“The way we see ourselves
depends on other people”
THE FACE AND THE PERSON: the great conundrum of surface and interior. Conventional wisdom warns us that beauty is only skin deep and, by inference, that a pretty expression might belie an ugly personality or irregularly features conceal a warm heart. Nonetheless, Oscar Wilde observed, with characteristic acuity, that “it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances”. After all, what else can we see but the surface; the appearance of things. Humanity is a social species that prospers in cooperation while always on guard for potential treachery and conflict. In the process of evolution a large part of the frontal cortex has developed to accumulate and assess the tiniest facial nuance in those we meet, in an attempt to divine their true intentions.
There is one exception to this rule. One situation in which we have direct knowledge of both the interior and surface: ourselves. We see our face only infrequently, in a looking-glass or in photographs. For much of the time, especially in the bathroom mirror, it is no more than a cursory recognition. (And our image is, of course, reversed in the reflection.) Photographs, especially those in which we are not wearing the carefully engineered façade of our ‘photograph face’ can be disconcerting, because the person in the image is, in some ways, a stranger. How would we respond to that face, if we did not know it to be ourselves?
THE SCOTS POET Robert Burns spoke of this: “O would some power the giftie give us to see ourselves as others see us.” It’s a line from his ode ‘To a Louse’ in which he describes sitting in church watching the insect crawling around the bonnet of a woman in the pew in front. She meanwhile remains blissfully unaware that her upper-class affectations are rendered foolish by this tiny visitor. Today, in a world that sells perfection in every carefully PhotoShopped image of impossible beauty, we are less confident. The insistent grin of the ‘selfie’ bears witness to an underlying anxiety – how many ‘likes’ will my image receive on FaceBook? In assessing the way we appear we are in thrall to the perceptual mirror of others.
A recent project by the Russian artist Darya Pas explores the gap between how we look and how we see ourselves. The experiment was elegant in its simplicity; uncanny in its outcome. Each subject was asked to construct an image of themself using an identikit. The process of constructing these self-portraits provoked a range of emotions from anger and frustration to humour and even joy. Most, however, found it deeply challenging and many remained dissatisfied with the outcome. For all involved, it became a learning process; a meditation upon the vagaries of self-perception.
The identikit self-portrait was set beside a photograph of the individual – the former on the left, the latter (shot using the same high-key, shadowless lighting) on the right. The gap between perception and physiognomy is often striking and sets up a dialogue between the two images. In a number of cases it is clear that a facial attribute is not simply acknowledged by the subject but magnified in a sort of caricature. In some cases this is to over-accentuate a feature that deviates from the narrow canon of contemporary beauty or gender stereotype. Anna, a young woman with an almond face constructs her identikit portrait with an exaggerated elongation (above). Meanwhile Constantine, a young man with a gentle gaze, selects the eyes of a woman for his identikit, aware but unafraid of this softness of expression (below).
CLICHÉS AND HOMILIES abound that warn us against superficial judgement of others from the way they look. We may be constrained to know the world through its surfaces, but we would be wise to draw our conclusions with care and compassion. And, as Darya Pas’ project demonstrates, in taking such advice, we might do well to begin with ourselves.