January 27, 2017
August 25, 2016

How STORY trumps PERCEPTION

I've watched Canon's THE LAB: DECOY a few times now and love the idea but felt like something was off.  I know what it is now.  This is NOT a story about perception.

You should watch the video, but I’ll recap.

Six photographers each had a photo session with the same man, Michael.  Each was told one or two sentences about the man and were charged with “fleshing out the essence of who he is” in their sessions.

The twist was that each photographer was told a different two sentences about Michael, including: 

“He lives fast as a self made millionaire.”

“He has actually saved someone’s life.”

“Michael is an ex-inmate.”

“He’s a commercial fisherman”

“Michael claims to be physic”

“Michael’s a former alcoholic.”

In the end, we see that each photographer captures Michael is a very different way, highlighting the characteristics that they had attributed to him in their short, 10 minute session.  The video then concludes, “A photograph is shaped more by the person behind the camera than by what is in front of it.”

Okay.

Maybe.

But no.

There’s a flaw in this conclusion that almost alludes to a judgment on the photographers.  In fact, editorial pieces have followed up and elaborated on this judgment claiming:

"Before they even met the man, the photographers had already decided his character.  In reality, they knew very little about the man.  Here's the important lesson: the labels we give people do not actually determine who they are, only how we perceive them."

WAIIIIIIITTT a minute. 

Trust me, I like this concept of not judging a book by its cover, but we are drawing the wrong conclusion here.

It is the photographer’s JOB to tell the STORY of the subject they are shooting.  This video doesn’t display a lesson on perception and judgment as much as it does on the POWER of story.

The pictures were different because each photographer was presented a different “story” to tell.  During their short shoot with Michael, each photographer was striving to visually display the story they were prompted to “capture the essence of”.  Surely they felt this as the video quoted such sentiment: “I wanted to know how do you portray him as a fisherman.”

They tried to portray him as a fisherman not because they have judgments and perceptions about what that means, but because that was the STORY they were prompted with and they latched on to fleshing out the CONTEXT of that story in their shoot.

Granted, this might be a nuanced difference, but it matters because the story we are presented with is VITAL to how things are seen and portrayed.

When we are given a BENCHMARK, a framework to work from, that is our basis.

I’m a bit late in reading the 2013 best-seller “The Everything Store” which details the start and rapid rise of Amazon, but am deep into a part that will serve as a great example of this.

In 2004, Amazon was competing with Google and trying to be seen as a “technology company” rather than a “retail store”. Semantics?

No. 

This is the benchmark that Amazon was attempting to send to the market about how to be seen and how it functions.

Amazon didn’t want its comparables to be brick and mortar stores, or its “photograph” to look like that of a brick and mortar store.  It didn’t want its “one-sentence introduction” to be “This is Amazon, a retail company.”  It wanted its intro to be “This is Amazon, a technology company” so that the vision we conjured up was more akin to Google.

So relax, sweet photographers.  Don’t be so hard on yourself with condemnation like

“These don’t look like portraits of the character I thought you were.  You always have your own preconceptions and your own ideas.  You have to dig a lot deeper.”

You did your job by telling the story you were given.  If I don’t want to look like an ex-con in my photograph, then I’m not going to introduce myself as one and give you 10 minutes of information about my life as an ex-con.

And to you brands out there, be careful what your initial story is to the market.  You are painting a picture that will stay in their minds about WHO your company is and how it relates to them!