The Ways of John Berger’s Seeing: How I learnt to look.

The way we look, see, sense, and understand things, is a deeply personal matter.

The concept and production of the ‘Personal Statement’ for university applications is, therefore, deeply troubling. At an age and stage of life where our minds feel limitless – to the point of being rather beyond our control (with revision disciplining, attention spans, and sleeping patterns all but disintegrated) – how on earth are we then to limit our mind’s eye and voice into a set number of words, organised in polite and concise grammar and punctuation, and submit it to five higher institutions, who themselves suffer the limitation of only being able to judge us based on this statement, and a series of letters, numbers, and perhaps a certificate to prove some of us have survived a few soggy days on Dartmoor all in the name of the Duke of Edinburgh?

I was, admittedly, without this last element on my application to university, and so I was made to feel even more limited. But I was not alone. I had my education, I had my passion, my interests, my wobbly opinions on things, my desire to get to university and hunger to learn. I also had a book called ‘Ways of Seeing’.

Of first note, Berger writes about ‘Ways’ – there is more than one ‘way’ of seeing. Plurality of method results in plurality of product, which in this context delivers a lively diversity of opinion, sentiment, meaning, and directions forward from the initial observation. It also encourages an openness of mind on what to look at altogether; too often we’re able to just bypass a lot of things, because their immediate appearance or impression is thought of as not being ‘worthy’ to be looked at. My first encounter with Berger was in fact in an A-Level English lesson, in which an episode of his BAFTA award-winning television series ‘Ways of Seeing’ (1972) was projected vaguely onto the white board. I could sense my peers’ suspicion of the muffled, dated video tape, narrated by a man with olive-y lined skin, large and caring hands gesticulating succinctly, with patience, his points on art, culture, and society. They were clearly intellectual comments, yet to our impatient ‘modern’ eye, were rather distracted from being appreciated by a thick mop of really bad ‘70s hair. Was this hair worth paying attention to? What about the voice speaking from within it? What sort of head does it grow on? Too often in television, we seek the immediate aesthetics, and allow those to tell the story, since they are ready and waiting, flickering at us and demanding our attention. What the on-screen images don’t demand nearly as much as, for example, words do of us, is understanding. The first way Berger taught me to see things, is by listening. Yes, television is all about the visuals, that is the magic of it as a machine. Yet, without listening to Berger – without opening our mind’s eye to more than one way of understanding or seeing his points of view, we would be limiting ourselves and the extent of our understanding.

After listening, and watching, I wanted to see more: the revelation that the programme was taken from a book was like having a pair of glasses put on me with special lenses, opening my eyes wider. The book was ordered, and a small jolt was triggered in the mechanics of my personal statement production process, a little spark of electricity to get the circuit working. Amazingly, reading the words on the page caused my mind to see more than I had heard being spoken from the projector screen; another, internal way of seeing was introduced to me.  The whole time I had been watching Berger, his eyes were slightly squinting, deep in thought over every word he uttered, as though he was considering everything he was saying with the audience themselves, even when he must have already thought of and rehearsed them. All the time he was thinking – looking, and seeing, and thinking to look again. He wore glasses with such universally enormous lenses, and because he worked incredibly hard to make them himself, and was devoted and attentive to everything he looked at.

Berger appeared to care so deeply about so many things, and moreover take great care in the way in which we see, address, and treat them with our thoughts and opinions. Still one thing remains starkly in my mind – the idea, or concept, of the ‘nude’. I think being a seventeen-year-old girl studying Woolf at the time might have made this particularly poignant, but it has nevertheless always been one of the first things which comes to mind whenever I consider women, in art or in life, and when I am wishing to recommend Berger to anyone who asks. Through using artistic reference, Berger enlightened ideas of patriarchy, misogyny, vanity, sexism, identity and self-consciousness, in the boldest and most touching sense to me, as no other means had done thus far in my education. I felt I couldn’t even compare myself with what he described, since it was all so accurate as to what I had felt or experienced personally, yet conveyed with concise and sensitive means which were beyond anything I could attempt to communicate. What he writes is a form of philosophy, but written in such a delicate and wise way, it refrains from the pretences of many other art critics. His writing appears like a version of a stream of consciousness – recording the cognitive process of seeing catalysed by the look at or of something. It is so openly offered to us, spoken to its audience in such a plain honesty of an observation, it was unlike any other documentary ‘presented’ that I had previously seen. On reflection, it felt more like it was being shared with us, rather than ‘presented’, and in the same way I felt his book was actually making me experience sights of things that were projected out of the text, rather than just absorbing words from being looked at and attempted to be understood. In a way, it is a sort of meta-vision which Berger suggests, certainly multiple and diverse, but also all-encompassing and non-judgemental, which alludes to his personal left-wing attitudes noted by many a writer and critic.

If we were just to look, we would indeed find a Marxist tone, rather straightforward and determined in dictating the realities of social and political injustice, prejudice, and evils of capitalism being represented through art. Not being particularly political myself, to see a headline referring to Berger as ‘the Marxist critic’ was rather a surprise. Whether I had been reading in ignorance of the strength of his political intellectualism, the proof of Berger’s wisdom is that with or without this context, his words remain intrinsic in the way that I catch myself thinking, as many people must do by now, about all things which make up the objects and subjects of our society, political or otherwise. I had still been able to appreciate and explore so much from what I had read by Berger, even though I had clearly not been able to appreciate how political his work might have been, particularly for its time. It’s a valuable lesson, perhaps, that I ought to have looked a bit more and seen how important that factor was; a reminder, that there is always something else to learn, and another way to see.

Whilst writing this, I have read over passages and quotes from Berger’s book, and have been tempted to insert and reference them in order to strengthen my convictions about it. But, I feel in this instance, I should not be the one to provide just the odd bit of text to risk just being ‘looked’ at. As powerful as these short statements are – I would hope that everyone at some point would think to read Berger. I am rather shamelessly proselytizing, and definitely don’t think of myself as being at all convincing or authoritative in doing so; I am just offering a thought, with the hope of it being as open and liberating as the way Berger offered his thoughts to me (and clearly inspired me to try to do the same to others). Quiet confidence of curiosity is what Berger taught me to possess, and fortunately at a point in my life where it was really very much needed: to be quiet enough to be contained in that page-and-a-quarter-odd patch of text, to be confident enough to mention certain achievements, ambitions, and opinions, and above all to convey directly a curiosity to learn, see, sense, and think. That I appreciated Berger’s ideas so personally, was also another valuable addition which helped me to write my statement for university application. What I have seen, felt, and been made to think of since then, is what I truly value, and inspires me to learn and lead on from every sight.

The news of John Berger’s death early this year was a sorrowful nudge of recollection as to how important his writing had been for me. Astoundingly, though, even his death seemed something gentle, natural, sincere, in the same way he spoke and wrote. At the age of ninety, he had achieved and devoted a huge extent of work – poems, essays, novels, books – always reinterpreting or re-introducing subjects in new ways. Berger was a key part in teaching me the most important skill, and as humans, the gift, that we are freely able to use.

Essentially, Berger really taught me to See, because he taught me that there are endless Ways of doing it. It was one of the most liberating things I can remember realising. Thank You.


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