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What Do We Find Beautiful?

Menka Sanghvi
Menka Sanghvi
3 min read
What Do We Find Beautiful?

A list of answers.

Whether beauty is an objective or subjective reality is one of most controversial themes in the history of art and culture. Is beauty a special and measurable quality “out there”, or simply a twinkle in the “eye of the beholder”?

Perhaps what we can all agree on is that beauty is that which triggers the sublime inner experience that touches our hearts and makes it sing. The question is whether these triggers are the same for all of us, or not.

If beauty is a personal story for each of us, that would explain why different people find beauty in such such disparate places depending on their taste, visual aesthetic, beliefs, and the meaning they read into things.  At the same time, we humans share biologies, cultures, fashions, art, and media, and so perhaps it is not surprising that we also tend to find beauty in similar things like sunsets, roses and facial symmetrical.

There is a delightful creative tension here. On the one hand, a freedom is found in subjectivity, an invitation to open our eyes to the world and discover our own sense of beauty in it. On the other hand, there is meaningfulness in a degree of objectivity that allows us to measure, document and share an object of beauty with others.

No wonder philosophers have long debated this, concluding in statements such as this below, that blur both the subjective and objective treatments of beauty:

By beauty I mean, that quality or those qualities in bodies, by which they cause love, or some passion similar to it”

– Edmund Burke

This got me wondering: if we asked a 100 people what they find beautiful, how many unique answers would we get, and how alike would these be?

To find out I put that question to a group of photographers that are part of the Just Looking Meetup Group. Reading through the responses as a long list was entertaining and endearing at the same time.

How wonderful that we are all so similar, and yet so different. And what’s most exciting of all to me is the hypothesis that we can grow and change, learn from one another, and be inspired to see beauty in that which we did not previously. Beauty can be subjective and yet have a positive value that makes it worth sharing with others.

Indeed this is the premise behind making the Just Looking project about community and sharing such diverse images in our mindful playful photography gallery on Instagram.

By keeping the mind open rather than in a “yes/no” mindset, just in reading this list we may start associating the possibility of beauty in some things that we hadn’t seen in that way before. Perhaps with this kind of mindfulness, we will see something new in wrinkles, or roadside gutters.

How do you feel reading this list?


Question: “What is one ordinary or unlikely thing you find beautiful?”

Answers:

  • my cat (x2)
  • wood
  • reflection in a waterhole
  • the symmetry of buildings
  • shadows (x2)
  • juxtaposition
  • flowers (x3)
  • food
  • moss
  • people’s faces
  • rubbish
  • sea
  • sky
  • sunrise (x3)
  • sunset
  • unlikely friendship
  • love or hate
  • out of focus raindrops on a window
  • light glinting through raindrops in a cobweb
  • a perfectly lit face in dark surroundings
  • water (x4)
  • river
  • the sea
  • wash basins
  • the way light falls into things
  • the sunset next to the sea
  • composition
  • questions
  • imperfection
  • portrait photography
  • anything ordinary seen in a different light
  • climbing frames in playgrounds
  • feelings
  • skin tones in black & white photographs
  • pebbles
  • people interacting with each other and their environment in the streets
  • wrinkles in your skin
  • corrugated iron
  • bridges
  • snow
  • rocks (but that’s probably because I used to do geology)
  • faces of old people
  • gutters at the side of the road (they hint at stories, but never reveal all)
  • a box of bits and pieces
  • melancholy
  • urban nature
  • women’s shoulders
  • how light can change everything
  • hands
  • bees
  • eating oranges
  • fallen leaves
  • engaging conversations
  • anything close up that takes on a new appearance
  • macro-photography
  • details normally missed
  • water fountains
  • windy flags
  • decay
  • eyes
  • leaves
  • birds
  • animals (x2)
  • smiles
  • shadows and reflections
  • planet earth and the universe
  • the light in my kitchen
  • my reflection
  • everyday image linked to a thought stream
  • clouds and leaves and the way they change
  • puddles
  • peculiar construction details
  • moss
  • landscapes
  • rolling hills
  • close up of bridges
  • lines
  • trees (x3)
  • lemons
Essays

Menka Sanghvi

I'm a researcher, writer, and designer working on the theme of mindful curiosity. Just Looking is a project I started to help myself and others slow down and experience more wonder in the everyday.