As a photographer of people, you need to get to grips with the idea of identity and social constructions of identity. How you portray people will have ethical and moral implications. And you’ll need to create images that convey a particular truth or message, depending on the brief in hand.
What am I to who? The discovery of self and the search for identity
An important strand in feminist art is the idea of selfhood – the individual who is lost within the objectifying image.
- Do images of us represent what we are?
- Or do we see them in a postmodern sense where they represent who we think we are and what we know about ourselves in a way
that allows us to analyse and learn about ourselves, growing and shaping our perspective on self even further?
When we talk about our identity, we usually mean one of two identities:
- social identity – mother, Scottish, student
- personal identity – goals, passions, dreams, achievements, style, etc. Personal identity encompasses body image which is very relevant to disorders such as bulimia or anorexia.
These two short papers on self and identity give further perspective on this issue. The second link, in particular, examines the nature of self-identity through roles and its interaction with social identity formulated through group attachment or membership.
Female photographers may choose to investigate the classic female roles of wife, mother and daughter and the expectations associated with these roles. For women there is a great deal of visual pressure through the use of manipulated images of women in fashion and PR situations. Women compare themselves unfavourably with the ‘false’ images they see, for example in the marketing of beauty products. A recent BBC website poll found that only 2% of UK women see themselves as beautiful.
Men also have dilemmas in terms of identity. Are they boys or men, fathers, husbands or sons? Are they role models or wasters? Writers or Romeos? Again, crucial components of identity that deliver self-worth and self-esteem. Think about men who over-train at the gym or use steroids to change their body shape. (Go on the internet and look for Howard Schatz and Beverly Ornstein’s photographs of Olympic athletes, for example.) These are all issues that have been explored in contemporary fine art photography.
Issues of identity are fertile ground for photographic investigation. Richard Billingham explored the effect that his father’s alcohol dependency and the consequent impact on his personality
had on family life.
Cindy Sherman has investigated a range of roles in her work – executive/employee, equal/object.
We can examine ourselves through the art of self-portrait and looking at how we wish to be seen – how we wish to define ourselves and how we are seen by others and how they would define
us. You could base a project on your own identity, asking ‘How am I perceived and is the treatment I receive in life, the interactions I like or dislike, related to the way people perceive me?’ There is also a lot of potential for project work in gender roles, society’s perceptions and expectations, and acceptance (or not) of different sexualities.We can also just use ‘things’ that we feel represent us, items that have the properties that we hold dear as signs of honesty or virtue, humour or fate. These images can be combined to form allegorical images of our personas.
- How we are perceived is important to some people; for others, it’s not an issue worth considering. For most of us, though, people’s perception of us is important at certain times or places in our lives, for example if you’re looking for work or trying to sell something. Even then, you can’t assume that prospective employers or buyers have the same values as you do.
- Are the things that you hold dear evident in the way you are seen or do you put on a ‘mask’?
- Are the things you are perceived to hold dear just an illusion?
- Does your dress code say you are ‘one of us’? What is meant by ‘us’ in a particular context? ‘Us’ is usually the group making the judgment, those who consider themselves able to make judgments on our behalf. Judgments may be based on all sorts of factors – race, nationality, colour, religion or speaking with a southern accent. (Scottish accents come across as more trustworthy according to advertising research.)