The first time we see someone is the only time we actually see them. It’s our single opportunity to perceive a person as an image, a shape in the world, a set of visual data with no context or meaning. We perceive them as tall or short, ugly or handsome, and though we see a face, there is something uncanny about how its components don’t seem to quite fit together, at first: mouth and eyes and nose and ears seen in rapid succession, but separately, mentally catalogued as pieces of a whole. People are for those first few moments of interaction a collection of features and movements and gesticulations forming rapidly into meaning, into something we can understand. And that is the key difference – we stop seeing people, and we start understanding them.
Over time, people will become uglier to us, or more beautiful. The size we understand them to occupy in a room changes. We see them wearing, in addition to clothes and hairstyles, attitudes and beliefs and dispositions. Our eyes are still at work, but then so is the lens of our understanding, and our understanding is that person’s relationship to ourselves. We see them in terms of distance – physical and emotional – and we understand that ultimately they exist either outside of ourselves or in a space in which we also occupy, two bodies overlapping like a Venn diagram.