Improve your visual diet

eyes

At the beginning of every year a lot of people are working on resolution-driven changes to their lives and lifestyles. Do more exercise, eat more veggies, that kind of thing. Worthy goals, but something that often gets neglected is what we expose ourselves to visually.

As humans, up to 80% of our sensory data streams through our eyes into the visual cortex. And yet we often take our eyes for granted and pay little attention to what we look at, or for, in the world around us.

I believe that simply by looking at and for beauty in what we find around us – in other people, works of art, well-crafted pieces of furniture, landscaped gardens, raw natural settings – we improve our consciousness and ourselves.

DSCF9626

Take clutter, for example. A messy, cluttered environment (which currently describes the state of my home office) induces stress. The mere sight of books and hard-drives askew on my desk triggers tiny flickers of anxiety that get smoothed away when I tidy up and bring order to my work space.

Where I live in Montreal, this time of year can be visually draining. The sky is often grey, the ground white with snow and the streets a brown mushy mess of slush and grit. It’s no surprise that this is when those big colourful billboards for trips to Cuba pop up over the highways, showing endless expanses of blue sea and smiling happy people.

Advertising always works that way, creating an enticing contrasting world to the one you are in, but it’s a pity if the only way we expand our visual diet is through ads.

I am a big fan of visiting museums when I travel, and within my own city. I enjoy taking an hour or two to simply stand in front of works of art and let my eyes drink in the imagery, the colours, shapes, textures of something made by a human hand. I’m lucky to live in a city with lots of access to art, not just within museums but throughout the city.

A walk through Mount Royal park is also something that feeds me when my mind needs to look at something other than screens.  Looking at trees, watching sparrows and chickadees flit to and from branches, always lifts my spirits.

DSCF9538

My daughter’s face is another place I look to when I want to soak in the beauty this world has to offer. One of my favourite things to do is steal glances of her in the rearview mirror when I am driving her home from school. She is often looking out the window, quietly observing the passing views and she has such a thoughtful expression I am always intrigued and wonder what she is thinking about. It makes me smile just watching her watching the world like that.

DSCF9864

We all have images that fill us with a sense of something greater than ourselves. Something that can ennoble us and lift us up when we are feeling overwhelmed, or sad, or just tired with life.

There is much tumult in the world today, as ever, and much of the images we see on our screens stain the eyes with pain. Like the scene of that child face down on the shoreline, or the devastated scenes from terror attacks, like that toppled Christmas tree in Berlin, or the ripped apart streets of Aleppo.

PICASSO-FAUN
Faun – Pablo Picasso (1937)

I don’t believe we should turn away from the people in need when terrible things do happen, but we do need to balance these images of death and destruction with more beauty and more calmly restorative images that help bring peace of mind.

So if you’ve still got room on your resolution list for one more, make it to seek out and pay attention to what is good and beautiful around you. Fill your eyes and your mind with images that bring you a sense of peace.  We could all use more of it.

The most beautiful woman in the world

People Magazine just released their pick for the most beautiful woman in 2016: Jennifer Aniston.

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 11.20.42 AM

I have nothing at all against Jennifer Aniston. I think she is a great actress with lots of comedic talent and yes, she is quite pretty. But I do have something against beauty contests in general, and something about this headline really bothers me.

First of all, it celebrates celebrity which I think is a vacuous and thoughtless focus on a small percentage of humans who through luck, genetic windfalls and of course skill and hard work too, find themselves splashed across the covers of things like People magazine and movie screens. Yes, they are often nice to look at and they entertain us and move us emotionally, but they receive a disproportionate amount of attention to the value they add to society, and distract attention from other important issues that are harder to think about (like climate change, or corruption, or systemic racism, etc…) that actually have much greater impacts on real people’s lives.

Celebrity culture, the nadir of which would be someone like Kim Kardashian showing off her shapely buttocks and expensive bathroom, demeans everyone who engages in it. It locks us into an inherently superficial relationship with ourselves and each other, that actually dehumanizes both the star-struck fan and the celebrity whose personality and true self lies buried beneath the persona.

It also makes regular people, regular looking people with regular lives, feel badly about themselves. It idealizes specific looks, body types, hairstyles, skin tones, accessories and lifestyles that aren’t a part of most of our lives.

As a photographer of course, I stand accused. My work is to photograph people and I know that the more recognizable my subject, the more attention my work gets and the more “important” by association, I become.

But the worst thing about the epithet of “The most beautiful X…” is it implies a judgement and sets up the entity making the announcement as some kind of authority on beauty when such a thing is purely fiction. A fantasy. False.

There is no one most beautiful anything. We are all capable of being beautiful and carry within ourselves the real source of beauty, in how we behave towards one another and what we can contribute to the communities we share.

I know it’s just a marketing ploy (I used the same tactic for my headline), but it isn’t harmless. I’ve seen so many people through my lens who fret about how they look, and how they are perceived – particularly younger women – and their misperception about the way they look affects their self-esteem and sense of self-worth and that’s what really bothers me.

If we spent more effort seeking out and seeing the real beauty in the people around us, and less time and energy on the images of famous people, perhaps we’d make the world a kinder place for all of us.