Photography: The Fifth Level

Steve Courmanopoulos


The Five Levels of Photography

Photography operates at many different levels. It is capable of documenting people, places and events as an aide to memory. It can be used as a commercial tool to present products and services in the most appealing manner (do those Victoria's Secret models really look that good?). As a social and political tool it can present a certain point-of-view in order to mobilize action and resources. And as a vehicle for self-expression it can leave a personal mark on the world that represents the unique vision of one individual. But there is still another level, a fifth level, and it is one that can take the photographer into a very different personal experience: photography as a tool for inner self-discovery.

Portals to the Self

"Know thyself" urged Socrates, arguing that the unexamined life is hardly worth living. But self-knowledge is not easily acquired because the Ego protects us from the truth through its many defense mechanisms intended to preserve its illusory view of ourselves and the world. Denial, projection, rationalization, avoidance, and even blaming others, are a few examples of the myriad mechanisms the Ego uses to prevent self-knowledge (more on the Ego's tricks later).

Self knowledge then must be acquired peripherally, as if we were noticing things out of the corner of our eye. Who hasn't wondered from time to time, "why did I DO that?", or "what WAS I thinking!?" when confronted by some of our own actions? Observing our behaviors then, provides clues about what we are really like behind the veil created by the Ego. In the same way, photography can provide profound insights into the deeper recesses of the Self because of what happen at the precise moment of taking a photograph.

"We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are" Anais Nin

When Does a Photograph "happen"?

Every level of photography requires a certain amount of conceptualization and planning. The commercial studio photographer may be at one extreme, requiring great planning and repeated re-takes, while the "street" photographer is at the other extreme, spontaneously capturing fleeting moments, usually with no time to even think about composition. But, both extremes and everything in between have one thing in common: the photograph is taken at one precise moment where all planning, all conceptualization, and above all, all talk, are momentarily suspended at the instant of pressing down the shutter. At that moment the Ego's principal tools of words, thoughts and judgments are also suspended, providing a split second of access to other levels of the Self.

 Ego Psychology Basics (skip if you find it too boring)

 "I think, therefore I am" said Descartes, setting in motion one of the greatest philosophical frauds of all time. In fairness, Descartes meant something very specific when he uttered that statement. Unfortunately, it has been misinterpreted to mean that we are only the sum of our thoughts, and that when we no longer think we are simply reduced to the level of an animal, responding in stimulus-response fashion or by "instinct".  In the Cartesian model there is no middle ground, no alternative, special level of human experience between thought and animal instinct.

 What most distinguishes human beings from other organisms is our awareness of "self". This self-aware "I" is what Descartes was referring to. In psychological terms, this "I" is the Ego (from the Latin for "I"), which we can simply describe as that part of our mind that enables us to interact with, and manipulate the outside world towards specific goals. The Ego is very narrowly focused on survival and self-gratification. It doesn't want its "fair share", it wants the whole pie! The Ego's self awareness is exclusive, i.e. since it is only aware of itself, it cannot directly perceive anything else within the Mind. The outside world too, including other people, is only there to serve its goal of making sure that it stays safe while getting as much of the pie as possible. As such, the Ego's world is incomplete and illusory. And the Ego's principle tool is words and language. For the Egoic mind, without language there is no thought, and no intent to act, since "intent" requires words to give it shape.

 It is all the more interesting then, that for thousands of years human beings have intentionally developed exercises and practices intended to quiet the Mind and free it from what Dickens called "the tyranny of words", in order to peer behind the illusory reality created by the Ego.

 From Yoga and Zen masters to the Christian Desert Fathers, there has been one unifying preoccupation: the temporary suppression of word/thoughts in order to perceive directly the universal life force that connects all things. The experiences coming from these types of practices have been written about by thousands of people since the beginning of written time, and in fact have served as the experiential basis for the development of most world religions.  What, you may well question, photography as spiritual practice, as religion even?! Perhaps not so far-fetched, as Eckhardt Tolle points out in his modern classic The Power of Now, the search for "transcendent" experience may well underlie many modern activities from music to sport, in fact anything that puts one into a "zone" of non-thought and pure experience. According to Tolle, these activities provide portals into the "transcendent self" or what depth psychologists call "superconsciousness".

From Theory to Practice

 Before the availability of inexpensive and rapid digital scanning of negatives, I would typically eyeball my negatives or contact sheet looking for a few images worthy of printing. The negatives would then be safely stored away, never to see the light of day again. Today, I digitize my negatives. Every time I open the "My Pictures" folder on my computer I am once again confronted by all these discarded images, often finding myself drawn to some dismissed picture for another visit. Many of these photos have now become amoung my favorites, although the final image has little relation to what I thought originally drew me to the situation. This discovery isn't always easy and often involves looking at the picture from a different perspective using various tools in Photoshop. Nevertheless, what stands out is that something is happening at the moment of taking the picture, at a level beyond ordinary Egoic consciousness, which makes me bring the camera to my eye and push the shutter at some precise moment. That same "something" draws me back to the discarded image in an "instant of recognition" that defies logic, analysis, and words. Here is an example:

I took this photograph in one of Montreal's famous underground shopping complexes, killing time waiting for entrance to a show. I remember being in a hurry to finish that roll of film so I could switch to another type. I'm not sure what drew me to this scene, and I subsequently ignored it when reviewing my CD of scanned images. For some strange reason though, I kept returning to this picture.


After a little exploration in Photoshop, I get it! Lately I find myself increasingly rebelling against media messages about how we should look, what we should buy, and the things we should value. We are becoming shadows of ourselves as the media light shines on the glittering models of the new consumer God.


The Ego dominates every conversation. It hates quiet, which is probably why so many people are uncomfortable during even short periods of silence, feeling a need to fill the gaps with more words. In order to see beyond the Ego we must move into the cracks between ordinary language-driven consciousness. These cracks are very narrow, especially at first. The instantaneous nature of photographic image capture provides the portal for getting into these cracks and glimpsing what lies between the words. Take a look at some of your favorite images. Look also at your discarded pictures. What were you thinking when you took each of these pictures? Is there a different way of looking at them? Does the image match what you wanted to say, or is it trying to say something else to you? Remember the words of Lao Tzu (in Bynner, 1944):


Thirty spokes are made one by holes in a hub

By vacancies joining them for a wheel's use;

The use of clay in moulding pitchers

Comes from the hollow of its absence;

Doors, windows, in a house

Are used for their emptiness;

Thus we are helped by what is not

To use what is.


Next Month: Photography as a transcendent practice, tools and methods.


Steve obtained his psychological training at McGill (B.Sc.) and California State University (M.A.), and is currently a doctoral candidate in Psychology having returned to finish his PhD in 2002 after a long career in organizational psychology. Steve has been passionate about photography for more than 35 years. Some of his images are on display at: and at


Bynner, W. (1944). The way of life according to Lao Tzu. New York: Perigee

Tolle, E. (1999). The power of now. Novato, CA: New World Library

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