Psychological Consideration of the Optical Unconscious

Hypothesis – Every photograph taken is contingent on the unconscious of the photographer. Every photograph viewed is contingent on the unconscious of the viewer. Interesting photographs are created when there is a meaningful dialogue between the unconscious of the photographer and the unconscious of the viewer through the medium of the photograph.

I include the literature review below to provide academic evidence to back up my proposal that the unconscious does all the work that leads to the production of a photograph. Personally I do not believe in free will but live my life as if I have it. The expression for this is compatibilism. What I learnt from my Psychology Masters in Cognitive and Decision Sciences at UCL in 2010 is that with the current state of knowledge I can’t prove beyond doubt I am right and equally nobody can prove beyond doubt I am wrong. We each need to weigh the evidence we see and form a view.

Spinoza (1677) in The Ethics said ‘Men are mistaken in thinking themselves free: their opinion is made up of consciousness of their own actions, and ignorance of the causes by which they are determined. Their idea of freedom, therefore, is simply their ignorance of any cause for their actions.’

More recently Marvin Minsky (1985) put it ‘None of us enjoys the thought that what we do depends on processes we do not know; we prefer to attribute to our choices volition, will or self control ……Perhaps it would be more honest to say ‘My decision was determined by internal forces I do not understand.’

Benjamin (1931) states ‘Photography…with its time lapses, enlargements etc…through these methods one first learns of this optical unconscious, just as one learns of the unconscious through psychoanalysis. Concern with structure, cell forms, the improvement of medicine through these techniques: the camera is more closely related to these than to the moody landscape or the soulful portrait.’

Kofman writes ‘Freud’s use of the model of the photographic apparatus is intended to show that all psychic phenomena necessarily pass first through an unconscious phase….before acceding to consciousness.’ She goes on to quote directly from Freud ‘Let us therefore compare the system of the unconscious to a large entrance hall, in which the mental impulses jostle one another like separate individuals. Adjoining this entrance hall is a second narrower room – a kind of drawing room -in which consciousness, too resides. But on the threshold between these two rooms a watchman performs his function: he examines the different mental impulses, acts as censor, and will not admit them in to the drawing room if they displease him……The impulses in the entrance hall of the unconscious are out of sight of the conscious, which is in the other room; to begin with they must remain unconscious.’ Further ‘when there is a passage in to consciousness, it depends not on logical criteria, but on a selection involving conflicts between nondialectizable forces.’

Benjamin offers us the optical unconscious and Freud can support the idea that the photograph is ‘decided’ in the unconscious. Paul Strand said that ‘Your photography is a record of your living, and today, we might add, of your unconscious mind too. “(Adams and Byrne 1994: 119)

More recently work by Libet (1999) demonstrated that decisions apparently taken in our conscious mind had already been taken by the unconscious parts of the brain hundreds of milliseconds earlier than the conscious decision. Similarly Wegner (2002) writes of the ‘illusion of free will’ to further reinforce the idea that all decisions are taken in the unconscious mind.

My own teacher Professor Nick Chater at UCL put it well in his first lecture with us when he said ‘everything I am teaching you could be wrong. That is the state of our knowledge at the moment. My job is to find ways of backing up what I say and to tell you what we currently know.’ In his book The Mind is Flat he states ‘our mental depths are a confabulation – a fiction created in the moment in our own brain. There are no pre-formed beliefs, desires, preferences, attitudes, even memories, hidden in the deep recesses of our mind; indeed, the mind has no deep recesses in which anything can hide The mind is flat: the surface is all there is.’ Chater (2018). In his book he also argues we have as much chance explaining our own decisions as we would attempting to explain why Anna Karenina throws herself in front of a train at the end of Tolstoy’s masterpiece.

I must now proceed with the photography project for my investigations but felt I needed to demonstrate I have given the psychological aspects of my hypothesis some serious consideration.


ADAMS, Robert and Wendy BYRNE. 1994. Why People Photograph : Selected Essays and Reviews. 1st edn. New York: Aperture.

BENJAMIN, Walter. 1931. A Short History of Photography. Literische Welt, 1931. Reprinted from Artforum (Feb, 1977). Vol 15.

CHATER, Nick. 2018. The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind. Penguin. Random House. UK.

KOFMAN, Sarah. FREUD. The Photographic Apparatus – The photographer’s antechamber. In Photography and the Optical Unconscious (2017). Duke University Press

LIBET, Benjamin. 1999. Do We Have Free Will? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6, No. 8-9, pp.47-57

MINSKY, M. 1985. The Society of Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster.

SPINOZA, B. 1677 The Ethics. trans.R.H.M.Elwes. London:Dover 1883.

WEGNER, Daniel, M. 2002. The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge Massechusetts: Bradford Books. MIT Press.

Categories: Contextual Research FMP, Final Major Project


I am a Photographer. As well as taking many photographs I am currently studying for an MA in Photography at Falmouth University. I will direct my attention through the lens of my camera for the next couple of years and see what shows up. I see a photograph as a little bit of magic capturing a moment in time. If successful it surprises and engages your emotions. It tells a story about the wonders of being alive or tells us what we need to change to make it a better world to live in. That is enough for me to get going and then like walking a 1000 miles, which I did across the UK in 2010, or walking 200 miles across Cyprus, which I did in November last year, it is one step at a time.

I was a writer. The title of my unpublished book was ‘You Would Have Done The Same.' It is about a successful guy in love with his wife who lets her die when he discovers her in the process of committing suicide. The title gives a clue as to what I think you would have done. The book is 200 pages long. I found it cathartic to write it but after two years of work and reviewing with agents decided it probably needed another 2000 hours to get the whole book up to the standard of some of the pages. Writing is great but it is a lot of sitting down so I decided to get out and walk, play tennis, play bridge, go birding, watch football at Nottingham Forest, Arsenal and Valencia and anywhere else if I can, meditate, cook and eat. I was a writer who has so far failed to become an author.
I was a young man who loved Mathematics and thoroughly enjoyed getting a BSc at Liverpool University. While there I went often to Anfield and the Philharmonic Hall. I was all set on doing a PhD until I went for interview practice at BP and got seduced by the excitement of an International business career. BP was a great adventure building trading teams and businesses in London, Antwerp, Cleveland Ohio and Singapore. Fabulous people and some great challenges and also very hard work, constant jet lag and lots of fun along the way. I married Karen, my stunning wife, and had the most amazing time with her and our three boys Alex, Tom and Dan. She has multiple sclerosis and we have taken on many challenges together but somehow keep creating a new normal against the horrors thrown our way. She is the love of my life.

After BP I decided to coach senior executives and quickly realized I had a lot to learn
about what makes people tick. I had a fantastic 18 months on the International Programme of the Cleveland Gestalt Institute. A great faculty and a
wonderful group of people on the programme. We studied and worked in Dingle, Singapore, Holland, Cape Town and
Lisbon. This also got me interested in the way we think and make decisions so I studied for an MSc in Psychology atUniversity College London in 2010. The
Masters was in Cognitive and Decision Sciences and I found it fascinating what
we do know but also how much we don’t know about how we think and make

I loved coaching and making a difference. I got a number of people to hear themselves, remove some of their own chains and free up the way they thought about the world. I remain fascinated by how people react to and engage with the world. My Masters thesis was why do two people given the same information make different decisions? Put simply, it is because each of us are unique in the way we are constructed.

Since returning from Singapore I found English winters tough so moved to Spain where I now live. The people are lovely, the scenery amazing, food delicious and the sun shines all the time. Almost.

All of these experiences will feed in to my time now as a Photographer. Three motivations I am lucky to have are enthusiasm, curiosity and a continuous interest in learning. All the time I look forward to meeting old friends and making new friends and experiencing this wonderful life together.