The invisible gorilla experiment, and taking your camera for a walk

Have you heard of the Invisible Gorilla experiment? The video below shows six people passing a basketball around, three of them dressed in white shirts and three in black.  The experiment involves watching the video, and counting the number of throws the white-shirted players make.  At one point, a gorilla will walk through the middle of the players and out the other side – it appears on the screen for nine seconds in total.  Do you think you would see it?

I’d heard of this experiment on selective attention years ago, but never had the opportunity to try it.  I naturally thought – like most people do – that there would be no way that I’d miss something like that.  In practice, though, half the people in the experiment never noticed the gorilla at all.  I did, but I almost missed it, not noticing it till it was leaving, and that’s with knowing beforehand what was going to happen.  Had I not known I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have seen it at all.  It’s a great demonstration of the fact that, to a large extent, we only see what we look for.

I read Alexandra Horowitz’s book, On Looking: Eleven walks with expert eyes recently.  It’s a fascinating read.  She recruited a variety of experts in different fields – including her dog (expert in smells) and her toddler (expert on novelty and newness) – and went with them on a walk round the block.  Each of them experienced the block entirely differently, through the filter of whatever their expert area was.  A geologist saw fossils embedded in the stonework of the buildings; a naturalist saw traces left by the city’s wildlife; a typographer noticed font use on lettered signs; a physical therapist noticed how people walked; and so it went on.

On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz

I’m a big fan of going back to the same place time and again to see and photograph whatever there is to see there.  I’d love to have someone point things out to me the way that Horowitz’s experts did, but even without the benefit of having an expert on hand, boredom can be used in a positive way to ensure that you see something different each time if you only open yourself up to looking.

It’s the opening yourself up that’s the difficult part.  It’s easy to dismiss somewhere familiar, or not obviously of interest, and switch off from it altogether, but by cultivating a curious open-mindedness, you’ll begin to see in ways that mean you’ll never find anywhere boring again.  This is the gift you receive if you’re willing to make the effort.  It’s the very opposite of the person who walks down the road, twiddling buttons on their mobile phone, oblivious to what’s around them.

However, it does prompt the question of how to cultivate this open looking, as it’s not so easy to achieve when you’re new to it.  The trick is to use little exercises that guide you in the right direction, and I have a few right here.  Some I’ve used on myself and on others, some I haven’t tried yet.

You can start by looking for a specific thing.  Windows are popular, as are doors, or you could look for a particular colour, but there are many other options.  Here’s a couple that might not occur to you:

Car lights – if you look at the brake lights or headlights of every car you walk past, you’ll see just how different they are from each other.  Some have amazing patterns and colours in them, and if you were to zoom in on them and crop them from the car, composing carefully, you can make wonderful abstracts.  Looked at closely, car lights are incredibly beautiful things!


Bricks – yes, that’s right.  Start looking at all the brickwork you pass and I guarantee you’ll begin to see extraordinary colours and amazing patterns and textures.  You can extend it to looking at bricks that have paint marks or graffiti or stains on them, or bricks with foliage growing on them, but really, bricks by themselves are surprisingly interesting and varied.

Coloured brickwork

Use your imagination to come up with other things to look for.  Sometimes it’s just a case of allowing things to catch your attention at random, and then waiting for a pattern to emerge, after which you start looking for them deliberately.  This is what launched my Fallen series.  Try looking at things above or below head height – we have a tendency not to do this and we miss huge amounts of interesting things.

But what else could you do with your walk round the block?

Take 50 steps and stop – find a photograph right where you are, without moving from the spot.  You’re allowed to twist, bend down, sit down, reach up, or swivel.  Repeat until you’ve had enough or arrive home again.

Use a random point generator – generate a small number of random points within a small area nearby.  Enter your postcode or place name, choose how many points you want to generate and what distance you want them to radiate from a central point, and click Get Random Points.  When they come up, they’ll show as latitude and longitude, but click on Show on Map to see where they are.  Go to those points and find some interesting photographs.

Change your mental perspective – how would your block look if you were photographing it for a tourist brochure? (if it’s not at all what tourists would come to see, then just think how you’d show it in its best light) Or to highlight deprivation and decay?  Or to document birds and wildlife?  Or to show the activities of dogs and their owners? Or to show the styles of architecture found there?  Perhaps you could create a portrait gallery of residents, or document front gardens.

Choose a word – choose an emotion word, such as ‘joy’, ‘sadness’, ‘hope’, ‘anger’, ‘apathy’, etc, and look for ways of expressing it photographically, using what you see on your walk.

If you like the idea of transforming a familiar walk into a photo project, and would enjoy sharing your experience with others, have a look at this month’s 12 x12 challenge on Flickr.

In the words of the organisers:

12 by 12 is a year-long series of photo-challenges set by renowned photographers. Every month a new challenge is issued and group members are invited to interpret it by submitting their responses on Flickr or Instagram.

The project aims to stretch its members creatively, encouraging experimentation in terms of approach as well as aesthetics. Community is an important aspect of 12 by 12 and the support of the group can be helpful to spur members on throughout the year.

This month’s project, which asks you to ‘take a route you’re familiar with but have never photographed along and photograph someone or something every 100 or so steps‘, runs until 2nd April so if you want to take part you need to get started now!  Even if you don’t want to participate, have a look at the pool of photos on Flickr to see just how varied they are.

The point with these exercises is not so much to end up with some great photos – that’s simply a nice side-effect – but to expand your ability to see what’s around you and interpret it photographically.  Although you’re looking in one particular way, you’ll find that you start seeing the overall potential in what, at first sight, might seem dull and uninteresting.  The image below is of a plastic bag that had blown into our front garden and then been rained on – there’s beauty to be found everywhere.

Plastic bag with raindrops