Ethan recently brought up an interesting point about photography and perspective:

All of which leaves me thinking about how the fractal way in which the world can be fascinating. My globetrotting lifestyle is more or less a direct reaction to my first trip to Africa in 1993 and the discovery that the world was so much bigger than I’d thought living in rural Massachusetts.

It’s rare that I get to look at the photos of two other people who’ve been looking at the same places I’ve seen. What I noticed, looking at Rachel’s and Daniel’s photos from our afternoon, is that I’m much more likely to step back and try to photograph a whole building, while they’re likely to focus in on a small, beautiful detail. I wonder if this can be read as a larger comment on my tendency to wander globally and theirs to wander locally? Or my tendency to overfocus on the big stuff and to miss the small stuff?

Looking at my own photos, it’s hard for me to make such sweeping generalizations between global and local, macro and micro, sweeping and minute. I guess I’m one of those guys who swings both ways, zooms in and zooms out.

But there is something strange that’s been happening to me over the past few weeks and it reminds me – as so many things do – of what Milan Kundera once wrote:

Without the slightest doubt, there are far fewer gestures in the world than there are individuals. That finding leads us to a shocking conclusion: a gesture is more individual than an individual. We could put it in the form of an aphorism: many people few gestures … a gesture cannot be regarded as the expression of an individual, as his creation (because no individual is capable of creating a fully original gesture, belonging to nobody else), nor can it even be regarded as that person’s instrument; on the contrary, it is gestures that use us as their instruments, as their bearers and incarnations.

Kundera, Immortality, 7-8

When I look at someone – whether I’m talking to them in person, looking at their photograph, or watching them act on TV – I don’t see a person, I see a stream of facial expressions and gestures. It’s as if the atom of individuality is broken down even further to something that isn’t individual at all.

Where did Mari learn to smile so cutely toward the left? How did HP discover his patented squinty eyes, chin-up grin? Cindylu’s sideways gaze? The way Rosario’s smile stretches further to the right or how Nathan’s head is usually just slightly pulled back. What about the way César’s downturned lips actually convey a mischievous smile or Georgia’s ever-slightly raised eyebrows?

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With just 44 muscles, nerves, and blood vessels threaded through a scaffolding of bone and cartilage, all layered over by supple skin, the face can twist and pull into 5,000 expressions, all the way from an outright grin to the faintest sneer.

That comes from UC Berkeley psychology professor, Dacher Keltner. I have no idea how he comes to the number of 5,000 facial expressions, but that sounds about right to me. I know because, lately, I can’t stop looking at them, picking them apart, watching those 44 muscles pull and tug, shift, and move around as smiles settle back down to boredom and boredom turns into worry. I wonder how it is that my sister developed the same half wink as she searches for some sort of affirmation from her listener, just like I do. Is it genetics? Are our facial muscles similar? Did she learn it from me? Would we both use that same gesture no matter if we grew up in the same house or on opposite sides of the world?

Who knows. All we can be sure of is that there are more people in this universe than there are gestures.

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