On Overhearing People Talking About You

I had a very strange experience a few days ago. I was walking along the canal in Saltaire, about a mile from where I live. A man and a woman were walking towards me along the towpath, and as they passed me, the man was saying ‘… what it was, is that he blows bubbles and then photographs them...’ That’s all I heard. Blowing bubbles and photographing them is what I do! I have had some coverage in the national and international press for photographing bubbles, and I had been photographing bubbles in a nearby woodland just a couple of days before.

Open Space crop for WordPressSo I think there’s a really good chance that they were talking about me. They might have been talking about someone else, but I think it all points in my direction. They weren’t looking at me at all, so I think I just heard them mid conversation. It was just, it seems, a strange coincidence that I happened to walk past while they were talking about this.

And why I’m blogging about this is because I want to conjure with it as an experience. It was a weird experience. I am quite a shy person. But I am also vain, in that I like the idea that people are talking about me. Being shy, I like this idea from a distance. I had an email from a photography student, for example, that began ‘… we were discussing your photographs in class a few days ago…’Β  As a vain person, I love the idea that these students had been talking about me. And as a shy person, I like the fact that I wasn’t there to be embarrassed by the experience of hearing myself being talked about. But the more I conjure with the canal experience, the more I wonder if my shyness is perhaps not the main factor. Perhaps even a confident extrovert would find the experience strange. Because the experience is akin to being invisible somehow, like being present at your own funeral while people are discussing your life. It’s to hear your life being discussed outside of its meaning to you. And outside of you being a party to the conversation or situation. You are on the outside, looking in.

Perhaps another factor of this ‘strangeness’ was that I do not know these people who were talking about me. It’s perhaps more normal/natural to know the people you overhear talking about you. As a child, for example, I overheard my parents talking about me. That’s a strange experience, no doubt because it’s to hear another perception of yourself, and to hear it in the context of them knowing that you are not present. But by knowing your parents (as much as we can ‘know’ anyone), there is at least some reference there, in that you might understand their relationship to you, and thus have some sense of where they are coming from. But if you don’t know anything about the people who are talking about you, you just don’t have any of those usual references. The reference, for these people on the canal, was simply that of me blowing bubbles. The artwork, as it were, and perhaps the act of blowing the bubbles and photographing them, were the references. I think I’m trying to argue that the situation is unnatural in some important way. Or perhaps it’s just new to me, so therefore seems strange, and thus ‘unnatural’.

The experience has given me a tiny appreciation for what it must be like to be famous. People whose faces are famous must surely find the situation extremely difficult, especially if they are shy. I suppose my experience is more like that of a writer who sees someone reading their book, or talking about them, because the people on the canal were perhaps talking about my work as much as they were talking about me. For very famous people, their fame is due to the mass media, to being on TV etc. That’s unnatural, arguably, since it is surely not in our DNA to be known by millions of people.

I suppose one aspect of my experience is that people tend to like my photographs, and like the whole idea of blowing and photographing soap bubbles. I like the whole experience of blowing soap bubbles too. So being known for photographing soap bubbles is OK with me. But imagine being known for something that you hated, or were embarrassed about, or that people were in opposition to. I recently watched Werner Herzog’s documentary about people on death row in the US. Werner interviewed these people in depth, and regularly asked the question: What does it feel like to know that people out there (i.e. the general public) want to kill you? It is a true question, and brilliant, I think, because it captures that sense of what it means to be perceived from the outside, as well as being perceived harshly. The link, for me, with my canal experience, is a sense that other people’s thoughts and words are outside of my control. Being talked about, I found, bordered on being frightening. Perhaps because it felt so much out of my control.

Anyway, I will leave it there. I just needed to write about the experience to get it out of my head a bit.

If any of you know of any psychological (or other) theory that covers my experience here, please let me know. I would love to have some links to follow so that I can appreciate this experience more fully, and see it within the context of other people’s experience.


About rjheeks

From 2008 to 2013 I completed a PhD on Discovery Writing. I also love photography. I'm best known for photographing soap bubbles. I also like rock art (ancient art/markings on rocks). I live near Ilkley (Yorkshire, UK) where there are quite a few pieces of rock art.
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50 Responses to On Overhearing People Talking About You

  1. lefraise2002 says:

    Reblogged this on Visible Thoughts and commented:
    Great insight on seeing yourself through the eyes of others!

  2. neverending1 says:

    People talk about me all the time, and point me out to others. It doesn’t bother me. I’m a victim of government harassment and people act as if they can say anything about me. It’s as if I don’t exist in their world.

  3. Love your blog, why not check mine too, hope you like it? You are a great inspiration to me !

  4. From an ink smeared page says:

    Beautiful pictures πŸ™‚

  5. What would please me personally in your situation would probably be, that some other people share my interest in photographs of soap bubbles. So peculiar, but still, other people like it too.
    Also, I think that it would make me feel like I’m somehow important in this world – somehow ‘alive’.
    Anyway, I like the associations this brought to my head, thank you πŸ™‚

  6. rossmurray1 says:

    The disconnect might be because your self was split in two at that moment: your own identity in all its complexity; and this entirely other identity as an artist who photographs bubbles. You became two people at once. Strange, I’m sure. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Paul says:

    What a novel artistic idea. Is there a site where Rjheeks photos can be viewed?
    Thanking you in advance,
    Paul (info@ibd.ie

    • Paul says:

      Thank you Rjheeks, you have a wonderful eye for spotting a great photo opportunity where most people would miss. For example, I brought my 12 year old daughter to the top of a hill beside my house where the panoramic views are breath-taking. On a rare clear day, you can see Croagh Patrick- Clew Bay – The Nephin Beg mountain range amongst other things. I saw her crouched down taking a photo of a dandalion as its seeds were blowing in the wind.
      I have a huge interest in photography and am lucky enough to live in the wilderness that is Mayo in the West of Ireland. I used to shoot with a gun but chose to shoot with a camera instead.
      I specialises in photographing sunsets and sun rises as well as night time photos where possible. Unfortunately, very often the camera cannot see what the human eye can see.
      A year ago, I came into a few bob and invested in a camera using the excuse that I can provide a better service for my web sites. It is a Canon EOS 550D.. In your opinion, is that camera good enough to capture the quality of images such as the ones that appear on your site? The camera comes with two days training on how to use it however, I am trying to learn as much as I can so that when I do the course, I will know what questions to ask. Should I upgrade?
      To me, you are a living legend when it comes to photography. Ever image instills some kind of emotion. Whether it be happy / sad / curious / etc. is irrelevant. If it evokes emotions, to me that is art.
      With modern digital technology, cost is not an issue. I grew up where you bought a roll of either 24 or 36 films which cost a fortune to be developed. As often as not, you would have a few photos left so you would photo the floor to get rid of any unexposed photos so you could send the roll off to be developed. Due to the cost, you took your time taking a photo. With this came some good habits. With the digital age, I will take a LOT of photos
      If you could sum it up in one pargraph, what would your advice to me?
      Once again, Thanking you in advance,

      • rjheeks says:

        Thanks for your kind words Paul. Much appreciated. I use a Nikon camera, so I do not know Canon cameras in detail. But I am aware that the Canon EOS 550D is a basic Canon DSLR model, and uses a smallish sensor – i.e. is not full-frame. I similarly use a fairly basic Nikon DSLR camera. I would say that your camera is probably ideal. You can definitely take great pictures with such a camera. Lots of accomplished photographers tend to agree that the camera is a tool. It is great to have a great camera, but 90% or so will come from the photographer, perhaps more. I am often wowed by photos that are taken on very simple and cheap cameras. I don’t think that I can easily give advice to other photographers, because we each kind of find our own way. I can give lots of technical advice re bubble photography, but I feel that I keep going with soap bubbles because it’s a process and experience that I still enjoy. Some ups and downs, but it generally keeps giving.

  8. I absolutely love the photo you included on this post, of the bubble. Do you think that receiving comments via a blog from strangers is a similar experience to the one you describe?

    • rjheeks says:

      I think that receiving comments via a blog is similar but also very different. There isn’t the same human contact – no eye contact, human presence etc. I am actually more used to seeing things written about me (my photography) than I am to talking to people about myself and my photography. And I am used to writing things that I might be too shy to say in ‘real’ life. It’s an interesting question. Comments via blogs are kind of disembodied. I know nothing about you, for example, other than your words. So, here, it’s as though I am simply responding to words. Having been a student (BA, MA, PGCE, MSC, PhD) for the last 20 years, on and off, I am actually more than used to responding to words than to actual people.

      • Well, as a shy person myself, I can definitely… comprehend what you describe. It’s always in retrospect that I wish I would have spoken up in a particular scenario (I’m sure everyone relates to this some time), but in the blogging world I have much more time to think things over and reply. Either way, I don’t have too many people talking about me at any given time… except maybe my 3-year-old. πŸ˜‰

  9. freuddwyn says:

    This isn’t strange. Most people would instantly feel that people are talking about them when they overhear something that might have a connection with them.

    And I like how you mention the fact that you are a shy person. Introverted people tend to relate themselves to topics that others are talking about (getting the sense that they are talking about you). They also tend to think a lot about what people might say about them when they aren’t present.

    It’s good if you enjoy this…it means that you are comfortable with yourself. Most shy people would be insecure and worry about listening from the outside, without being a part of this something.

    Anyway, you have some really wonderful photographs! Keep up the great work!

  10. Beautiful photo. Absolutely lovely!

  11. ichyse says:

    I used to blow spit bubbles when I was a kid. My parents used to get kinda pissed when they’d come floating by and pop on their food at dinner.

  12. ichyse says:

    I never care what others think. Being self conscious really stifles your character.

  13. As a shy person.. I can relate to this. Good to know that I’m not alone.. when it comes to facing other people notice you, talk about you, watch you.. etc. ..which are things not easy to tackle for an introvert.

  14. jo5ephga1nes says:

    I don’t have any specific theory, but I think I have similar fears. I’ve never thought about other peoples’ words being out of my control, but I kind of think that may be a part of being shy. Is that you feel other peoples’ perceptions and words about you are out of your control.

  15. Classic Ruby says:

    Interestingly enough, as a person who can be introverted, but is certainly more on the extroverted side, and definitely NEVER shy, I can tell you that, if I had been in the exact same position, I would have been thrilled. Excited, thrilled, flattered – and this would have been whether the feedback had been good or bad. In fact, I most likely, if I could have pulled it off without them knowing, had tried to find some way of keeping within earshot until the conversation had drifted off of me.

    Certainly, there’s an element of curiosity behind it – I am always dying to know what people honestly think of me, how, when they are positive I’ll never know, they would describe me, or my writing, or my singing voice, or my looks. I know it certainly isn’t narcissism; narcissists require adulation and adoration, and I’d be quite content to hear someone tear my writing to shreds if that was their unadulterated, honest opinion. And it’s not conceit, since I truly don’t feel that I am the greatest anything ever in all time, or anything like that, nor do I assume that people’s opinions of me will be in any way favorable. And, truly, I’m not even remotely phased by a critique or insult. Even if it’s meant to be personal, I just can’t take it personally.

    Maybe it ties into a certain level of vanity, though – I like shiny, reflective surfaces, and photos of myself. I could look absolutely fantastic, ugly and ragged, downright repulsive, and yet still I’ll stare, almost transfixed. It’s not to admire myself, it really is just to look at myself, to see what I look like, to notice and document the tiniest detail of that image of me. Perhaps that has led me to an overall love and acceptance of myself, whether I am at my best or worst (on a superficial, or observable, level), and so I am more than happy to be scrutinized by others, or to see how their evaluations of me measure up to my own thoughts and opinions.

    Personally, if I were to tie it all to a general concept in psychology, I would tie it to theories of self-efficacy, and perhaps to levels of unconditional (or conditional) positive regard you were raised with. Both are most heavily covered in Humanism theories, and especially humanisms approach to personality theory, and might be a good place to start if you want to do some personal self-discovery research into why you react to things as you do.

    P.S. that bubble image is amazing! It’s incredible what an amazing photographer with true vision can accomplish!

  16. slapinrc says:

    Very nice

  17. Amlakyaran says:

    very nice post… thanks

  18. I think it is good you are shy, someone like me would have stopped and introduced myself to the couple and then possibly they were not talking about me and then they would have been embarrassed, certainly I would not have been and would have asked them about the ‘other’ person doing similar images to mine. lol . I think that understanding how other people perceive you can be a useful tool for reflection, but too often we try to fit into society or the section of society we perceive ourselves to be a part of. Surely it is better to not care what others think and to be yourself?

  19. I love the bubble photography idea — very creative! It is strange to be hearing yourself discussed by others; you get a new perspective on yourself.

    I think that when someone becomes famous, all sorts of things happen. That person and his/her family and friends have to develop a tougher emotional shell to deal with the pressure of journalists, photographers, wannabes and other people.

    But at the same time, being famous — at whatever level — can do a lot of good. When your photos were discussed in that photography class, I’m sure the other students learned new perspectives and increased their knowledge from your unique approach to photography. Celebrities taking the trouble to visit people (as in the case of actor Christian Bale after the Batman movie shootings) can give emotional comfort.

  20. mrsripleybelieveitornot says:

    Photographing bubbles is such a creative and interesting idea!
    Also, this post is interesting. It is true that who you are and what people say about you feel like two entirely different things, yet in a way they both make up “you”. It’s strange trying to wrap your mind around it.
    Thank you for posting!

  21. Hello. I realize photographing bubbles beats selfies any day.

  22. Shreya says:

    such a excellent post… thanks for sharing

  23. Xraypics says:

    It’s a strange thing because even though I am not with you, nor have I ever met you, right at this moment i have taken over a small part of your brain and my words are speaking in your head. Should that give me a sense of power? No wonder writers are such powerful people and dictatorships are so frightened of them. Tony

  24. Many people blow bubbles and photograph them.

  25. lmarks04 says:

    Yeah I’m convinced some people get a high out of hearing others talk about them, even if it’s negative. I was on a popular reality tv show ten years ago, so I got it sometimes when I was in crowded places and it is weird.

  26. Hearing other people talk about you produces a peculiar sense of pride and detachment. Pride because people are talking about you – and detachment because the you they know is so different from the you you yourself know. What a tragedy it is that how we see ourselves and how others see us are rarely the same.

  27. abtharp says:

    I think everyone secretly loves to hear their name spoken by others, especially in a good light. It is exciting, thrilling, and leaves one wanting more!

  28. chaisme says:

    A very nice post πŸ™‚

    Hearing other people talk about is definitely weird and strange particularly if how they perceive things are not in sync with your actual motive. But this is exactly where the trick to successfully living a life lies. Ignore what other people think (or perceive) you and your work as. We have no business in knowing what others think of us πŸ™‚

  29. 7 of HeArTz says:

    It can be such a small world, I believe they were probably talking about you. Which is nice πŸ™‚

  30. Arianna Editrix says:

    Your photography made me wonder if we had the same teacher at some time. My professor had us get 5 clear lenses to put on our SLR’s and he had us use edible items smeared on them as “filters”. I found that a thin film of salad mustard gives and all over golden glow to aspens in autumn. Any olive oil smeared on the filter will give amazing blur or candlelight effects. Grape Jelly, b/w film, look like it’s wine soaked. It was a blast!

    • rjheeks says:

      Smearing clear lenses sounds like fun. Nice idea to experiment with. Interestingly, I have never been a student of photography, in that I have never attended classes etc. I tend to play around with photography on my own, and I think this might be one of the reasons why I’ve managed to find my own ideas. I read stuff on photography and spend a lot of time looking at other people’s photographs, but I have never been taught as such. I have been a student of writing and Literature, and always wanted to be a writer. And yet I am not the writer I hoped I might be. Interesting how things turn out!

      • Arianna Editrix says:

        Only ever took the one class so that I could learn to develop my own film! It seems to be genetic though as my son took his one class in high school and is now always taking photographs. GL with all your artistic endeavors.

  31. motaeduardo says:

    It’s amazing how people who don’t know nothing about you decide to talk so much about you. Yet they’ve never seen you a day in their lives. Wow, amazing references and your photography is just great.

  32. Wumi Spell says:

    Brilliant observation, but the point depends on your perspective of how you see it and how you take it… for example here is a quiet bus with passengers peacefully waiting to get to there destination and suddenly a man and his two sons got on the bus breaking the peace as his two kids argued so loudly as they walked to there sit. Everyone perspective was ‘ He did it on purpose ‘ although no one said anything to them until they got to there sit, the kids kept on nagging but there dad seemed not to notice or feel burthered they were creating a massive distraction. So one man in the same sit was patient enough to politely approach him and ask him ‘ pls can’t you control your kids to keep it calm ‘ the mans reaction was shocking as it seemed he did not quite notice the kids, he then unclosed that he just got back from the hospital where the kids lost his there mother, his wife… immidiately the close by passenger was happy he wasn’t quick to judge and had compassion on then, he didn’t feel burthered again while the kids kept on… our perspective might be right or wrong depending on how see or take things… I love this post, visit my blog sometime, am a passionate singer and producer

  33. I don’t know if I’d be happy hearing someone talking about my work, or me. I’d need some context. Like, Naptimethoughts– that lady is mad cool!!! Okay, thats good. I like that, but naptimethoughts– that lady is mad!! Not so much. I’d need to hear the whole conversation before I could let it go.

  34. callumdownes says:

    Woah that’s insane! I wish all the bubble sin my bath looked that good πŸ˜€

  35. Why didn’t I think of photographing soap bubbles. What a brilliant idea. I will be talking about you today.

  36. degelitos says:

    That is so frickin cool! You were meant to hear them!

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