The Observer Effect

January 31, 2017

"Aunt Mildred's 106th Birthday Party" by Eric Rennie

If you want to make someone feel self-conscious, just point a camera at him. That, in a nutshell, is the dilemma facing every photographer who wants to capture subjects in their natural state. There are certainly portrait photographers who are skilled in putting their subjects at ease, just as there are actors and models who are skilled at appearing at ease in front of a camera. But, of course, they are just good at pretending. Most people reflexively put on a “camera face” whenever a camera is pointed in their direction, a faintly pained expression that passes for a grin in photographs. The only way for a photographer to get around “camera face” is to distract the subject or otherwise to shoot before the subject realizes a camera has been pointed in his or her direction. 

The dilemma facing photographers who try to shoot subjects in their natural state is known to quantum physicists as the “observer effect.” Quantum physics is the study of subatomic particles, which operate according to a completely different set of laws than objects in the macroscopic world that we can see. For one thing, subatomic particles sometimes behave like particles and sometimes like waves, depending on whether or not they are observed. In a classic double-slit experiment, you can shine light on a barrier with two slits that allow the light to pass through to a photographic plate on the other side. If you position photon detectors beside each slit, the light will behave like photon particles, passing through one slit or the other and leaving two parallel lines on the photographic plate on the other side. But if the photon detectors are absent, the light will pass through both slits simultaneously and leave a striped pattern on the other side characteristic of a wave. It is as if the light had put on its own “camera face” when the photon detectors were in place and had decided to appear as particles. 

According to quantum theory, subatomic particles exist in an indeterminate state until they are observed. In the “clockwork” universe described by Isaac Newton in the 18th century, objects exist independently of an observer; not so in the quantum realm. As Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger expressed it: “Subject and object are only one.” The late John Wheeler, the physicist who coined the term “black holes,” believed the same may be true of the macroscopic world as well. He theorized that we live in a “participatory universe” in which consciousness is not a bystander to physical reality but is an essential element in its formation. In a sense, you could say the world comes into being because we are here to witness it. 

As a landscape photographer, I am not usually confronted with “camera face” when I point my camera. Looking through the lens, I find it easy to objectify my subject matter if I so choose. And yet I have a growing sense that what I see though my lens is what I am being shown. Not that there is anyone tapping me on the shoulder and telling me where to point the camera. It’s more that the act of seeing and the fact of being seen are one and the same. There is no longer a sense that the photographer stands apart from what is perceived. As William Butler Yeats wrote in the final line of his poem, “Among School Children,” “How do we know the dancer from the dance?”