Faces and Falling in Love

by bjmuirhead

Over the years many people have asked how I choose my models, and I’ve been thinking about this again recently, mostly because I have been suffering a dearth of models. Needless to say, some models are chosen simply because they are present, willing and available, and I’ve done good work with these models. The photos and models which matter most to me, however, are a different matter—with these it’s a matter of love, the sheer visual joy of looking at that particular person. Quite simply, I fall in love with the face, and the desire to photograph face and body immediately follows, but it is the face which brings the joy and passion to see who that person is. As the mother of a friend once said: it’s as though you’re trying to get inside their skin; a matter of trying to know someone more deeply than they know themselves.

It’s an incomprehensible love which doesn’t depend on knowing, sexually desiring or the gender of the other person. (It can be easily confused, however, by both parties, as sexual desire.) It’s a matter of what the face looks like, of how its appearance connects with something within myself and which seems to throw light on humanity as such. Of these faces I usually say that they are beautiful, which barely covers the depth of feeling contained in my response.

Of course, the whole idea of “knowing” someone is vaguely ridiculous, especially as I don’t usually mean the same thing as others who say that they know someone—to know someone through their face(and body) is to know someone as (a) human, not as a personality with likes and dislikes and desires and fears; it is to know their soul.

The soul, as Nietzsche said, is not something separate to the body, it is the body, and when we look at a face or body we are looking at the soul.

It could be said that what I fall in love with is an idealisation, not a person, and this is true. Of course it isn’t a person, but nor is it a simple idealisation. It is, if anything, an awareness of the life, the feelings, thoughts, and actions that, when we look at or otherwise engage with a body, provide the presence of all that is the human soul in it’s individual existence—the soul, after all, is not an abstract entity separate to the body, but is a part of the expression that is that body-mind (person). At the same time, the term soul captures all that may be “beyond” the body, whilst still being human.

We all “know” that there is something “beyond” our immediate existence. This knowledge rests in our self-awareness—but we do not “know” what this beyond is. This is to say that we don’t know if this beyond is our connection with a non-corporeal spirit world, or if it is a corporeal fantasy experience of the non-corporeal which reflects nothing but dreams, wishes and hopes of grounded (modal) experience and thought.

There is a sense, and I believe it is a strong sense, in which the nature of the beyond within humanity—the question of whether it “really exists” or not—is irrelevant. What matters is that each of us experience this beyond within ourselves; what matters is that some of us have mystical (peak) experiences in which this commonplace beyond becomes profound, deep, and far reaching. (It also matters that humanity turns these experiences into religion, but this is another discussion.)

It is this beyond, this soul, which is within every face and body, and which we can and do experience when we look at faces and bodies which particularly affect us. It can be thought of in secular, psychological and physiological terms, or it can be thought of in religious, spiritual terms. As I’ve already indicated, there is a strong sense in which the “truth” of this beyond doesn’t matter. What is much more important is the truth we choose to use as the basis for our beliefs and descriptions of the world—this, inevitably, has deep effects throughout our lives.

This difficulty with the truth of the nature of the human (sense of the) beyond is interesting in that, once we release our prejudices concerning the primacy of science or religion, we are faced with the certainty that the same evidence (experiential, internal, psychological, physiological), which in itself is non-conclusive, can be and is used to support either position (set of beliefs) without providing any means of “objectively” “knowing” which version ultimately is “true”.

It is, as John Wisdom said in reference to legal cases, a matter of “a presenting and re-presenting of those features…which severally co-operate in favour of the conclusion, in favour of saying what the reasoner wishes said…The reasons are like the legs of a chair, not the links of a chain.” (Wisdom 1957 , 157) That we continue to collect evidence, and that this evidence is found in many, if not all, areas of human inquiry, has not yet presented a situation in which the evidence is capable of convincing one way or the other, though this may change.

That we cannot know the “truth” of what we experience of the beyond of any particular person does not in any way stand against or invalidate the experience itself. What I mean is that neither psychological (scientific) nor religious (spiritual) analyses and description can disprove or invalidate any other analysis or description.

But all of this is irrelevant when I look at a face or body and experience the beyond within them reverberating with the beyond in me. What is relevant at this point is aesthetic and interpersonal. The aesthetics is the experience (of beauty, of the depth of another person) itself and the urge to record this as effectively as possible. The interpersonal, on the other hand, consists in the need to remind myself that I am in love with a face, a soul, not the person who is that face. Of course, sometimes the two are the same…


 Text and photograph © Copyright 2014 BJ Muirhead All rights reserved


Wisdom, J. (1957), Philosophy and Psycho-Analysis, Basil Blackwell, Oxford.