The Stereoscopic Eye

Inessential views of art and photography.

About seeing – What we perceive vs. what is there

*Originally posted in 2015 here.


We tend to think that we all see the same when we look at something that is in front of our eyes. However, our social and cultural backgrounds clearly play a role. For example, in our multi-cultural household we perceive my sister’s hair differently. While she is surely blonde to me, my partner would describe her as light brunette, perhaps as a dark blonde at a stretch, and my step-children definitively see her as brunette and brunette only. I come from Spain, my partner is from the US and the children and (Northern) Irish. My own colour hair has been up for discussion a couple of times. Apparently I have black hair! Well, I wish! Compared against a colour card it reveals itself as (boring) brown. Interestingly, even colour cards are not as “objective” as we might have thought.

Our eyes and brains see physically and socially what we choose to look at. Richard Chalfen* distinguishes between to look as to appear and to look as to see in an effort to map the visible dimensions of society and culture for researches. When we explore how things or people appear, we draw our attention towards visible aspects of cultures and societies, for instance garments, hairstyles and tattoos as well as pictorial representations of place (maps, postcards) and faith (relics, altars) and others. These visual objects can be examined from the perspective of the observable and the perspective of the observer. What do we see about a certain culture/time period by looking at advertisement? What content is prevalent in sports related ads in magazines? What can learn about the audience of those advertisements by looking at them? Why are women represented in such and such a way? If we add the mediatic dimension to our question, we can always compare how messages are tailored depending on the carrier (billboards, mobile-phones, tv) and of course the audience. Publicists are savvy professionals who know very well how to guide our eye and frame our interpretation. In turn, advertisement is a very rich area of inquiry for visual sociologist. But it is not the only one.

Genre and gender are two core questions explored by film studies scholars. Often through the analysis of stepstone movies framed by a concrete socio-cultural moment, scholars analyze what the visual stories we tell, reveal about our society at large. Recently, digital technology and the capacity of processing big data with “smaller” computers have given rise to “other” research questions that critically challenge not only discourses on ideologies but also normative perceptions of something as “objective” as colour. The following colour analysis of western films reveals they feature a wide palette of colours: blue, black, orange and even pink!

Kevin Ferguson has analysed 50 of the classic western movies and discover that colour is very subjective! Photograph published by Visual News [ – page no longer available -]

Sturken and Cartwright** also reflect on the meaning and use of seeing and looking. They understand seeing as something that we just do everyday, at every moment, everywhere. Seeing is part of being human. Looking, however, is a more complicated process. It is about taking the world around us into account, interpret it and interiorize it. In their view, seeing is somehow “natural”, while looking is somehow “learned”. They suggest to look at Weegee’s work as an example of how looking, and the process of selection inextricably embedded in photographing, has and is used as means to highlight social problems. Soon their text moves into representation and thereby the authors make clear that any image, even if it is indexical, is a representation. Although they use paintings as examples to illustrate their arguments, photographs are subjected to a high degree of selection, composition and modification. Dorothea Lange’s “The Migrant Mother” is a classic example of this. Still, the “photographic truth” is a well alive myth. Light-created images are still used as evidence in court and cameras of various sorts are employed as methods of research by sociologists and anthropologists, who often claim to have recorded the reality of the field as it was. But even when using a go-pro camera, even when inviting a large number of participants to send their own images, we need to acknowledge that when we write with light we are still writing. Stories are still being told and whether we like it or not, we shape them.

*Chalfen, Richard (2011): “Looking Two Ways: Mapping the Social Scientific Study of Visual Culture”. In, Eric Margolis and Luc Pauwels (eds.): The SAGE Handbook Visual Research Methods. SAGE.

**Sturken, M., Cartwright, L, 2001. Practices of Looking: image, power, and politics. In Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford University Press, Oxford ; New York.  Representation, and the myth of photographic truth.


One comment on “About seeing – What we perceive vs. what is there

  1. Pingback: SOC513 - Visual Sociology (Guest Edition) - The Social Breakdown

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This entry was posted on October 7, 2021 by in Visual Sociology and tagged , , .

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