Shutter open

Shutter open - image for article by Greg Alder

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.

This is a line from Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel Goodbye To Berlin. The line inspired a play, then a musical. The brilliant Bob Fosse directed a film based on Isherwood’s book. That film is Cabaret.

I was thinking about Isherwood’s line recently. It’s true that a camera is a passive recorder of what it sees. Well, mostly. A camera can manipulate light, so things that might have been invisible become visible. It can change focus, to make us as observers see what the photographer wants us to see. It can be zoomed to bring a subject closer and can eliminate superfluous noise through framing.

But a camera can’t editorialise beyond that. It can’t change the story beyond focus-pulling and cropping.

A camera doesn’t approach a subject with a pre-conception.

A camera can do things that we as humans can’t.

It is impossible for us have no feeling toward a subject, even if we state that we ‘don’t feel one way or another’. Coming to the conclusion that we are ambivalent about something indicates that we have formed an opinion. Even if we’re not conscious of that opinion.

We’re not conscious of a lot of our opinions, conclusions and assessments. Our subconscious minds make snap assessments based on the often limited information available to it. These snap assessments keep us out of harm’s way.

We scan the face of an approaching stranger. We sense aggression. Or friendliness. We note the walk, and the appearance. All in seconds. Our subconscious assessment then determines if we keep walking toward them or we cross the street, if we smile hello or we tense in apprehension.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to conduct a culture-building workshop for a manufacturing business on Australia’s east coast. There were about 50 people, mostly men, in the ‘Walk A Mile’ workshop. There were boilermakers, an accountant, truck drivers and sales reps.

A camera would have observed mountainous men heavily tattooed with unkempt beards. Or would it?

The men were only mountainous by comparison with other men. A camera wouldn’t compare them.

A camera wouldn’t know if the men wore more tats than is common.

Nor would it know an unkempt beard from a cropped one. It wouldn’t even know they’re called beards.

But what my camera, my eyes, observed when I entered that room was mountainous men heavily tattooed with unkempt beards.

Our problem is that our eyes are connected to our brains and our brains are incapable of being non-judgemental observers.

Subconsciously, my brain filled in details my eyes didn’t observe. It imagined them as hard-drinking and hard-living. It imagined that some of them lived on the edge of lawfulness. It imagined all sorts of things, primed by past experience, by news bulletins.

In the workshop, I asked everyone present to write down on a card the name of the person they most admired, and then tell the group what they admire about that person.

And this is where my subconscious brain and conscious brain had a malfunction.

My subconscious brain was sending me messages to be wary of this tattooed boilermaker with the angry red beard. He nominated Mother Theresa as his hero.

A second man nominated Nelson Mandela. As did a third.

A fourth man nominated his mum. A fifth man, Jesus. A sixth man nominated one of his colleagues for his generosity in helping workmates.

It was a powerfully emotional half hour.

After the workshop, my conscious brain had a heart-to-heart (or is that neuron-to-neuron) with my subconscious brain. It told it to stop jumping to conclusions, to stop making judgements about people based on how they look.

Did my subconscious brain listen? No. It can’t. It has been programmed to jump to conclusions. All I can do is consciously force myself to wait, to give myself a chance to see the whole picture, to look beyond the obvious, to see the complete human.

We can never be a camera, passive, recording, not thinking.

But that workshop reminded me to be less impulsive, less judgemental.

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