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Looking at looking

As a writer, I look a lot. I’m always watching people, observing mannerisms, how they dress, how they stand, move their hands, tilt their heads. How they interact with other humans, or pets. Where their eyes go. Do they see those luminous new leaves on the vine they’re walking past? The colour of the morning sky? The thick apricot light on the Town Hall at sunset?

I’m listening as well, bits of conversations, precious dialogue, odd words and phrasing, the soundscape of screeching miner birds and lorikeets, of trams and train whistles, but mostly I’m looking. I do it without thinking, as a lifelong habit, not consciously gathering the information that feeds into my stories, but it happens anyway. I’m good at looking at people without them having any idea that I’m doing so. Writers are. We’re a bit creepy like that.

It’s not just about information gathering, this looking business. It underpins all good writing - all good art, in fact. What is a great story, but a way of seeing the world? A one-in-all-humanity angle, which feeds directly into writer voice, which is the precious ‘weather’ of a story (thanks to Lee Kofman for that perfect description), which is the thing we respond to most as readers. The best writing puts a viewpoint on the page that could not belong to anyone else, and does it so clearly that we as readers are in that person’s viewpoint instead of our own for a while. Reading a great book is the act of empathy, made inevitable.

I’ve had to get to this stage of my life to realise something else about looking and being looked at, and that is we don’t all look equally. Growing up, I was hyper aware of the viewpoint of others - how I must appear to another looker. So much so that their viewpoint of me would be the first thing I considered. I was so busy projecting my own viewpoint into theirs that I would forget about the agency I had in being able to look out at others. This was especially acute during adolescence, those tumultuous years of change when a person’s whole identity and relationship to the world around them is shifting. I always supposed this vigilance to be unremarkable, if I even thought about it - how else to gauge reactions of others, to see how I was doing in navigating the world as young adult?

I thought everyone did it. I thought it was normal, to be constantly assessing how I must appear in the eyes of others. To anticipate their reaction, or judgement. What I realise now, of course, as the middle-aged mother of two teenagers of my own, is that this is overwhelmingly a female response. It’s inculcated by years of powerful social conditioning, of thousands of images projected into our brains of how females should look, should dress, should groom and improve themselves. It’s the result of a patriarchal expectation that sexuality is a woman’s most valuable aspect; that women are expected to appear sexually attractive, or feminine, to be judged successful . And the way we assess that is by male response (or female, because of course internalised misogyny is also very powerful in this whole process).

Women are aware of how they are seen. It is a subconscious assessment of whether they’re ‘succeeding’ as women, and it’s also a safety response. We scan the streets constantly to judge whether we are in danger, so of course we’re aware of the gaze of others. Being shaped and judged by the gaze of others is an intrinsic part of being a woman in this society.

It’s taken a conscious effort on my part to turn my own gaze outwards. To stop leaping into the minds of others, to imagine what they’re seeing when they look my way, but to return that assessing stare boldly, seeing only what I want to see. What I am interested in - or not. To colour the world around me with my own particular gaze. To become invisible - to forget my own shape as I walk through the world, to release myself of the burden of being an object and become the subject of my own days. To seize the camera and swing it round, and direct what fills the lens.

Because we need to do both. There is value in imagining yourself into the head of someone else. In reading the subtle cues of glances, jaw clenching, head dropping, an almost imperceptible tightening as one person walks past another. If you don’t do this, try it sometime. But this imagining, especially if you do it a lot, must be balanced by practising your own gaze; applying your unique filters to the day around you. Because your view is as important as anyone else’s and we need it - even more so if it’s not the dominant view.

As a writer, I’m so interested in the stories that are not being told. The ones outside the canon. The silenced voices, the ones pushed aside by the writers of history, the views not valued, or appropriated, usually in a blundering way. Experiences that have been dismissed, or found a bit icky, or not cool - all of them are at least as rich and fascinating and relevant as the stories in the mainstream. But often they will be the stories of people who are not used to their own view being given importance. I would hazard a guess that a lot of these people are the ones projecting their own view onto the eyes of others, as I did, for various reasons. People used to taking up less space on the stage, or never leaving the wings, and thinking this is normal.

In my lifetime I’ve become aware of both my own privileges and disadvantages within the society I grew up in, and by extension, of the rich seam of life and experiences beyond my own. I think things are changing, slowly. And I can’t wait! All the stories opening up around us. Past, present and future, the millions of different, specific ways of seeing. All these individual strands twisting together into the human experience and how it connects to everything else.

Having more and diverse viewpoints doesn’t threaten anybody else. It doesn’t make other stories less, as if there’s a universal pie we’re all fighting for a slice of. If it feels that way, remember that for those accustomed to privilege, anything approaching equality can feel like oppression. But it’s not true. Every single strand strengthens the whole and each new thread makes the tapestry richer. It's the specific, unique details of each story that connect us to the universal.

If you have nothing else, you have your story. Your view upon the world, from a precious life, lived. Each story, each way of seeing, is a gem, and the big pile of treasure from all those stories? Connection.

This is what we want, in the end. To see and to be seen, for who we are.

PS - The photograph is a mural of the American street photographer, Vivian Maier. Her street photography, discovered after her 2009 death, is considered some of the greatest of all time. This mural in Chicago was painted by Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra and is based on one of Maier’s self-portraits.

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