Thursday 4 February 2010

Scared to get caught staring

"Her skin is flawless, her eyes huge and all-consuming", Chrissy Iley writes in the Observer about the actress Susan Sarandon (Sunday 17 January 2010: "Susan Sarandon: sexy, single and 63") and adds: "She is not afraid to look at you and she's not afraid to let you look right in at her. It's an open face. No slyness, no manipulation. She is renowned for being a woman who doesn't fear most things and certainly doesn't fear speaking her mind."

People who are not afraid to look at you are not the rule, and people who are not afraid to let you look right in at them are pretty rare. For looking is essentially taboo, except when you are given permission.

The photographer and editor of Zone Zero, Pedro Meyer, in April 2009, mentioned in an email to me:
"Strangely enough I have been accused of looking, just using my eyes, in a way that some people feel uncomfortable with. To me it seems different, because I know that what I am looking at or for is that I am trying to understand. A far cry from being aggressive or predatory. However, being looked at, is not something that is either polite, in social terms, or accepted too easily, because in essence the person feeling uncomfortable is projecting their insecurity. The question comes up in their minds ... What is he looking at? Why is he looking at me? Who is he to be looking like that?
Well sometimes that can be easily resolved with answers, but then at other moments, the circumstances do not allow for such clarifications. Either because of distance from the subject, language, or spontaneity, etc. etc."

Looking at someone when one is not being noticed is not a problem except of course when it is clear to you that you are not supposed to look. And when is that? You usually know it when you find yourself in such a situation. And that also goes for taking pictures although to hold a camera in your hands often gives you, implicitly, permission to look. And sometimes you are of course quite explicitly invited to take pictures - just think of photo ops, family photographs, portraits etc.

Recently, at the bus station of Iratí, in the Southern Brazilian state of Paraná, I observed two young woman chatting animatedly with one of the bus drivers. I thought it an intriguing picture. I wanted a photo of it and so I took out my camera but then realised that I would need a flash which would certainly draw the attention of the people I was focused on. They probably wouldn't mind though, I thought to myself, yet I did not feel comfortable stealing this picture. And so I didn't take this photograph. Needless to say, as a professional photographer I would be hopeless.

But why is it that the act of closely looking, if it does not happen in a socially acccepted situation, is essentially taboo? My best guess is: Because we do not want, and can't bear, to see the world as it is. As Anton Chekov wrote in Lady with Lapdog:
"He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth -- such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his "lower race," his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities -- all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. All personal life rested on secrecy, and possibly it was partly on that account that civilised man was so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected."

In other words: to be superficial is helpful for the truth would be too much to bear. As Nietzsche stated in Jenseits von Gut und Böse (Beyond Good and Evil): „Wer tief in die Welt gesehen hat, errät wohl, welche Weisheit darin liegt, dass die Menschen oberflächlich sind. Es ist ihr erhaltender Instinkt, der sie lehrt, flüchtig, leicht und falsch zu sein.“ (He who has seen deeply into the world knows what wisdom there is in the superficiality of men. It is their instinct for preservation which teaches them to be cursory, flimsy, and false).

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