License to See

I have written before on learning to see. This is a follow on to that and talks about a psychological tool that works for me to see more and move to actually making images. When I pick up a camera, that is a license to see.

We forget to see

I have made the point many times that as adults, we become so busy and caught up in daily life that we protect ourselves by closing our world down around us. Our interest and curiosity doesn’t extend much beyond our immediate problems of every day life. Job, kids, kids activities, paying bills, maintaining the house and car. It seems like there is not much room for anything else.

Yet every day as we go to work or kids activities or shopping, we pass through a beautiful and interesting world. But mostly we don’t pay much attention to it. It just doesn’t seem important because we are focused inward.

We are robbing ourselves of a lot of joy and good mental health. Learning to see more of what is around us is great for our head and our attitude.

We have to relearn to see

I hate to repeat myself, but I think this is important. Seeing more of what is around us is a learned skill. One that can be developed with practice.

We used to do it. As kids we were interested in everything around us. This gets beaten out of us as we grow up. But the fact that you used to do it means you still could. It’s a matter of relearning and practicing.

It’s also a matter of valuing it and increasing its importance. If you are an artist, I believe it is a vital skill. Isn’t that one of the important things that distinguishes us from non-artists? We observe, we see things, we see things different. To see things different, we have to first see things.

Awareness comes first

Seeing, in my view, starts with 2 things. First is curiosity. Curiosity helps us eagerly seek to find out about things. It gives us the motivation to see. Second is awareness. Curiosity is necessary, but it can be directed inward. We can get lost in our head and not do anything external. Awareness helps get us in touch with the world around us.

In more flowery language than I usually use, Eden Maxwell says: “To be aware is the prerequisite for experiencing life beyond illusion, your own, or the cumulative self-consciousness amassed by society.”

Awareness requires us to be, well, aware. Sorry. It seems too simple and obvious, but do you actually practice it? We can practice doing it. Driving to work tomorrow, after you pass a car ask yourself: what color was it? What make was the car? What color shirt was the driver wearing? When you go for a walk stop and look at a tree you pass all the time. Did you ever really notice the pattern of the branches and the shape of the leaves? Did you see that bird’s nest? Pay attention to the reflections in windows you go by.

All these things add to your awareness of things around you.

My hacks

But these things require work, or worse, thinking. It seems most people don’t want to do those things anymore. Everyone wants a quick hack to make it seem like they can do something.

So let me present 2 tools that work for me. I will call them “hacks”. For me they are a license to see. They trigger action.

The first is picking up a camera. Yes, that simple. With a camera in hand I become immediately focused on making images. It amazes me how this works, but it usually does. I may think I am being aware and thinking like an artist, but a camera in hand focuses me. Most often I fall into the zone and flow and move toward actually making images instead of just thinking about doing it. The camera is compelling. This usually works even with an iPhone in hand.

There are times, though, when my head just doesn’t seem to be in it. Then I have to go to the next hack: take a picture. Something happens to me mentally when the shutter clicks. The sound triggers years of muscle memory and behavior. It breaks the fear of not being able to find a subject. I am in motion now. The mental block is removed and I can go on creating images. This first frame may be intentionally a throw-away. It doesn’t matter how good it is. Now I am across the barrier and actively making images.


As artists, we have to be more aware of the world around us. We have to see better to help interpret life and the world to other people. Seeing is a learned skill that can be practiced and improved.

I hope these simple “hacks” – picking up a camera and taking a picture – work for you. They are tools I use all the time in my own life, especially when I am not feeling motivated. It gets me out of my head and actually moving and doing something. Once in motion things seem to roll along better.

Today’s image

Following my own advice, one day sitting, bored, in a car wash, I decided to pick up my camera and see what I could do. I am happy with the result. It was not planned, it happened because I held my camera and looked around. The world is rich in images and interest. We just have to see.

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