and which ‘moment’ we are aiming to capture if we do not have the benefit of seeing the whole timeline? Short answer: we don’t, other than for a very brief window of observation.

Fortunately, several things work in our favour. Firstly, memory is imperfect, limited, and often tends to view events in the immediacy of isolation rather than context. This means that we can easily forget what happened outside a limited window of history and future on either side of the recorded moment. So long as we at least have something that’s interesting within a small window of observation, that’s usually good enough. Secondly, memory is transient: it’s much easier to analyse and notice a presentation that’s static rather than moving; it’s the reason why video can get away with being much lower resolution than stills – our visual cortex can only process information at a certain rate. If we isolate and preserve a single instant for further observation, then there can be particular details in that instant that would otherwise have gone unnoticed, and serve to hold interest.

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Thirdly, we have the power of imagination: that is, connecting the dots. Even though a photograph of a moment is static, our experience and memory creates and approximation of the events leading up to that point, and the events that must have come beforehand. The gesture and body language and spatial position of the objects in a scene, together with other cues like shadows and light intensity/direction etc. make very strong suggestions to the narrative sequence of events. Finally, there’s dumb luck: both working with us (think of the ‘what if’ game) and against the observer: the chances of the image being viewed by somebody who did really observe a greater peak of action are slim, because of limitations of audience reach, and for the aforementioned reason of an watcher of that duration likely no longer being as receptive or observant. If anything, most observers won’t have seen that particular subject or location at all, which makes them even less experienced observers than us. Finally, there’s a question of subjective interpretation and perspective: if we present any subject from anything other than fairly similar-to-eye perspective, there’s already a noticeable difference. The more uncommon the interpretation, the greater the difference: this is something an experienced photographer can use consistently, and I think more often than not makes the greatest difference in the outcome of the final image.

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Don’t get me wrong: I’m not by any stretch of the imagination diminishing the achievements of the great photojournalists. They still had to be extraordinary observers and able to find that different point of view – that’s not to be taken lightly. But they were not portraying the sole zenith in the timeline for those subjects. The only conclusions we can come to are that the decisive moment is really not the zenith of all action: rather, it’s a very short but somewhat elastic period of time in which we must observe, notice and isolate some action or event or subject of interest to us, know the reason behind that attention, and then present it in a way that isn’t common. At very least, we must present an image that contains a transient element – be it time, state or spatial arrangement of subjects or something else – and more importantly, have that element be a critical part of the image: it can’t work without it. In all of the example images presented here, I was not an observer for any length of time. Yet each has a clearly identifiable transient element that is unique and distinctive: if you take that away, the images simply don’t work (or become a commentary on ennui or staticness rather than anything else). I think if anything, that actually takes the pressure off us somewhat… MT


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  1. giom grech/ Malta says:

    It is simply being present…

  2. Decisive for the sake of it, vs decisive because something decisive is actually being observed. Two different things. To complicate it, there is decisive processing, and in-decisive processing… in which sometimes, the processing IS the subject matter. But after being a photographer for 3 decades now, I realize that every time I press the shutter button, I control the narrative, decisive or not. As such, a little self inspection reveals some inherent deception with many of the frames. I’m not truly interested in everything I point the camera at, even a peak action. I just recognize that moment when I should snap the shutter, and I can make it look decisive and beautiful even if it’s uninteresting and benign. Which means the real question is: am I willing to have some discipline and integrity.

    • Every image is a conscious curating out / exclusion of what we don’t want the rest of the world to see: it’s definitely very biased since your audience can’t see what wasn’t in the frame. Decisiveness is also therefore relative…

  3. Most insightful.

  4. I like the one with the rainbow umbrella best!

  5. Pierre Lagarde says:

    Superb article Ming.
    Catching the light from ephemeral states…

  6. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    The more mobile the subject, the greater the pressure. I don’t accept the mantra that “all good photos are the ones that result from planning” – some of the very best, certainly – but also, some of the very best were taken by someone who fluked it, and just managed to capture “the moment” – a split second either way, would have wrecked it.

    That also justifies continuous shooting, in my book. Not for landscapes – because the subject matter is static. But they also can be the result of “being in the right place at the right time”, and a few seconds either way could have spoiled them, too, in some cases.

    Yours is a much more detailed analysis. One that brings fresh air (a bottle of oxygen, even!) into a debate fogged with “rules” and “mantras” and “dogmas”, stretching from here to the horizon. To be frank, I prefer your version . 🙂

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