A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another …
(John Berger, Ways of Seeing, Penguin Classics, 1990)
(The following paragraphs are a series of observations)
I find myself returning to a place of candid observation. It feels as if a blindfold is repeatedly being placed and removed from my eyes and I am hard pressed to capture the image like a newborn would. Whether it be a photograph I’ve taken, an overheard conversation or a platonic handshake, subconsciously I am looking at these details in a strange, self-obsessed way.
I’m not entirely sure what’s spurned this on, but I do know I have spent quite some time scrolling through instagram and reading lifestyle publications. That is only part of it, I’m sure, but really I’m concerned with this sudden interest in looking and taking mental notes about my interactions with people.
The BBC’s #BlackBritish season also has me quietly questioning myself and my achievements so far. I’m no stranger when it comes to discussing identity issues, but I am a little rusty when it comes to congratulating myself, perhaps even celebrating my identity. I guess the struggle came in seeing how celebrated my cultural background was among non-black bodies, yet similarly ridiculed when presented in its original format.
For a long time, I stopped taking pictures of myself. I think I wanted to forget what I looked like, or what I thought I looked like. My guess is, I wanted to make myself anonymous for myself; not fabricate or construct my own image thus making it synonymous with a happiness I did not feel. I deleted anything online that I thought represented a purposefully calculated representation and decided it was best to try and distance myself with virtual representation.
Of course, I passed mirrors and of course and people did take pictures of me from time-to-time. It was easier to believe in their visual depiction of me, than put effort into respecting and polishing my own. To my own debt, I had given authority to people who did not have my best interests at heart or cared for what was hidden beyond the immediate contact. I had stopped looking.
I recently watched John Berger’s ‘Act of Looking’, familiar with his previous work, I was keen to see what else he had discovered about observation. What I gathered was the idea that one must be actively engaged; be in the moment. We do not have the pleasure of not seeing, our senses are acutely aware of everything. Unknowingly, the the observations that our bodies make that keep us alive and well- we are programmed to see.
I think I came to this conclusion in the knowledge of the endless programmes, schemes and traineeships I had been applying for in my last year of university. I put myself in the shoe of my potential employer and from their stance, all they had to go on was a name and a qualification. In granting them power over my anonymity, they could fill in the blanks and come to their own conclusion about me, my history and determine where my future lay. Had I given them a clearer statement regarding who I was as person, I present them instead with a ‘take me or leave me’ set of cards.
Even though these statements themselves are constructed and neatly presented, I am aware of my own self-satisfying need to not only admire myself, but see myself reflected in all that I do. What comes from me, is me and that is my final observation.