Training Yourself to See

Note: I have known Dr. Paul Lester since I was a young professor at the University of Minnesota and he was a Master’s student. We both moved to Indiana University where I was his doctoral advisor. We have run marathons together, we have moved furniture together and we have had a career-long discussion of visual communication. I believe I have learned more from Paul than he ever learned from me. Every time we meet he seems to have some new innovative approach to teaching. That is evident from this writing from Ireland in 1981. The exercise Paul describes here is really a conditioning one of learning how to really see and experience the detail that surrounds you. In our fast-paced world, we don’t usually take the time to study what is all around us. Paul also wants us to use our other senses of hearing and smell as well. When we are tuned in to our environment, we can make better pictures within it.

11:30 A.M. UNTIL 12:00 N00N

Summer, 1981
Paul Martin Lester

I was fortunate enough to have Dr. Jim as my teacher, mentor, and friend while a graduate student at the University of Minnesota and Indiana University.

For my master’s project, I photographed the many contrasts I discovered along the war-torn neighborhoods and country of Northern Ireland. During the summer of 1981, imprisoned IRA hunger strikers were starving themselves to death in protest of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s policies. I saw the result of 75 percent unemployment, segregated communities and people, and rioting between children and soldiers. I also saw the bright smile of Mother Theresa, the innate beauty of curious Irish children, and the ever-peaceful hills that overlooked Belfast. After I was satisfied with the photographs I had taken, I took a break and traveled to Dublin and then west to Tralee, Listowel, Galway, Donegal, and Derry. Although I was born in New York City, I saw the Atlantic Ocean for the first time on this journey.

While in Galway, I enjoyed a rare sunny day in a park where for thirty minutes I took photographs with my pen and journal. The result is an exercise I often used in my photojournalism classes to help teach students how to be more observant: Sit down anywhere for five to 30 minutes and note how much you see, hear, and smell.

Little girls in red dresses roll in the grasses
down a hill in a park on a sweet sunny day.
They lie at the bottom all giggly and dizzy saying,
“Come on. Get up. Let’s do it again.”

Lorries and buses ring the small park
frantically honking at a car that is stalled.
They sound just like dogs running wild in a pack.
You know that they’re coming by the sound of their bark.

And a serious toddler walks all alone
barefoot with toes scratching the grass.
He looks oddly wise with his hands clasped behind him.
You would ask him your questions if it not for his size.

Old men sit on benches in the shade
With legs crossed just smoking and watching the day.

And a tan-yellow dog with a wild pointed tail
scratches his claws through little yellow flowers.

And two old women wearing Aran sweaters
walk hugging each other like two silent lovers.

And a woman just twenty sits all alone
with an elbow on her red and blue pack.
Her brown hair in braids hangs friendly down her back
While she licks a big ice cream all cool and disappearing.

And a man walks slowly with his hands in his pockets.
He looks cautiously to his right and then to his left.

And a baby in a buggy pushed by her mother sings,
“Na, na, na-na-na, na-na-na, na, na.”

And the great gray walls of the hotels around the square
bounce back the noise and the music and the songs.

And two little pirates with boxes of ”Jelly Babies”
grab the squashy candy and slush it between their teeth.

And two sad-eyed girls with long, unwashed hair
ask for a few pence to fill their red cup.
A circle of girls lie friendly in the grass
shake their heads, ”no” as the two beggars pass.

And the wail of a cow driven in a trailer
makes us all turn our heads to see what is the matter.

And a girl with red hair, purple shirt and pink socks
walks quickly with her eyes turned down at the ground.

And a boy three-years-old runs in circles on the green
With no place to go and everything to see.

And a father in a sweater walks while he fills his pipe
while his little doll-carrying daughter runs with short steps behind.

And an experienced picnicker makes a well-thought-out lunch
of tomatoes and cheese and a sweet-tasting punch.

And the day just goes on in this way, like a song,
as the air is filled by twelve bongs from a gong.