Learning to see


The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.

Dorothea Lange


When I was younger, I was clumsy. I tripped along quite happily in my private world, not really noticing. Friends used to complain to me that if they saw me in the street and shouted my name, I would not respond.

Didn’t you see me?
What, really? You were calling me? Sorry I was miles away….

I bumped into lampposts.

I was 15. A girl, awkward, whose body was betraying her. I wasn’t yet ready to inhabit the unfamiliar swells of burgeoning womanhood. I hid behind chunky cherry DMs, drab cheesecloth tops and jingly jangly skirts embroidered with tiny mirrors, which I hunted out in the dingy second hand shops which smelt of sandalwood and patchouli oil.

I dealt with growing up by trying to make myself small. As small as I could. My thoughts kept me company. My inner life was rich and just-fine-thank-you. I read hungrily, voraciously, desperately (mostly gothic, or romantic literature which affirmed my belief that my life was terrible and tragic, and that I was profoundly misunderstood). My parents hated each other. My sister hated me. My brothers, ambivalent. I lied to my friends. I wanted to fold myself over in half again and again like a piece of paper until I became a perfectly tiny origami square. Insignificant. I didn’t want to be me. I wrote in my diary about hate and anger and shame.

Other people saw a normal girl with a normal life. A girl who had everything she could want.

As it turned out my picture-perfect world was a loosely stacked tower of jenga bricks. The foundations were shaky. A house made of straw. All it took was one swift puff from the metaphorical wolf and it all came tumbling down around us. It was Christmas eve 1991. I sat on the stairs, clung to the banisters and listened to words tumble out. Words which I should not have heard. Words of hatred. Words of passion. Words of betrayal. Words which floated around in my head, confused and aimless at first, but then they slowly, and surely arranged themselves into coherent sentences, which sparked catastrophic chain reactions in my adolescent brain.

A little earthquake occurred.

After that, everything was black for a long, long time. I was devastated. Lost under the rubble.

At some point, many years later (I can’t pinpoint exactly when), I ‘discovered’ photography. It wasn’t like a sudden revelation for me, more of a slow burn of realisation, and I started to notice things. I noticed shapes and patterns in everyday scenes around me. I noticed the world in colour. I noticed it in black and white. I noticed the light, and how it changed throughout the day. I saw a lonely figure where others saw a pile of crates. I saw couples holding hands. I looked up, and I looked down. I noticed people who were interesting and people who were also looking, and noticing, or not noticing. I noticed objects left stranded. I noticed detail and texture. I saw graffiti, shop windows, doorways, signs, as if for the first time. I noticed rubbish, abandoned things. I noticed that they were beautiful. Each day I saw the stage set for everyday life to be played out in all its isolation, its togetherness, its community; in all its irony and incongruity. It was all utterly seductive to me.











Some images from a recent walk around London (Oxford St, Trafalgar Square, and China town)

I took a lot of terrible photographs, but I was noticing. I was seeing frantically, as if I had never seen before, with fresh, hungry eyes.

I took a city and guilds course to learn how to use a camera properly.

My inherent carelessness (read: laziness) and lack of attention to detail let me down somewhat. Always the daydreamer, I had good ideas but struggled to execute them in the way I wanted to. Nonetheless, I passed my city and guilds photography (despite handing in my work late, on the morning of the presentation). Something was driving me onwards.

I applied to do an MA (rather ambitiously). I stayed up all night writing my application in an inspired frenzy of activity. As the course director browsed my rather shoddy, hurriedly-put-together portfolio and made comments like well I can see you have a lot to learn, and yes, the presentation does leave a lot to be desired my stomach plunged down into my boots. When he asked me what I wanted to do for my final project I mumbled something vague about architecture and stared vacantly at the postcards above his desk when he gave me a quizzical look. I didn’t know. I felt like such fool; I hadn’t thought any of this through, yet at the same time I realised at that moment how much I wanted this. Right then and there.

He even laughed at one point (there was definitely a smirk, or a snigger).

Oh the shame!

My face burned. I sat on my hands. I suddenly wanted to fold up again. I had no words. I offered no defense. He was right.

Then, when we had finished, he looked at me pragmatically, and, to my great surprise (and admittedly not with the greatest amount of conviction) said Yes well… these are just details which we can fix… I can see you have a good eye… and with that I was accepted onto the course. I could see he wasn’t sure, and my academic references saved me I’m sure, but it didn’t matter.

I was in!

To this day, I am still utterly shocked that he accepted me. I spent most of the two years I was on that course thinking that I didn’t belong there. I wasn’t a photographer. Hell my hands even shook like crazy most of the time when I picked up a camera! I didn’t really know what I was doing.

But he gave me a break I really needed. I was no longer daydreaming, drifting aimlessly along in my fantasy world. I had a purpose, a goal to work towards. No more self-indulgent hours spent sitting in the bath and sobbing my heart out until the water grew cold.

Those two years fed my soul and I surprised myself and excelled, quietly. I thought about photography all the time. I visited exhibitions; I was engaged in debates around photography; I was reading and writing about photography; I was discussing photography with interesting like-minded people, but I was also absorbing, all of the time looking and listening and learning. I was focused and therefore making better, more thoughtful pictures. Alex and I were very poor for those two years. We didn’t go out much, we scrimped and saved. For my part I was engaged in something that mattered to me. I was blissfully happy.

And then, a faint blue line. Almost insignificant, at first.

Barely there.

But I watched it deepen. I watched it bleed outwards and imprint itself on that thin little white strip of paper. It was unavoidable, it was decisive. The effect of that blue line was immediate, and seismic.

It was there.

It was there in the early morning queasiness, in the all-consuming tiredness, and in the way my body, now so familiar, and now finally me, slowly became tender, awkward, and inevitably, utterly alien to me once more.

Gradually, the faintest butterfly like flutters turned into something more persistent, and unmistakably present inside me, and I felt little heels and toes and fists as they punched and jabbed and stretched and shifted and rested under the stretch of my belly. I would dream that I could just reach in and pluck him out, he seemed so close, so totally there, but not yet there. I stayed awake putting in all nighters on essays and final projects as my course drew to a close. I imagined, romantically, that I would be transmitting all of my knowledge and ideas to my growing baby in the same way that I transmitted essential nutrients to him via my vital, throbbing placenta. When he was born they showed it to me. It was a huge, monstrous, pulsating thing. I hated it immediately. I did not find it beautiful.

He was beautiful, but, he was my everything. My all. My joy, my pain. He was my sleep and my wake. I fed him, and he fed me. We were totally wrapped up in each other. When he was born, I stopped taking pictures, and I lost myself all over again.

I graduated from my MA with first class honours and I took my lively 7 month old son along to the ceremony. By then the magic was already gone, somehow. I had lost touch with the academic world. I had side-stepped into another dimension; a pseudo world which consisted of an endless outpouring of bodily fluids (mine and his) and nappies and stuff. So much stuff, a disproportionate amount, everywhere, which seemed to be required for such a tiny thing!

And sleep. I was consumed by sleep (or non-sleeping, I should say). I wondered if I would ever sleep the night through again and whether he would ever sleep and whether babies were actually a form of torture designed to suppress otherwise intelligent and normally functioning women and men into complete and utter crazies who argue, nay row, have fierce blazing rows about leaving cupboard doors open and where things go in the fridge and whose turn it is to put the rubbish out … just because they are so damn tired and those things seem unbelievably, earth-shatteringly important at that moment.

(And then there is the fear, and how sometimes – more times than I cared to admit – I looked at him, and I wanted to run away).

My world had suddenly shrunk to miniscule and meaningless proportions. All perspective gone, flushed down the plug hole with the tears and the blood and the vomit and the bottles of expressed milk I never used …. I didn’t have big ideas or worthy points to make about anything important any more. I was no-one. Small, and lost again.

Eventually I found my way out of the otherworldly fog which I came to realise much later was depression. I have learnt that when I am OK with myself, I am able to see clearly, and I am able to create. Leaning to see for me is a journey of discovery, of self-acceptance. I’m good, actually. And the way that I look at the world is OK too. It’s me. Integrally, unmistakably me. I can’t hide from that.

And so there is new clarity. Every time I close my eyes and open them again I refresh, I renew.

The image is stored.

Learning to photograph is learning to see.


 I wonder, what do you see?


My apologies to those of you who received a very early draft version of this post earlier on this week – I clicked publish instead of preview!

© images and content Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2013

%d bloggers like this: