Trapped on both sides of the lens: John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ and pictures of women

“Women constantly meet glances which act like mirrors reminding them of how they look or how they should look. Behind every glance there is judgment.”

When art critic, novelist, and essayist John Berger passed away at age 90 in January 2017, there followed the kind of outpouring of digital love usually reserved for national treasures of the late afternoon TV variety. A lifelong Marxist who spent the majority of his later years in France, the adulation expressed by the British press and the social media accounts of teenage feminists alike would seem surprising, were it not for the enduring appeal of Berger’s most famous work, Ways of Seeing. 

An essay collection compiled following his 1972 BBC television series of the same name, Ways of Seeing has become a mainstay of University art courses and has even been credited with changing the way a generation of Britons looked at art. However, that isn’t the crux of its appeal in 2020; by far the most quoted and publicly beloved essay in the book concerns the treatment and implications of the female nude in European oil painting.

For the uninitiated, that probably doesn’t mean very much, but this essay has taken on new meaning for a generation of women who have come of age with the Internet and image-driven social media platforms like Instagram. In it, Berger argues that a woman “is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. […] Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

In a few sentences, Berger’s negotiation of the social politics of images of women, and particularly the images women create of themselves, anticipated our cultural and media obsession with the selfie. His ideas speak to an industry founded roughly forty years after Ways of Seeing was published: social media influencers, amongst whom some of the most visible figures are women turning the camera on themselves, transforming their image into a brand that necessarily follows them wherever they go and which cannot be separated from the way they present their appearance.

Since the boom that saw ‘selfie’ become the OED’s word of the year in 2013, there have been a number of books published exploring the implications of our desire to document and display curated images of ourselves. One of the latest is Will Storr’s Selfie: How the West Became Self-Obsessed, which takes a broad historical sweep from Ancient Greece to our present “era of hyper-individualistic neoliberalism.” One of the most striking interviews in Storr’s book is with a young woman, self-described “selfie-addict” Charlotte ‘CJ’ Michaels, who, following her participation, hit the headlines with a claim that even a funeral wouldn’t deter her from taking a selfie.

Aside from the surface similarity with Berger’s hypothetical woman creating a mental image of her tearful face upon her father’s death, Storr’s book doesn’t spend much time focussing on how CJ’s identity as a woman might have shaped her social media habits—which the author freely admits are so extreme as to be unrepresentative.

Storr describes our culture of selfies and influencers as having “gamified the self,” creating a situation where our images compete with one another’s for “likes, feedback and friends,” with a small number of ‘winners’ converting images of themselves into wealth and celebrity. It’s not an inaccurate analysis of prominent corners of the Internet. However, it strikes me that this phenomenon pre-dates social media, not simply insofar as what Storr calls late-twentieth century ‘self-esteem culture’ having laid the groundwork for a more “narcissistic” age, but in that women’s selves have been “gamified” for far longer than the last half-century.

Nearly fifty years ago, Berger wrote that a woman “has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.” He takes this maxim and applies it to numerous depictions of women from medieval art to early seventies advertising campaigns, and by showing us these images side by side, makes us see it too.

These figures often look back at the spectator in calculated charm, obviously posed, very much on display. The comparison leaves no doubt that they are there for the spectator, either watching themselves being looked at through the lens of a camera or painted as conscious of their spectators’ gaze, and performing for it. Any number of selfies taken by some of the more notable lifestyle, beauty, fitness Instagram influencers would fit seamlessly amongst their ranks.

It’s why a quote from a Communications professor at Ohio State University, included in Storr’s book, rankles slightly. Sensibly, Professor Jesse Fox argues that seeking approval from social media followers is no bad thing in itself. The danger, he claims, is “getting accustomed to constant social feedback and constantly being told you’re pretty,” so that when this gets cut off, “you start to feel bad about yourself.” It’s by no means an offensive comment, but its positioning in the book demonstrates no awareness that this kind of social exchange, especially for women, predates and expands far beyond social media.

In contrast, Berger articulated this sense of being surveilled, both externally and by oneself, as enduringly fundamental to pictures of women—and did so in a way that maps onto images women curate of themselves for public consumption (and sometimes profit) in the present day.

But perhaps the most important element of Berger’s essay on women’s images is that it does not seek to ascribe blame to its subjects, or suggest that women modeling for paintings or adverts operated under a false consciousness.

Often mocked for their apparent frivolity, selfie culture and influencers have proven divisive, even—and especially—within the feminist movement. On the one hand, you have the Insta-influencer archetype: monetising a version of womanhood that is exclusively slender, white, self-consciously posed amid the obvious trappings of an upper-middle class lifestyle. On the other, you have what The Selfie Generation author Alicia Eler describes as “an aesthetic with radical potential for bringing visibility to people and bodies that are othered.” But where does that dichotomy leave you? It is quite possible for an image of a woman to straddle the divide, different elements of her curated image simultaneously performing for and in spite of the expectations of her likely spectators.

Moreover, it is difficult to suggest that a woman who is not using her image to sell products or practices that harm other women is damaging feminism by staging a picture of herself exactly as she wants it to appear. Few seem keen to claim that by attaching a picture of himself in swimwear to his online profile, a young man has inflicted damage to the reputation of men. When a critical response is elicited, it is usually because he is seen to be wearing or taking part in something culturally coded as ‘feminine.’ To this, I leave you Berger’s closing sentiment: find a copy of the first image reading this brought to mind. Look at it, and imagine it is a picture of a male subject. “Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the image, but to the assumptions of a likely viewer.”

Featured image: “Stiff” by Emily Young, from Issue Thirty.


Imogen Shaw

Imogen Shaw recently completed her MA in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is a political communications professional and freelance writer. Her poetry has appeared in The Mays Anthology, Bedford Square Review, Anti-Heroin Chic and elsewhere. Imogen also writes features, essays and opinion pieces for a range of online publications.

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