When Absence becomes a presence

I’m often inspired by something that someone has said. Today I was listening to an interview with the Scottish poet Jackie Kay where she was asked why she wrote. Her reply made me think very much about my own photography.

Higashikagura, Hokkaido, Japan Image © Bruce Percy 2015

Higashikagura, Hokkaido, Japan
Image © Bruce Percy 2015

She said that she is interested when something that is missing in one’s life becomes a presence. This particularly moved me as it reminded me of someone I once knew who told me that their loneliness was all they had left. Jackie concluded her interview with an almost mantra like repeating that ‘absence becomes a presence’. 

And I realised that absence does not equal ‘nothingness’. 

It is so easy to assume that if there appears to be nothing there, that there is indeed nothing there. Nothingness can actually mean something, it can actually be something tangible and possible to read and interpret emotionally.

In the case of photographs where there are lots of empty spaces, these empty spaces often aren’t really empty at all. Instead they often contain meaning in some way to us. And it is the meaning of these empty parts of the frame that intrigue me.

Firstly, let’s get the obvious reasons why empty spaces in a photograph may be important. For those of us who are thinking in terms of composition, space allows us to separate parts of the scene from other parts. Space also allows us to convey a more relaxed feeling in photographs when its used well. But this is really far too obvious and superficial for me and it doesn’t really touch upon the more emotional reasons why I may find space in photographs enormously powerful.

What I love about space is that it often conveys a presence of some kind and there are reasons, routed to how the human visual system works, why this is so. 

Our visual system has spent all its life processing thousands of shapes and tones that are constantly changing in front of us into some meaningful semblance. We are able to work out that certain shapes and tones mean we are looking at a chair or a table for example and that other shapes and tones are other kinds of objects. And because our visual system is always on, it is always striving to make sense of what is placed in front of it.

When our visual system is confronted with nothing, it can't handle the idea that there is nothing there, so it is forced to believe that this is not true. We get an emotional feeling that there must be something there.

For me, this mistrust is an instinctive one. It is  is what gives me the feeling that there is more to these empty spaces than meets the eye. In essence, empty spaces are wildcards, placeholders that say ‘put whatever you want in here’. They give my imagination permission to run free and stirs an emotional trigger in me where I ‘feel’ there is something there, even though I know there appears to be nothing.

Jackie Kay’s comment that ‘absence becomes a presence’ just reaffirms my feelings that these ‘empty spaces’ in my photography actually contain some form of presence and emotional meaning. To assume that space does nothing or conveys no form of emotional meaning would be a terrible oversight on our part as photographers.