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.
So 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…’ 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.