Ways of seeing, ways of being

John Berger sketched by Fred Williams, pen and ink (1952-56). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Gift of Lyn Williams AM and Family through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program, 2022.

“Men look at women
Women watch themselves being looked at”
The writer of these words is being looked at by the artist who sketches him
John Berger is being looked at
Is he watching himself being looked at?

“Men act and women appear”
Is he acting or is he appearing?
What is the difference between acting and appearing?
Aren’t they both one layer removed from authenticity?
From simply being?

They are ways of seeing
And being seen
But they are not ways of being
An act can mean to take an action
But it also means to act
Which is what an actor does on stage
Pretending to be someone else
A character

Appearing is what apparitions do
Conjure themselves into space at any time or place
Conjure themselves into being seen
To make an appearance sounds like one will arrive and stay briefly and just as quickly disappear
And if one should appear to be something or to look a certain way
It suggests the quality of an illusion
Which is not real
Like acting the part of a character on stage
Which is also not real
And anyway
These days everyone is watching themselves being looked at
It’s what we do
It’s all we do
Watch ourselves appear and act
Watch ourselves being looked at

This poem is was inspired by seeing a sketch of John Berger by Fred Williams recently at the NGV. It got me musing on some of the concepts from John Berger’s TV series and subsequent book from 1972, called Ways of Seeing, and how these concepts have shifted and changed in recent times with the advent of social media and greater gender fluidity. The quoted sections are from his book.

Not like you

In the time you have wasted
I could have gestated
Six whole human beings
To balance the drain
That is you
Six new human beings to give love to
Full of potential
Not pain, like you
Full of new life
Not destruction, like you
Who would add to the world
And not take, like you


Today I move slowly
To not stir a breeze
Where there is none
My eyelids drape softly
As clouds shade the sun
I wear grey and white
To honour the sky —
When it finally rains
I’ll probably cry


Ah — happiness!
Feel that warmth
It rises in your belly
Followed by its long tail — sadness
A rudder that keeps happiness on course
A shadow that throws it into bright relief
And dulls it with dumb doubt
For it cannot be so
Such free sailing
Only a fool would trust the wind
To carry them rudderless
Without the temperance of sadness


On this longest day
I cross your path
In my black sack dress
Sidle toward you
Seeking medicine

You: in all black too
Head crowned flaxen
With solar flames
A vixen’s lion mane
You’re smaller than you look online
I am taller
Wider too than you

You have doll-like
Rounded limbs
Wear tailored linens
Nipped in smartly
Your outline drawn neatly
Contained curves concealed curtly

You read your receipt
Like a sacred scroll
As we cross the threshold
In different directions
Me older, you younger
One season becomes another

Our feline eyes meet
Your penetrating gaze
A pair of amber pools enquiring
We pass one other
Then I realise who you are: