People hearing without listening…

I was looking for a picture of an umbrella. When I found the image I wanted I followed it back to its source, which turned out to be a blog post about photography by a lady called Miranda Ward. Miranda used the picture of her mother holding a red umbrella to illustrate the point that her photography, that had at one time promised much, had become something quite different. In her piece, she also ranges over many different ways of looking at both photographs and photography, as a mere capturer of images, as a revealer of truth, and even about the futility of interpreting photographs as the realisation of someone else’s vision. She laments that she can no longer smell the developer in the darkroom bath and that modern camera phones are less satisfying to use than their more tactile and aesthetic ancestors, with knobs and buttons to push and press, with gnurled rings to twist and turn. I get the sense that, although she does not specifically say so, Miranda is equating this loss of interaction with the process of photography with her loss of facility with the outcome. Maybe, she seems to be suggesting, if she had a camera that put her more in control, she would be more in control.

It’s a beautifully written piece, obviously crafted by someone who cares both about her subject and her writing, but as I read it there seemed to be something she was anxious to avoid saying. To me, it was like a flower after rain, photographed in extreme close up, with a single drop of crystal clear water hanging, trembling, on the lip of a brightly coloured petal, daring me to look away, which I cannot do for fear of missing it fall. Miranda was discussing the shape of the petal, the curve of the stamen, the colour of the sky as the rainclouds recede into the distance, every detail brought sharply into focus by her camera except that single drop of unfallen water, when, to me, the fear of missing that raindrop fall was the most interesting thing about the image.

The topic Miranda artfully skirted around and left unspoken was both the connection and the difference between looking and seeing. She quotes for us a line from a profile of the German fine art photographer Thomas Struth, “The most mindless snapshot tells the truth of what the camera’s eye saw at the moment the shutter clicked.” The point, I think, is that the camera can record only what the photographer sees. The person holding the camera must first see the image, then manipulate the device to record the image they see. If the person is only looking, and does not see, the result is, in some sense, a picture rather than a photograph.

I think it also works that way in other visual arts. A painter cannot paint until he has seen, even if only in his mind’s eye, what it is he wants to paint. A sculptor has to first see the figure hidden within the rock before he can chip away the excess to reveal the statue that was there all along, un-noticed by those who merely looked. It might even be possible to suggest that a writer cannot describe a scene she has not first visualised, or a poet wax lyrical about the shadow at the nape of his lover’s neck, and, “Break through those curls above her nape, That hover close and lightly there,” until he has truly seen them lying there.

Looking at something is not the same as seeing it, and the expression, “to see, as if for the first time” is a common trope in bildungsroman and the one thing noticeable by its absence from a picaresque novel. The picaro does not learn precisely because he cannot see, but only looks at the world and experiences it at a superficial level that blinds him to the causes of his problems. Don Quixote, for example, is unable to see how old and lame is his horse, Rocinante, or how futile and ill advised is his quest for the love of the fair Dulcinea of Taboso. So he proceeds, in company with his trusty squire Sancho Panza, who knows his master is mad, but does nothing to prevent him going forth on his quest.

We can see the same idea expressed in the lyrics of popular songs. Simon and Garfunkel had their first major hit with a 1966 song called, “Sounds of Silence“, written in the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The lyrics are written in the first person with an un-named narrator “talking” to the darkness that reigns all around him. He tells of a nightmare vision he had in which he saw, “Ten thousand people, maybe more, People talking without speaking, People hearing without listening…” and he goes on to relate how the people ignored his pleading with them and just prayed to the “neon god” they’d made (television?), and the sound of silence reigned supreme. In this case the people are deliberately ignoring one message to listen to another, they ignore the narrator who tells them that, “Silence like a cancer grows, Hear my words that I might teach you, Take my arms that I might reach you…” and they instead become transfixed by the silence, which I understand here to be a metaphor for ignorance. There are, it seems to be saying, none so blind as those who will not see.

I was thinking about this as I read the text of a speech that Barack Obama made to some children in Israel. Before proceeding to what he said that day, we need to review who Barack Obama is, to put his words into some kind of context. He has been President of the United States since January 2009, and just ten months later, in October 2009 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Some commenters felt that was a little premature and that maybe he had been given the prize for things he had promised to do rather than for things he had actually done. And that includes me; I was taken in by his eloquent campaign speeches, the simple, hypnotic rhythym of, “yes we can” and the beguiling You-Tube video of his message of hope turned into a popular song by beautiful people. I was guilty of
having heard what I wanted to hear rather than listening to what he actually said. I had believed the rhetorical flourish with which he seemed to promise that everything would be so much better than before if only he was in office. But he hadn’t said that at all. What he promised was change. He never actually said anything would be better than before, just different. And I clearly was not alone in my disappointment. In those ten months after taking office he had barely got his feet under the desk and had talked the talk pretty well but had, in the minds of many, yet to start walking the walk.

Then he went to Israel.

This was his first visit to Israel as president and in some quarters it was hoped that this might signal a resurrection of the peace talks between Israel and Palestine that collapsed four years ago. On 21 March, at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, he addressed an audience of largely young people, of students, the next generation of Israel’s leaders and politicians, and he told them, in phrases redolent with biblical imagery, that it was up to them to work harder towards achieving an independent Palestine. Recalling how Joshua became the leader of the Israelites after the death of Moses he called them the Joshua Generation, implying that it was up to them to take up the baton that had been dropped and for them to run with it on the next leg of their nation’s journey.

He compared the young people he saw before him with his own daughters, and he pointed out the obvious truth that young Palestinians are not any different from them. They have similar dreams and hopes for their futures. They have similar ideals and aspirations and want exactly the same things that young people everywhere want. In a few phrases he related the long history of the exodus and the wandering in the desert and the joy when the Jewish people finally found their homeland on the West Bank. He compared this to the story of the African American and his long, slow exodus from slavery, and he said, repeatedly, in numerous ways, that all the Palestinians want is the exact same thing.

Peace, he told them, is not just the work of governments but of people. And then he said a very surprising thing. Political leaders, he said, “will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see“. He told them, the students, the hopeful youth of a nation, the future of Israel to push their politicians for the changes they want to see.

It’s a long speech, it took almost fifty minutes to deliver and there was lots of applause interpersed with his words. The people clearly welcomed what he had to say and you have to admit that it is an essentially simple but brave idea. The President of the United States is often described as the most powerful man on earth, but he was saying to these young people that he cannot do this thing that they want, they must do it for themselves. They must make the peace with Palestine and they must push their politicians to make that peace too. It remains to be seen whether they listened to what he had to say, or whether they only heard him, but we can, indeed we must, hope that they listened.

1. “Break through those curls above her nape, That hover close and lightly there,” the quotation is from Where She is Now, by the one-legged Welsh poet William Henry Davies (1871 – 1940).


  1. Miranda Ward – A Short Personal History of Cameras
  2. Simon and Garfunkel – Sounds of Silence – lyrics
  3. White House Press Office – President’s speech in Jerusalem, 21-Mar-2013
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