Not What I See


“You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”
― Ansel Adams

I take recognition of familiar surroundings for granted. Here in my own country, the assumption is that most people see more than I do. They’ve all been around longer than I have, and people here make it a point to know stuff. Singapore is clever, it’s true. I learn a new thing about my surroundings everyday from friends, strangers and my mother, whose recall of people and places is excellent, where I am all “dammit, why didn’t I have a dictaphone.”

But Mum couldn’t recognize the spaces in these pictures. Couldn’t tell what she was looking at, never mind where. Not even when I wiped all the processing so she could see it without the monkey-finger mess.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of my parents’ move to this area. Those lamp lit paths above, and the bus stop below?

She’s walked through and to those almost every day for two decades.

I guess she never really looked at any of it that way. We have lived, loved and lost very differently, my mum and I. There is no reason to assume that she and I would share a perspective. Even if we are only talking about the daily grocery-and-food path, or the nearest bus stop. Regardless, it was a startling reminder that no two people see and express the world alike.

Maybe the realization was so stark because the subject was so pedestrian. That something so “common sense,” and ordinary, could be interpreted so differently by 2 people who have walked the same path together countless times.

Every one of us will find different meanings in the most unremarkable of things.

The challenge is in how we honour that.


  1. Eunice says:

    ‘That we could see something so common sense, so ordinary, so differently.’

    Thank you for sharing this piece. It’s so beautifully written!

    1. Charlene says:

      Thank you Eunice. It’s true though no? Common sense is maybe really an expectation. The sensing is another story altogether

  2. Luis Costa says:

    I have to say I love your texts as much as your photos, you’re a wonderful writer! Thanks for sharing. :)

    1. Charlene says:

      Thank you Luis

  3. John Merson says:

    Isn’t part of the job of a photographer to see the extraordinary in the ordinary? Love your writing and and blacks in the black and whites.

    1. Charlene says:

      I am more inclined to think these days, that the job of a photographer is to honour their own perspective, and make *that* extraordinary.

  4. Neil Horner says:

    This rings so true Charlene. I live in York in the UK. One of the most visited cities in Britain because its ancient and beautiful. But I really struggle to make photographs here. I have lived here all my life and its all way too familiar for me. I cant see past the cliché tourist snapshots.

    1. Charlene says:

      I was in York for a couple of days in 2016 (I walked the wall. Had to) and gods, it is gorgeous. But i totally understand how it would be very difficult to get beyond the tourist snapshots. I don’t think I made one reasonable picture in the time i was there. It’s almost too pretty for this tourist, nevermind the resident.

  5. Neil Horner says:

    Ha , Im glad its just not me then !
    I much prefer shooting somewhere a bit more gritty and less pretty and a lot less tourists !

    1. Charlene says:

      Yeah I’m with you on the less pretty. I’m always thrown off my photography game with very pretty places.

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