World Photo Day: Reading the Ways We See

by Martin A. Berger, author of Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle

This guest post is part of a series for World Photo Day. Some of our authors with recent and forthcoming titles on a range of photography-related topics will share stories throughout the day. We hope these personal glimpses into their work will inspire a broad community of readers. Follow along throughout the day for more.

Remember back in February when it seemed as if the whole world was captivated by a dress on Tumblr that was either white and gold or blue and black? The perceptual divide was fascinating because it was so dramatic and because we trust photographs to capture the world as it appears. Something seemed wrong. Taylor Swift wrote on Twitter: “I feel that it’s a trick.”


We eventually heard from experts on psychology and cognitive science who offered two possible explanations for the dispute: 1) The close-up shot and odd lighting deprived people of cues about the ambient lighting of the dress; absent such cues, different brains made different assumptions, which led to seeing different colors; 2) Because there is a significant range in the number of photoreceptors an individual has to perceive the color blue, an ambiguous image may be perceived as either blue or white, depending on whether one has more or fewer receptors. Put simply, the dress controversy was explained both by qualities inherent in the photograph and variations in the human eye.

We experience dramatic perceptual divides over photographs each day, even if they rarely generate the degree of introspection caused by the photograph of the blue and black dress. Because the stakes were low, people were accepting of scholarly explanations for why different people perceive color differently. We are less thoughtful when debating the meaning of photographs with high social stakes. When interpreting photographs of police-civilian confrontations, confederate-flag-waving demonstrators, or Occupy protests, most of us are confident declaring what they mean. The evaluations of those who disagree with us are much more likely to be dismissed than considered.

43 and cover Berger

But just as biological differences in the makeup of our eyes can lead to differing perceptions of the physical world, so cultural differences between racial, gendered, or religious groups can promote distinctive ways of interpreting visual signs. In my research on civil rights photography, I have found many examples of blacks and whites reading opposite meanings from identical photographs. Many blacks understood this photograph showing a confrontation between white policemen and a black protestor, for example, as evidence of police racism while whites described the same photo as proof of blacks’ violent nature. As with the debate over the blue and black dress, there is much to be gained by stepping back from what we see to consider how we’ve been taught to see what we do.

Martin A. Berger is Professor of History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of Seeing through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography, and Sight Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture.