The Art of Seeing

Some time ago I read a neuroscience book that suggested a technique for seeing issues from another person’s perspective. The process, accompanied by an explanatory diagram, involved imagining yourself physically occupying the same space as that person, as well as subsequently picturing yourself as an impartial observer. This was supposed to occur as you were interacting with said other person, which the book reassured would become easier with practice. Despite the impossibility, in my opinion, of accompanying all these difficult tasks at once, it completely ignores the important cues that people give regarding their potential feelings and behaviour, both verbally and physically.

I am planning to undertake visual research methods for my PhD (as opposed to purely interviews or surveys for example). My reason for this is that the visual, or ‘photovoice’, can empower participants and allow access to rich data that might otherwise have been undiscovered. Most importantly perhaps, it allows the individual to present their own perspective, with their own images, which are described by their own words. There are also clearly some ethical questions to be addressed (i.e. it’s impact is not necessarily all positive), which I’m continuing to explore in the literature review for my methodology.

I’ve read two great books (among others) that challenge the way we see; how we see certain things, and not others. How what we don’t see (or don’t capture in an image) is as important as what we do. How images are permanent, yet subject to individual interpretation.

The first book is Ways of Seeing by John Berger, recommended to me by my PhD supervisor. The book is based on a 1970s BAFTA award-winning tv art series, and contains both written and visual essays. In other words, there are essays that consist only of pictures. This prompts the reader to look, think and make their own interpretation, guided by the other essays in the book.

The second book is Visual Methodologies by Gillian Rose. Near the beginning of the book Rose talks about a photograph that she shows to her students depicting a couple looking at a painting in a shop window. The photograph is taken from inside the shop so the central painting is only seen from behind. The subject of photograph is then the couple themselves, which leads to multiple questions. What are they doing there? What are they thinking? Why are they behaving in that way? And ultimately, what is the painting of? These and many other questions extend beyond what is captured in the image.

An important lesson from visual methodology is the acceptance of different ways of seeing. We do not need a technique to step into somebody else’s shoes. We need to listen and observe and understand. We may make our own interpretation but we need to recognise that is all that it is; an interpretation.

NB. I haven’t mentioned the featured image here (American Gothic by Grant Wood), although it is another image subject to wide interpretation, imbuing its subjects with thoughts, feelings and histories.