Seeing the Unseen
January 25th, 2017 by David LaBelle

A young couple looks at wedding rings. No words are needed to understand the scene. The picture on the wall is a visual clue to help us quickly guess what is happening.

I have a student, Brittany, who desires to make a career of forensic photography. She will likely be required to document many crime scenes, making detailed pictures of both victims and evidence—small clues that may lead to solving big crimes.

After all, crime scenes are puzzles, where often what is not obvious—or even what is absent—might speak loudest about what happened.

I have always felt the best documentary photographers are part detective and part social worker, learning through observation and practice to see what is not obvious to most.

This may sound like a riddle or a paradox, but it isn’t. It is about slowing down, observing and photographing clues—small pieces of a scene—to communicate a story. It is the practice of learning to see what is not there.

Just as scratch marks high up on a tree trunk in the woods warns there might be a mighty big bear around, noticing visual clues in a scene can help a reader or viewer understand a story more clearly. This can be as simple as the expression on a face, a gesture or a piece of yellow tape at a crime scene.

A discarded costume and piles of candy on the living room floor says a child had a big night trick-or-treating. Similarly, a lapel pin or patch on a jacket can speak of military service.

I do a presentation titled after the children’s book, “Brown Bear, Brown Bear what do you see,” where I project images and ask students to read the details, the clues and tell me the story of what happened—the who, what, where, when and why in the picture.

Like a hound dog sniffing the ground and bushes and gathering the scent of an animal, we gather clues from a scene to help tell the story of the unseen. As I learned years ago, things implied (unseen) are often much stronger than things stated (visible).

My illustrative hero and influence, Norman Rockwell, often used visual clues to tell his stories. A discarded sign, an opened letter with a foreign postmark, a magazine with a movie star’s face (in the girl in mirror)—each helps tell the story.

Just as foreshadowing in writing can clue a reader to a plot in a written story, a small visual clue in a photograph can help a viewer grasp the overall visual story. Visual clues help bridge the gap between what is obvious to the eye and what is not seen, the implied story.

Sometimes the absence of something—the silence—speaks loudest.

Photographs rich with visual clues that do not reveal all of the information or the whole story allow us to use our imagination, to become detectives and complete the pieces to the visual puzzle.


David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit