I am always nervous to rely upon dictionary definitions when putting forward any kind of argument or discussion point, but despite this I’d like to start this article by doing exactly that. The Oxford Dictionary basic definition of looking is to direct one’s gaze in a specified direction. The definition of seeing is the action of seeing someone or something. Similar but different.
I think we need to go deeper. Another set of definitions suggests that seeing is the sense or faculty of sight or vision and that looking is to glance or to gaze. These definitions help us to understand how to use the words but do they really bring us understanding of the difference between these two actions with relation to photography? I don’t think so.
There is I believe a seriousness of intention that one of these words suggests, whilst the other gives the impression of a casual approach to perhaps what is the same thing. For example, if I say that “I see you!” I am suggesting a multitude of possibilities of what I am actually seeing. Am I seeing you or who you are? Or both? Am I identifying you or merely informing you that you have been identified? The word ‘see’ suggests a depth of visual engagement that allows the person ‘seeing’ to control the action and retain control of any further action that may take place after the initial seeing. To look suggests an observation of surface, it does not suggest any further depth than an that. To look suggests both the beginning and end of the action, whereas to see suggests the beginning of a process of investigation.
When speaking about portrait photography I often speak about the need to transcend the surface to reach the inner person. In this sense a successful portrait shows us more than what a person was wearing at the time of capture or the aesthetic qualities of their environment. It goes deeper and reveals a sense of who that person is and what they are thinking, are feeling or experiencing. It is the result of seeing and not merely looking.
Is this just a question of semantics with no relevance? Well, I think not. I am quite literally fed up with people telling me that photography is dead and/or dying because of the rise of the smartphone photographer. The proliferation of images cannot be denied and as a photographer friend of mine recently commented, “We are drowning in the ordinary” but in such times I believe that it is the photographer’s responsibility to define the difference between someone who looks and someone who see’s. Looking is relatively easy and therefore open to all, seeing is more difficult and requires the eye to be trained and regularly exercised.
It is this physical, creative and inquisitive seeing exercise regime that defines the strong from the ordinary and those that see from those that look. It defines the photographer, just as training and commitment define the difference between the Olympic athlete and the park runner.
We can all look, but we have to learn to see. The photographer that wishes to make work that expresses more than surface aesthetics needs to understand the difference between these two actions and more importantly implement their understanding into their images. As the photographer Paul Caponigro commented “It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it’s another thing to make a portrait of who they are.”
© Grant Scott 2020
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.