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Lost in Translation

John Nelson

Sensation is the direct detection of sensory stimuli by sensory receptors, whereas perception involves the organization, interpretation, and conscious experience of those sensations. Also implicit is the passage of time. Time is required for the sorting and translation of all incoming signals and for the perception to lead to a response.

American Sign Language (ASL) is the predominant sign language among Deaf communities in English-speaking countries. Through movements of fingers, arms, and the body, words are conveyed in time and interpreted into meaning. It is the passage of time and the sweep of movements in sequence that allow for their agreed-upon interpretation. One can envision the flow as occurring on a video tape, for example. What if, however, the recording video tape was prevented from advancing and all the movements crowded on top of each other in a still frame?

Mary is a fashion model from Baltimore and a member of the Deaf community. We have worked together over the last couple years and have shot outside in Baltimore and inside my old studio in Frederick, MD. Recently, I pitched her an idea, regarding capturing the movement inherent in ASL on a still camera frame to see how it registers as language or moving art. She agreed and produced a list of 20 uplifting words—such as, baby, family, butterfly, encourage, inspire, love—that we worked through at the new space, Umbralux Studio, in downtown Frederick.

Prior to our session, I tested the conditions necessary for proper illumination (e.g., effects of light output, dimmed or not; length of exposure; external light contamination; etc.) with a vintage Mole-Richardson continuous light.

Mary arrived with her word list. We discussed how the shoot would proceed and we got started. Soon, however, we noticed some words required a longer period to complete, and we adjusted the exposure time. Had I taken the time to consider this, I might have realized something about sensation and perception at that moment.

After more than 30 minutes with the bright light shining in her eyes, Mary, ever the unflappable trouper, finished the list of words. After looking at the files we created and processing the best of them, I sent her a folder of images—some words lent themselves to better image capture in their flow and beauty.

Beauty, indeed. What I had realized while I was processing the files that I did not during the capture of them was that to my eye, untrained for ASL,

the images rendered a beautiful flow

of motion, but they didn’t seem to convey the signed words. Sensation without perception. Lost in translation because of a lack of context (time was compressed to one capture rather than a video running a few seconds to interpret the signing in its natural sequence). The traces of motion were evident to me as graceful movement, but Mary told me she was able to interpret some of these correctly simply by looking at the still image. By having all the movement captured in one frame, the camera sensor captured the information presented to it as photon sensations—the only job it can do. Similarly, my inability to understand ASL rendered these one frame–compressed images as mere sensations and forced me to grasp for a perception, an interpretation that I could perceive—that of beautiful motion.

(The words conveyed in the order of the images presented are "peace," "love," "butterfly," "excited," "express," "encourage," "family," and "feel.")

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