Spiral of Attention


Apogeo Photos member James Conley comments on the photographic process, using The Devon Horse Show as a frame.


Man is a social animal. One of the side effects of our sociability is voyeurism: we like to observe others. But observation without reference points is, at best, exhausting—there are simply too many pieces of information to sort through without a way to gauge their importance. 

We solve this problem in socially acceptable ways which have evolved over time, e.g.:

  • Despite its complexity, we limit our discussions of the weather to temperature and clouds. Sometimes humidity.
  • We discuss politics by reference to leaders rather than populations.
  • We cope with the complexity of meeting a new individual by discussing jobs and place of residence. 

By giving ourselves an anchor, the mind is better able to structure observation and make sense of the world. 

Sporting events lay bare the attentional spiral: seats are literally arranged in a circle around the action, and the crowds are not just allowed to gawk at the action, but are encouraged to do so over the loudspeakers. The rules of civility are upended: staring in public and commenting aloud one's opinions of another's performance is the nature of sports spectating, and the entire stadium is arranged to increase it. 

It's an exception to the rules of manners, but it contains its own set of rules. The price of uncensored opinion is that one must remain within the circle: stare, but stare at the field; judge,

but judge the players in the game; comment, but limit those comments within the confines of the defined skills of the particular sport. 

This attentional spiral has its own gravity—like a black hole. Taking our cue from those around us, the human reaction is to follow the crowd. Stop in a busy street and look up, and a surprising number of people will do the same. Our human inclination toward social connectedness makes this almost automatic.

None of this is a bad thing – unless you are a photographer.

The temptation is overwhelming to assume that the crowd has served as attentional jury, and that the only worthy action to behold is that which everyone else is staring at. And so I see gaggles of people with cameras succumb to the gravity of the attentional black hole, circling the circular field, looking for the action that everyone else is looking at.

But just so—and with much emotional resistance (the result of my own nature as a social animal)—I turn away and look for the better action: the stories of how the event comes to be. I reverse the spiral, moving from the middle to the outside. The spectators see for themselves the action on the field, but the photographer's task is to show them what they can't see.

And that takes place on the fringes—not in the center.