John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche
Historians of photography tell us that the very first permanent photograph was taken in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. It was a shot of a courtyard from an upstairs window at his family’s estate. Despite how blurry, grainy, contrasty, and lacking in detail the image turned out, I’m sure people at the time were fascinated by this amazing gadget called the camera that could record any scene at which you pointed it. In their minds, no doubt, it was pure magic.
Now it’s almost 200 years later. People carry cameras with them everyday. We take shots frequently, as a matter of course, without giving it much thought. Everywhere you look, you’ll see photos: hundreds and even thousands of them everyday. Many of them are of an extremely high quality compared to that photo taken by Niépce.
If we actually stop to think about it, we will realize how magical photography still is. Unfortunately, most of us don’t. Because we are so bombarded with images, because they fill every niche and cranny of our visual world, we mostly take them for granted. We live in a visually super-saturated world.
The Varieties of Overload Experiences
Even though it’s a relatively new phenomenon in our evolution, researchers have devoted quite a bit of thought to this tendency towards “overload” in the new environments we humans have created for ourselves.
Information Overload – In Alvin Toffler’s famous 1970 book Future Shock, he warned us about the trouble we have understanding an issue and making decisions caused by the presence of too much information. When the influx of information exceeds our cognitive abilities to process it, our ability to reason clearly and effectively plummets.
Sensory Overload - Also known as sensory over-stimulation, this concept in cognitive psychology describes how high levels of sensations generated by the environment – including images, sounds, smells, and physical sensations - can overwhelm the nervous system and its ability to manage all that input. A common example is being at a large and crowded carnival, complete with the sounds of machines, the smell of food, the blinking lights, the waves of people, the cornucopia of colors, and the wild sensations of the rides. For some people, especially during prolonged and intense exposure, the nervous system and the mind cannot cope with such exhaustive stimulation.
Cognitive Overload – In cognitive psychology, “cognitive load” refers to the amount of information that working memory can effectively manage during learning and problem-solving. During cognitive overload, working memory is overwhelmed with information, leading to poor performance and even “crashes,” similar to the working memory in a computer.
Visual Overload - Excessive complexity and clutter can interfere with how we effectively perceive, process, and make decisions about information in visual environments. If the elements of a scene are not organized well enough - if there is not enough redundancy and predictability to create a sense of order - our minds cannot make sense out of what we see. We don’t perceive specific shapes and meanings, but rather just sameness, clutter, or even chaos.
The Psychological Effects of Overload
In contemporary digital photography, we continually find ourselves confronting all these forms of overload - a condition we might call "photography overload." Although we might experience it during long and intensive shoots, we’ll probably be more vulnerable when working at the computer and online. Everyday we face the endless amounts of web pages and videos about our equipment, shooting, and image processing techniques. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of images pass by our eyes everyday, while literally billions more await us. If we explore online photography groups, we immerse ourselves into the seemingly interminable discussions about every imaginable facet of photography.
Given all this written, visual, and social stimulation bombarding us as soon as we turn on our computers, what happens when we spend so much time engrossed in all that input that we overload ourselves? How does if affect the way we see, think, and feel? The various symptoms of overload that research describes tend to fall into three general categories:
1. Irritable confusion: Our minds become overwhelmed by all the images and information, leading to distractibility, short attention span, trouble focusing, disorientation, restlessness, hypersensitivity, sleeplessness, fidgeting, irritability, and anger. What we see on our computer screen becomes an annoying mishmash of stuff.
2. Leveling: In the face of so much stimulation, we don’t pay attention to details anymore. Our mind simplifies everything in order to avoid the excessive input. Our attention is selective. We tend to ignore any photography style or subject matter than is unfamiliar. Rather than embracing complexity, we notice only the most obvious or outstanding things about photographs, or things that have an immediate impact on our personal needs and interests. Sophisticated perceptions and reasoning abilities level off to more basic ones – so, for example, you tend to look at everything in terms of the rule of thirds or how sharp an image is. In fact, photographs and photography information might all start to look and sound the same. We lose our ability at differentiating between this image and that one, between this bit of information and that other bit - especially when the differences are subtle or complex.
3. Shutdown: Our minds and our brains go numb. Feeling indifferent, bored, and tired, we simply can’t respond any more. We shut down and withdraw from all the images and information, probably by leaving the computer.
How Overload Affects Photosharing
If you are by yourself when overload sets in - as when excessively immersed into the computer - the negative effects will fall entirely on you, at least for the moment. Only you will notice the decline in your ability to work effectively.
During online photosharing, the impact quickly turns interpersonal. Your ability to look at and comment on other people’s photos will be much less than optimal. Burned out from sensory and cognitive overload, you can’t pay close attention to what you see and read. You can’t think straight. You skim over images, only noticing the most obvious things. Subtleties and complexities are lost to you. Or you can’t respond at all. Everything looks about the same.
These superficial perceptions will color any comments or “likes” you offer on a photograph. Your remarks will sound generic, obvious, and bland. You might make errors in spelling and grammar. Maybe you even lose track of where you are online, and with whom you are sharing your comments.
Unfortunately, in some photosharing communities, many people are suffering from overload, resulting in a globally lackluster, unresponsive, and superficial atmosphere. Generically benign comments such as “Nice shot” and “Beautiful colors” proliferate, or there are no comments at all. If you’re the photographer in such an environment, you might feel misunderstood, under-appreciated, and overlooked because very few if any people have been able to look at or comment on your work with full attention and clarity of thought. Even an excellent photograph can receive a very lukewarm, shallow reception.
Remedies for Your Overload
The first problem in coping with sensory and cognitive overload is recognizing that it’s happening to you. You might not notice it setting in. The effects sometimes take hold at a subconscious level. If you’re feeling energized, focused, happy, and excited while working, you’re probably doing fine. If not, notice how you do feel. Which of the various symptoms of overload might be affecting you? If you conclude that you are indeed suffering from overload, here are some possible solutions:
- Reduce stimulation: If you want or need to keep working, reduce the amount of input coming at you. Stop multitasking, close unnecessary windows on your computer, and do one and only one thing. For example, focus on just one photograph. Slow down, relax and take your time in looking at it. Allow yourself to appreciate it without other distractions or agendas clouding your mind. If possible, shift yourself into a state of peaceful, “in the now” mindfulness - which I discuss in another article here in Photographic Psychology. Making this transition might not be possible if the overload is severe, but it’s worth a try.
- Take a break: Stop doing your photography. You might undertake some other activity on the computer in order to alleviate the photography overload - but the odds are that the computer itself, regardless of what you’re doing on it, is the source of the overload problem. So get up and do something else. In some cases a short break might be enough to refresh your mind. In other cases, you might need to stay away from photography for hours, or even days.
- Hear, Smell, Taste, or Get Physical: Most of the time overload in photography will result from excessive visual and verbal stimulation, along with all the cognitive processing associated with images and words. You’re looking at too many images, thinking too much about them, or talking and reading too much about them. When you take a break, try some OTHER sensory activity. For example, listen to music, make music, cook, eat, or do something physical like going for a walk or cleaning the house. These alternative sensory activities will not only give your overloaded photography-mind a much needed rest, but they can also enrich your experience of photography by processing it in a very different non-visual and non-verbal way, even though you don’t consciously realize it’s happening.
Addressing Other People’s Overload
How do you break through the sensory overload of other people looking at your photography? One strategy might involve talking with people in order to resonate with each other about you are all suffering from the effects of overload. Misery not only loves company, but can also sometimes decrease as a result of it.
Another strategy is to capitalize on the symptom of leveling. If people are ignoring subtle and complex aspects of images, don’t dwell on posting them. Such people are probably only focusing on the most obvious and immediate aspects of a photo, so that’s what you can give them. Emphasize all the things that are known to catch people’s attention with their “pop” value: colors, high contrast, simple but strong compositions, subjects portraying powerful emotions… sexual themes.
Of course, you might feel that you are somehow selling out or lowering your artistic standards. Indeed, that might be true. But at the very least you’ll be exercising your photography muscles in creating images that pop, which might actually give you some insights into how to improve your more complex, sophisticated, and subtle photos.
The other option is to patiently wait out the sensory overload of people viewing your work. Someone will come along who isn’t suffering from burnout, or who has found a way to alleviate it. When they leave a good comment or otherwise show a more than superficial appreciation of your photography, make sure that you acknowledge their efforts, and in return show the same level of care in responding to their work.