What We Do
Photography changes how we read the world
Sharon J. Washington, executive director of the National Writing Project, explains how a single photograph can be interpreted in multiple ways based on our individual perceptions and perspectives.
I first learned to “read the world,” to quote the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, from my mother. She taught me to see the world around me from multiple perspectives. One summer day when I was about nine years old, I was riding in the car with my mom and my sister when I observed a motorcycle with a sidecar coming up alongside us. I exclaimed, “Wow, look at the mom and dad and their kid!” thinking that my mom and sister would find it as cool as I did. My mother’s response surprised me. “What do you see?” she asked. I repeated, “A dad, a mom and their kid,” thinking she didn’t hear me. Once more my mother asked me, “What do you see?” Thoroughly confused, I struggled for several minutes, feeling like she missed the point and quietly wondering if the sight wasn’t as neat as I thought it was. She asked the question again, and as I pondered what I soon perceived as a riddle, my sister hesitantly said, “A man, a lady and a child.” “Yes,” replied my mom. “You assumed you knew who they were, but it wasn’t what you could see.” “Oh,” I said. And thus I learned the first of many lessons on the role assumptions play in how we view the world around us.
An image contains a story, a narrative, a life of its own, and what we see is influenced by our individual perceptions and perspectives at a given point in time. What I would have seen or read in the accompanying photo as a young girl is quite different from what I see today. Early lessons from my mother, coupled with life’s later lessons, have taught me to understand that there are multiple stories and truths in every photo, and this is an understanding I try to share with my students.
Earlier in my life, I might have understood the stairs in the image as an insurmountable barrier, evoking a feeling of pity for the person who wasn’t able to mount them, while I could run, jump, and climb with exuberance. This idea of “barrier” also reflects the view of people with disabilities that was prevalent while I was growing up. Inaccessible buildings have become the equivalent of the “whites only” signs of an earlier time in U.S. history. Years later I might have invented a story about this photo that concluded that our society, while not consciously intending to do so, was conveying the message through these stairs that we do not think about and are not interested in people with disabilities. As time moved on I might have seen this photo and understood that the story is not about the person in the wheelchair, but about all of us who are able to enter buildings with ease every day without recognizing the physical barriers that keep others out. Barriers and opportunities, an invitation to join or a message to stay away—all of these ideas can be found in this single photograph.
As a teacher, I am able to use images such as this to raise questions about how we as observers bring our socialization and a collection of previous experiences to our perceptions. Teaching involves inviting students to stretch their minds and open their imaginations to new possibilities. Other images—of wheelchair athletes and dancers; of curb cuts and ramps; of individuals working, parenting, and engaging in the day-to-day of living—might evoke a far different set of ideas and could be the basis for whole other narratives. Viewing images provides an opportunity to “read the world” and to explore the layers of ideas contained in a single photograph. Indeed, how we perceive determines what we see.
- Perceptions, 2008
- Irene Young