Posted by: ahmed22k | November 25, 2015

We SEE things not as they are, but as who we are

For my Amherst Class,  American Extravaganzas, we read “Moby Dick.” I wrote a paper on the artistic qualities of the narrator who projects his own thoughts and feelings upon everything he encounters, whether it be a person, the sea or an inanimate object- such as an artwork.

Now I strongly believe that “we see things not as they are, but as who we are” (Anthony de Mello). Thus, it appears that a person’s self-perception, beliefs, and values can affect the way they perceive a visual element. With the postings on the “male gaze,” “selfie culture,” and photography, in general, I wanted to explore the way I see the world; not as a female (this will not be a posting on the “female gaze”), but as a budding artist. How do I translate who I am; my thought process, my perspective, my understanding through my own artwork?

It is easy to project our own interpretations and our own understanding when viewing, let’s say, a portrait. Now I love portraiture, and I love photographing and drawing children. But I started to realize that I am not just duplicating the image of a child, I am capturing the person, persona & personality of the child. I am always conscious of why I am choosing to depict the subject in a particular way.

In the “Burden of Representation,” John Tagg states, “the ideological conception of the photograph as a direct and “natural” cast of reality was present from the very beginning and, almost immediately, its appeal was exploited in portraiture” (41). I agree that portraiture is a translation of a person in a given moment in time; it captures the reality of a person in a specific instance. But I don’t think that portraiture is a ““natural” cast of reality,” because it may not even look like the person, i.e. it may lack in terms of likeness.

What about painting or drawing portraits? How accurate are such depictions? Such portraiture is captured over a period of time…they capture the reality of a person over a period of time as the model for the artist. But what if the subject doesn’t model- what if the artist chooses to draw their subject from a photograph? Then it becomes a double translation. Is the reality of the image, or rather the “”natural” cast of reality” reduced in the final piece of artwork? Or does this double translation allow for a new kind of natural reality to be cast upon the subject?

Take this photo of my brother, Abdullah; I chose to depict him in a playful light. He looks energetic; I emphasize this through the erratic mark-making that goes hand-in-hand with his energy and expression. In order to emphasize his bold nature, his exuberance and confidence, I drew him on an A1 size paper, so he was drawn relatively bigger than his real-life scale. By not sticking to an accurate scale, I wanted to emphasize his larger than life persona. My brother was only 7 years old at this time.



This isn’t a perfect translation; it’s a biased representation of my brother for several reasons:

  • I was a less experienced artist in 2010
  • I injected my own perception of my brother as I was drawing
  • I drew him from a photograph because he wasn’t going to pose for such a long period of time.

I personally don’t think he looks 7- years-old here. Or this is the result because he looks older in the original photograph I was using for reference. Of course, at the time I thought I had done a pretty accurate representation. But I probably drew my brother as I saw him, rather than what he really looked like. This drawing was influenced by my perception of his character- he embodies many great qualities; he is very friendly, energetic, and mature for his age. Maybe I didn’t always see my  brother as 10 ½ years younger than myself. Now I do. Now he is 11. He’s my “Lil bro.” 

Here is another drawing of him which was drawn around the same period of time (I actually drew the one below before I drew the image above). He looks quite similar, and yet, quite different. This is another side to his character, literally and figuratively. This is a more playful image of Abdullah, or at least I think he looks younger and more playful:



This one took considerably less time. I was done in one class sitting- so around 40 minutes. But the first image shown took about 4 hours or more. Maybe I became considerably attached to that image, or I was more hell-bent on creating a likeness between the subject and drawing but the photo served as an interruption. I just remember, “WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT?” was easier, more fun and less stressful to create than the image with my brother’s face and hands pressed against a transparent glass door. Yet, I prefer “Peek-A-Boo”- he covers most of the page, he is smiling and maybe I just love it because I spent so much time on it!

Both drawings are of the same size. Both of them are confrontational, but they could be showing different children. The medium (pen), the style, the monochrome depiction is what makes them go together as a pair. Not necessarily the likeness between the images.

While photographic portraits may be more iconic representations of people, other kinds of portraiture may be more effective when it comes to capturing the essence of the subject. These drawings serve the traditional purpose of photography; to capture loved ones- Photography was “primarily a means of obtaining pictures of faces” (Tagg 35) we know. But as a budding artist, drawing my brother allowed me to be in control and obtain more than just his face,  it allowed me to project my opinions as an artist onto him. I treat him as more than a family member- but also a subject. Or rather he is a family member and that affects the way I treat him as a subject. 

Unlike painting a portrait reserved specifically for the bourgeoisie, anyone can commission a work of art (though it is still an expensive practice compared to photographing). But doesn’t painting and drawing a face have more sentimental value compared to a photographic portrait? Especially if completed by a loved one, considering the preparation and practice time taken into account? I would say it’s like writing a personalized letter on paper; like using a pen compared to writing an e-mail dealing with the same content. Writing a letter takes more time, more effort and leaves less room for error.

Similarly drawing these portraits of my brother took more time than photographing him on two separate occasions. I took multiple pictures of him and chose the “best ones,” or rather the ones I thought were best.  The photography was more spontaneous- the drawings were not (they were more planned and thought out). There are many photographs of my brother, but fewer drawings of him. I try to reclaim the value of traditional artwork and portraiture with a contemporary spin using such poses of my brother (instead of making him sit still). I captured his smile and mischievousness in one of them. His annoyance and attitude in another. He is engaged with me (the photographer) in one, not so much on the other. The compositions are supposed to emphasize the “Complexity of Children”- the title of the series these images were part of. Children are a lot smarter than we think; there’s more to Abdullah than his childishness and innocence. 

These drawings have more sentimental value compared to the photographs of Abdullah I took. Or maybe I am just a biased sister and artist.



  1. I find this post really interesting in how it addresses the subjectivity of the artistic process. You raise some fascinating questions about how our own opinions form the world as we perceive it, and by extension, how we attempt to consciously or unconsciously condition others to perceive it. You seem to hold your brother in high regard, so it is the qualities that you listed (friendliness, energy, and maturity) that stand out to me when I look at your drawings. This seems to create a subject-artist-viewer dynamic wherein those of us looking at your art who have never met your brother are entirely dependent on you for information on him. As a result, the only information we have on your brother is filtered through your own affection for him. Rather than perceiving him as he is, we are only able to see what you think of him.
    You also mention the fact that you made both sketches based off of photographs rather than the subject himself. I don’t know who exactly took these photographs, but perhaps their own opinion of your brother (which may or may not resemble your own) dictated how these photos would be viewed, and so your sketches are not the result of your regard for your brother distorting his identity, but rather a distortion of someone else’s skewed view of your brother (coupled, of course, with your own pre-formed opinions based on intimate knowledge of your brother prior to viewing this photograph). When viewed in this way, your own portraits of him function as one in a series of subjective distortions of your brother that change as we attempt to interpret the interpretations of others.
    Assuming, however, that you are the one who took the photographs, I still think that your ideas on perception and subjectivity still hold true. As you yourself point out, you have changed significantly since the first sketch was taken. We might also assume that you changed (in whatever small way) between the taking of the photographs and the drawing of the sketch. In sketching these photographs, you are thus attempting to interpret a depiction of your brother that was created by a “version” of yourself that may not resemble who you were when you made the sketch, resulting in a portrait of your brother that contains two subjective interpretations of his character from the same source struggling for control of the viewer’s own interpretation. I’m curious to know whether or not the knowledge of the identity of the person who did take the photographs would change how we as an audience think of your sketches in any way. Either way, I think that the fact that we don’t have access to these photographs serves to distance us from the subject even further.
    Additionally, I wonder if the subjects of portraiture have a hand in facilitating these “distortions” of the truth. I notice that in both of your portraits, your brother seems to be posing for the camera. Is there a possibility, then, that he is himself projecting an image of himself based on how he sees himself? Do we all create subjective portraits of ourselves based on our everyday actions? My own opinions of my own friends and family, for instance, are largely informed by which aspects of their characters that they choose to show me. I think that, to varying degrees, we all manipulate our images in this way, especially when posing for a portrait. Even if we all met your brother, then, we would only be able to perceive what he wants us to perceive, which, when subsequently combined with our own ideas and opinions on what he shows us, would form our subjective image of your brother, just as it did when you sketched him and when the photographs were taken.
    That said, I’m not entirely sure we can say that there is a completely “objective” version of anyone, at least none that we could perceive or prove the authenticity of. So much of who we are is defined by what we and others think of us. It is these thoughts that we use to create portraits that inevitably perpetuate them (albeit merged with the thoughts of the viewer). Based on this, it seems as though your sketches, while fundamentally subjective, are as close to an “objective portrait” of your brother as we are ever going to get. I do ultimately agree, however, with your idea that the art we create is more about us than about whatever subject we choose to depict. Thank you for this insightful blog post, as it really gave me a lot to think about.

    • I really appreciate the substantial comments Michael, especially the points you raised about my brother playing a huge role in what the audience sees. I guess I got carried away with the artist perspective and didn’t acknowledge his part.

      As for the mysterious photographer- It’s me! I mention it towards the end of the posting; “It took longer to draw than photograph him… the photographs are more spontaneous than the drawings, etc.” But I should clarify that, maybe add something in the section where I mention Tagg’s comments on the initial purpose of photography and how drawing my brother allows me to do so much more than capture his face.

      Also, I completely agree that elaborating on the photographer’s role (me) and my brother’s interaction with the camera would have addressed other interesting perspectives. There’s a lot of projecting going on here; it’s difficult,or rather impossible to decide to what extent the subject, photographer, and artist affect the viewer’s perception.

      To what degree did I versus my brother influence your view of the drawing? Anyone who sees this would unintentionally have a biased perception of Abdullah, thanks to both him and me!

      Come to think about it, he was definitely the one in control; he was the master of his poses.I am only allowed to photograph him when he gives permission- he usually prefers being the photographer. I think he’s had six cameras in the past six years. Every year he saves up and buys another one. Now he’s eyeing my DSLR. I think I should just give it to him.

      Now his passion for photographing and capturing images just adds another layer to this discussion. I’ll stop there before I reveal too many of his interests and project more of my opinions upon the hobbit.

  2. What a thought-provoking conversation! Khadija, we have not talked at length in class about the relationship between artist and subject until recent classes. Much to consider here.

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