The photo was tucked inadvertently in an envelope of pictures we’d just picked up from Costco. It wasn’t ours. There were photos of my grandson, mostly, and then this other one.
It was a family, three generations’ worth, mom and dad in the center, their children and grandchildren arrayed around them. Everyone looked happy.
But some of the seating was peculiar. Why wasn’t one of the second-generation couples sitting next to each other? What was with the wide space separating them? Perhaps they weren’t even a couple. Or perhaps not a couple anymore? What had happened between them? Were the mom and dad really everyone’s mom and dad? Were they even married? Were they brother and sister? Was this really one family? And off I sailed to the land of fabulist conjecture.
We all do it, right? We see an image, we interpret.
It happens while we’re grazing a photography exhibit in a gallery, leafing through old glossy black-and-whites in a coffee-table biography, or staring at a portrait in a museum. We see a picture, and we supply the thousand words. It happens most poignantly perhaps when we stumble across a photograph of a family member now deceased. The expression on her face haunts us, and we note her surroundings and call on the little we know about her life at the time to imagine what was happening and what was going through her mind when the shutter was released.
We invent these image histories in flesh and blood, too. Remember Simon and Garfunkel’s classic “America”? The singer and his traveling companion Kathy laugh on the bus and play games with the faces on the Greyhound from Pittsburgh. She says the man in the gabardine suit is a spy.
Sometimes, our interpretations are not so playful or harmless. Sometimes we invent a quick history of someone we encounter based on their age or race or weight or style of dress or way of speaking. What we see leads us to think we know something about who they are. Sometimes it’s the person at the register holding up the line. Sometimes it’s the driver who just cut us off, or someone strange walking through the neighborhood. Sometimes we shrug and turn away. Sometimes we call out hello. Sometimes we call the cops.
It’s worth thinking about in the context of our times, as fear creeps back into our lives. A couple decades ago, it was fear of crime in our big cities. Now it’s fear of terrorism anywhere.
Once again, we’re being told: If you see something, say something. It’s perfectly reasonable, and essential, advice. All of us do have a role to play and we do want to be observant, but what are we watching for? And what is it we see?
Because seeing is not always believing.
Three months ago, retired tennis star James Blake was tackled and arrested by a New York City plainclothes police officer who saw Blake and thought he was someone else.
Two years ago, a suburban Detroit homeowner shot and killed a 19-year-old woman on the porch of his house. He’d heard pounding on his door and thought she was an intruder, when she apparently was seeking help after being in a car accident.
Before that, a 13-year-old Brentwood boy playing basketball in a park was shot by a gang member who thought the boy was part of a rival gang.
Some people see someone they think is Muslim and see a threat. We’ve been down this road with other groups of people. All I’m saying is, let’s be careful.
Sometimes we see what we want to see, with disastrous consequences.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.