The art of seeing
Photography is the art of seeing. Generally speaking, it is the skill of taking what is seen by everyone and turning it into something new and interesting to display. Often it is curated; sometimes it is not. Photography, however, suggests that there is a wrong way of seeing, or even an incorrect way of not seeing. In the film Get Out, the main character Chris is a photographer who meets a blind art critic at a family reunion. Through this interaction, as well as subsequent encounters at his girlfriend’s parents’ estate, the film’s prevalent address of racism is put on full display. Through this motif of photography throughout Get Out, the film suggests that there is a right and a wrong way of seeing, and a beauty in seeing correctly, as displayed through Chris’s talent, the art-critic’s blindness, and the flash of light that awakens characters to the truth.
In the film, Get Out, Chris is a photographer, specifically a landscape and lifestyle photographer. His images are raw life; they are settings commonly seen, yet his work is beautifully recognized perhaps more than the actual landscapes themselves. Though his occupation may seem of little importance to the plot, upon further consideration, this idea of looking, seeing, and capturing is an integral fashion of the film. Get Out surrounds the pitfalls of racism in a somewhat avant-garde and unrealistic scenario, yet while the specific situation may be surreal the most authentic and practical aspects of the film, the mundane ones that may go unnoticed—like Chris’s career—, equally interpret the crisis at hand. In the opening scene of the film, Chris is in his apartment where his work dons the walls in frames. Furthermore, at his girlfriend’s parents’ estate, he is constantly taking pictures of his surroundings in order to both understand the landscape as well as escape from the encounters he faces there. This small, simple facet of the plot dives deep into its ideas about sight and the problems that surface around it. The film itself is a landscape of racism; it is its own lifestyle photograph, though granted less picturesque. When Chris has a strange interaction with Georgina, the maid of the family, he takes a picture of her in her window in curiosity. This small act furthermore displays the purpose of seeing—to seek sight is to seek to understand. The film attempts at an understanding of a person who falls prey to racism and the absurdity of the stereotypes that perpetuate it in the same way a photograph may provide an outlet for sight and truth. Another instance that Chris takes photos is in order to get away from the party and the uncomfortable conversations through which he suffers. Photography helps him escape, allows him to romanticize and inhabit a new world, giving him control of his surroundings. This dichotomy of seeking and escaping is one that surrounds much of the discussion on racism, and through Chris and his career, the film sets up its notion of seeing correctly. While it does not exactly aim to present ways in which racism may be solved, it displays clearly the struggles of those like Chris who do exist in it, those who must escape and attempt reconciliation in a society where their confusion and frustration remains unmediated. The film does present the first step, however, which is recognition. By “photographing” the experience, however curated, writer and director Jordan Peele situates racism as a mechanism that does indeed exist. Chris photographing the people around him does not solve their racism, but it allows them to be captured and examined. This is the art of seeing the film postulates, taking a situation and bringing it forth as a subject to be viewed and reflected upon by others. The act is small, but seeing at all is a step towards seeing correctly.
The blind art critic, on the other hand, is a figure who recognizes the beauty of Chris’s work, yet ironically sees incorrectly. When the two first meet, Jim admires and compliments Chris’s work for his “eye,” an eye that Jim ultimately attempts to exploit. While Chris waits to head into surgery to switch brains with Jim, he asks, “Why black people?” to which Jim responds:
Well, because you get the highest bids. For the last decade or so anyway. I wish it was less simple than that, but it’s not. You’re in fashion, baby! Honestly though, personally…? I couldn’t give two shits about race. I don’t care if you’re black, brown, green, purple… whatever. What I want is so much deeper: Your eye, man. I want those things you see through.
Even the blind man falls prey to the pitfalls of society because even though he doesn’t “see color”—or see anything at all—he sees the opportunity to take advantage of another person. He claims that his desires are “deeper,” yet he participates in the same landscape, chooses to live in it though he could not physically see it. This “color blindness” is a tactic many use in efforts to cure themselves of committing discrimination, but ultimately it only serves to disregard people’s race and subsequently the suffering they encounter. Rather than acknowledging it, those who are “blind” sink into insolence; this lack of sight is not the sort of kind consideration they claim to wield, it is voluntary ignorance that flies under the guise of depth. Jim claims he cannot see, physically or rationally, yet clearly he still knows the discrimination exists. Get Out emphasizes through this relationship that race must be acknowledged. Many may be afraid to address the prevalence of race because they think pointing out difference must carry negative implications. However, the film argues this incongruence: when this difference is overlooked, it opens the door for unequal treatment nonetheless because the problems of those who fall victim to prejudices are invalidated and unseen.
After the African American characters swap brains with their elderly substitute, the only thing that can awaken them back to their original self is the flash of a cell phone camera. While it happens accidentally at first, it is again the film’s intentional use of photography to highlight important aspects of racism, to quite literally enlighten truths. Andre, one man whose body has been taken over, is only himself when captured in Chris’s light. The way Chris sees him, the way he attempts to depict him in an image, displays the only authentic identity that had been previously dismantled. Sight and recognition allows the world to see him for who he truly is and grants him freedom to have control over his body. Before this chaos of the party follows, Chris expresses his disdain to Jim: “I guess people only see what’s in front of them.” This address of ignorance carries through the film, as the partygoers are astonished and repelled by the disarray that ensues. For the older folk of the film exploiting Chris’s race, they need to see something blindingly right in front of them in order to understand its real face; racism is perpetuated if not accurately illuminated.
Sight is informed by one’s surroundings and their perceptions of contextual societal circumstance. At the end of the film, just as Chris has successfully come out alive, a squad car pulls up to the scene. While all the audience sees are blue and red flashing lights, the conclusion most instinctually draw is that this is a cop about to arrest an innocent black man. The sight all on its own evokes a deep frustration and fear, when in reality the car is his saving grace. People draw conclusions from the sights in front of them, whether these sights are invocative or not, accurate or not. Vision is informed by the surroundings and society in which the seer lives, and thus, they either accurately or inaccurately “photograph” their own landscape. While Get Out’s purpose is not to solve the pitfalls of racism all on its own, it presents the issue in its own light, giving it space to be and breathe in the public’s sight. The plot of the film is quite outlandish, yet it still rings true; in its own way, it is a photograph—a curated one—that paints a landscape of something that nevertheless does in fact exist.