What do you see?

Whether or not we realise it, we are constantly being guided to perceive something the way someone else wants us to see it.

What is the difference between being naked and being nude? Do they both mean the same thing – to be without clothes? Or do they evoke different meanings, different reactions?

British author and art historian Kenneth Clark asserted that being naked is simply being without clothes, whereas going nude is a form of art: “The word nude, on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenceless body, but of a balanced, prosperous and confident body: the body re-formed.”

Art critic, novelist, painter and poet John Berger, in his book Ways Of Seeing, looked at European Renaissance paintings of nude women and asserted that “to be naked is to be oneself; to be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A nude has to be seen as an object.”

The difference between being naked and being nude is not so much on the physical aspects of the body but of how people see the body. An image only means something when we ascribe meanings to that image. How we ascribe these meanings is subjected to our values, social environment and belief systems.

How we see something is always influenced by an external factor or guided by a figure of authority. Authorities play around with and manipulate ways of seeing by putting in subtle markers or cues which would direct the mind to perceive accordingly in what I call passive internalisation – when you believe wholeheartedly what you consume without much critical thought.

These markers are propagated further by the media, the agent of “truth” – if it’s in the papers, it’s credible, right? Not necessarily. A photo makes it to the front page because the editor wants it to frame the story in a particular way. A strong headline grabs the reader’s attention and further frames the picture accordingly. Photos, headlines and captions, all direct our eyes to see a certain way.

Take for example the Jan 1, 2014 headlines that accompanied the front page photos of two Bahasa dailies covering the New Year’s Eve celebration at Dataran Merdeka. One stated “Himpunan Turun Aman, Terkawal” (Turun Rally peaceful, controlled) whereas another stated “Sambutan Tercemar” (Celebration Defiled). One used a positive tone, the other negative, when covering the same event. Furthermore, the latter referred to the protesters as perusuh (rioter) whereas the one going the positive route used peserta(participant) instead.

A TV station’s coverage of the #Turun rally on the same day was also less than balanced. Words like ganas(violent) were used to describe how the protesters breached the Dataran Merdeka barricades during the celebration. Plus, because it had no other ammunition to use against the protesters and the rally, it focused on the supposed waste left by the protesters in their bid to highlight the irresponsibility and inconvenience these protesters had caused (never mind that there were thousands of other people present watching the concert).

To some, these mainstream media had reported with bias; to others. it was what really transpired; but to the critical, these words and images were deliberately chosen and the decision calculated.

Efforts to discredit the rally began prior to the event. As Zurairi AR wrote in his column, “Putrajaya’s reaction towards the legitimate complaint could not be more opposite from what the organisers had expected. Not only did the government make light of the cause, but there was also a concerted effort by authorities to paint the rally as a move to allegedly overthrow the government. In the days leading towards Dec 31 ... politicians had demonised the student organisers as troublemakers bent on causing chaos during the night. State news agency Bernama went one step further yesterday (Dec 31) by describing the rally on Twitter with the hashtags #Guling and #Topple, despite other media using the official #Turun as suggested by the organisers.”

This is the modus operandi of mainstream news media when covering public dissent, as was very obvious during the coverage of the Bersih rallies. There were many images of Bersih 3.0 circulating both in print and online media. People were constantly sharing and distributing images that they liked, that they wanted others to see. There were images of police violence and images of protester violence. There were images of peaceful, carnival-like gatherings and images of flying tear gas canisters. There were images of smiling people and images of injured people.

All of this did take place. But we are all guilty of bias, because we had already filtered these images before we sent them out. From both sides of the divide, people were trying to show the “real” Bersih 3.0. And how the recipients or audience made sense of these images depended upon our ways of seeing; the violent protesters were “planted”, the police were “defending” themselves.

Though Berger wrote on the visual art, ways of seeing can also be applied to how we look at things on an everyday basis. We are nurtured to have certain ways of seeing, to develop a certain aesthetic vocabulary and an understanding of the visual. Our eyes take in the visual cues and our minds then categorically arrange them into something that we can comprehend. The process of filtering takes place as soon as we consume. And then we judge as we make sense of these cues.

Consumption and interpretation of images is never a passive activity. Whether or not we realise it, we are constantly being “guided” to see a thing, and the creator of the image is making conscious decisions on what to include or exclude, and how to shape and manipulate the image. How we make sense of things – of Turun, of Bersih – depends on our own ways of seeing. Troublemaker, or protester? Naked, or nude?

Sharyn Shufiyan believes that cultures adorn a society, much like Tapestry on a piece of cloth. She puts on an anthropological hat to discuss Malaysia’s cultures, subcultures and society (ies). Write to her at star2@thestar.com.my

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What do you see?


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