When it comes to appearances in life, there are two clear schools of thought.
One, the more obvious one, is that looks matter. Appearances matter. Clothes, hair, shoes, make up, presentation matters. This idea concentrates itself within very visual careers: fashion models and actresses, obviously. But also in the smudgy areas of work like weather reporters, estate agents, people who work in PR. Their looks shouldn’t matter, but it seems they do. What’s more, several industries mix and match, over and back, over and back, the idea of appearance and demographics (age, income, sex etc) with predicting what we’ll like. Marketing.
The second school, of course, holds the view that looks deceive. That thoughts, hearts, souls are the things worth paying attention to.
It sounds worthier, and on the whole, it’s what I thought I believed.
I go through life, as I expect many of us do, living in my own head. Thinking my own thoughts, looking through my own eyes. As, of course, is everyone else. It is literally impossible to do otherwise.
But I forget that people see me. I’m not the invisible observer of life that I sometimes (frequently?) imagine myself to be.
It’s relevant not only within the current discussion about privilege and discrimination (how can a decent man know how vile other men can be towards lone women? Whenever he is there, a man is there, and hence a woman is not alone. And it’s the same for race, for disability and the rest.)
But (thanks for sticking with me, that was a long set of brackets) it’s relevant to travel too.
When we love to “live like a local” and have an “off the beaten track” experience, whenever it involves people, our presence there changes things.
People make assumptions about us, whether we like it or not, based on how we look. And how we present ourselves.
And why am I talking about this now?
Because of a photography exhibition I saw (now, stay with me.)
I’ve a soft spot for photography exhibitions. Wherever I am, whenever I see one, I peel off from the pavement and head in, with good reason. They always leave me asking questions, leave me thinking about life.
The place was the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette; the exhibit People Among Us from Leo Touchet.
The photos were, simply put, beautiful.
The theme, though, became uncomfortable with each evocative shot.
While I noticed that the captions, the words, translated the full meaning behind each photo, there was no doubt that the way these people looked was supposed to influence our thoughts.
There was nothing there but appearance; the power of the image lay behind the thoughts we layered on.
It’s an effect that every good photograph has.
So why the discomfort?
I suppose it’s because it circled my mind back to the two schools of thought I mentioned at the start.
By letting these images affect me, it disrupted the delusion that I was in some way above making snap, visual based judgments
A nonsense, of course. Studies, and logic, tell us we can’t simply choose to be blind; it’s what we do next that matters.
But in any event, it was a beautiful exhibit.
And I’m grateful it did what art and museums do best. It gave me time and it made me think.
Abigail King is an award-winning writer and author who swapped a successful career as a hospital doctor for a life on the road. With over 60 countries under her belt, she's worked for Lonely Planet, the BBC, National Geographic Traveller and more. She is passionate about sustainable tourism and was invited to speak on the subject at the EU-China High Level summit at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.Here she writes about food, travel and history and she invites you to pull up a chair and relax. Let's travel more and think more. Welcome!
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