Photograph by Jim Richardson

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Thinking Versus Seeing

Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

Some days I think too much and see too little. Other days, despite myself, I think I get it right.

One of the most recent examples of this balance came in a strangely calm sea of ice floes off the coast of Greenland. I was in a Zodiac with other passenger-photographers from the National Geographic Explorer. Poking around the pack ice and alert for the odd seal basking in the frozen splendor, we were in a wonderland. All around us, the ice stretched off to the horizon, a seascape relieved only by the distant profile of the Explorer awaiting our return. All was calm—no wind, no waves, just water and ice.

That we were even at that location was a bit of a miracle. On-the-fly thinker and expedition leader Tim Soper cooked up a plan as the ship cruised the coast of Iceland: Dash west until we meet Greenland’s ice floes, have a morning to explore, then dash back to Iceland’s coast to continue our tour. Brilliant! To everyone’s delight, it worked. So here I was in the Zodiac, with expedition photo specialist Mike Nolan at the helm, and I was nearly overwhelmed by the sheer spectacle. It can be easy to get swamped at times like these. The brain boggles at the possibilities. Tried and true, rational, thoughtful ways of processing the surroundings just collapse into a muddle of inaction.

That’s when it comes time to stop thinking and start seeing. It’s time to set aside reasoning and move into action. It’s an age-old dilemma, one that's not too easy to conquer. We humans vacillate between the extremes, sometimes getting trapped in one mode or the other, like some poor explorer swirling in a whirlpool. Pure thinking or pure seeing? In truth, neither alone is sufficient. We are creatures of both realms. One prepares us for the other. Together they somehow bring us to creativity.

Right then, I needed to swing to the seeing side of the equation. The switch happened as our boat slid silently past an ice floe with a curious pattern. It was a melted erosion I had not seen before. It wasn’t big; nobody else in the boat paid much attention. But I asked Mike if we could stop for a moment so I could lean over the side and shoot a close-up of the frozen form. Through the viewfinder, the form became even more mysterious, with its raised shapes occasionally receding in space. The macro scene somehow assumed continental proportions, like a landmass seen from space.

Just pure seeing.

At that moment, in that place, it was the right thing for me. Yet, by itself, pure seeing is never enough—and never can be. In just the same way, pure reasoning is an equally infertile extreme—necessary at times, but useless by itself.

Soon we were heading back to the Explorer. With great delight we discovered that the staff had come out in a Zodiac stocked with hot chocolate (and a bit more). With camaraderie we toasted our good fortune and thought about what we had seen. (Reasoned thought was back at the forefront.)

Since returning from that trip I have thought a lot about ice. I have done some research, explored the complexity of its formation, read of the pioneering scientists who studied its astounding complexity. Perhaps someday I’ll photograph a whole story on ice. If I do, I know that there will come another moment when all the research and thinking will have to be put aside, and the existential moment of pure seeing will be invoked. Thinking and seeing. They are two streams of understanding. Photography lives at the confluence of both.