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Reflection on identity

Traditional sources/signifiers of identity are largely

– Imposed by society
– Based around place and/or roles in society
– Fixed/static

Traditional sources include

– Social class
– Family
– Education
– Work
– Marital status
– Parenthood
– Religious affiliation
– Club/organisation membership

Modern sources/signifiers of identity are largely

– Self-selected
– Based around personal issues
– Fluid

Modern sources include

– Interests and activities
– Lifestyle
– Sexuality
– Journeys of personal development
– Membership of social tribes organised around shared interests
– Patterns of consumption, eg products and brands

Tensions often arise between traditional and modern definitions and/or between group and individual identities. These tensions can lead to personal misunderstandings, personal alienation and the need to code-switch (NPR, 2013), or to conflict between groups, such as the present divisions over Brexit. In an essay on the role of identity politics in the rise of the new right across Europe, Professor Philipp Hübi of the University of Stuttgart cites research indicating that “individuals who fear a loss of social status can be drawn to extremism”, adding that “studies show that people with traditional values are more likely to harbour [such] fears than progressives” (Hübi, 2017, p.71).

The division between traditional and modern sources/signifiers of identity are described in Brilliant (1991, p.12) as representing respectively the outer and inner aspects of identity – on the one hand social roles, which he says are “like masks or disguises, carefully assumed by individuals in order to locate themselves in a society conditioned to recognise and identify these forms of representation in practice and in art”, and on the other hand the personal aspects or “inner reality”. While it is clearly the case that identity has both outer and inner aspects, the balance between the two in defining identity has shifted dramatically towards a much greater consideration of inner aspects since Brilliant wrote this description, due largely to the emergence of the internet and the rise of now-ubiquitous self-defined social media profiles.

Within this general shift, however, individual identities combine the two elements in varying proportions, with socially conservative people usually placing greater emphasis on traditional sources and social progressives on modern ones. Episode 1 of Grayson Perry’s 2014 Channel 4 series (Perry, 2014) included explorations of identities at the extremes of this polarity – ex MP Chris Huhne, who was unwilling or unable to reveal anything at all of his inner self, and X-Factor contestant Rylan Clark, who struggled to express any sense of himself beyond the self-constructed aspects.

As Grayson Perry’s series also demonstrated, the way identity is expressed in a portrait depends not just on the subject’s own sense of identity, but also on what the portraitist wishes to reveal. School and passport photos, for example, are uninterested in personal aspects of identity and are each only concerned with documenting one aspect of our status and identity – as school pupil in the one case and citizen in the other.

Research and references

Brilliant, R. (1991) Portraiture. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.
Hübi, P. (2017) ‘The power of political emotions: on political camp formation and the new right-wing populism’, in Tillmans, W. (2018) Jahresring 64: What Is Different? Berlin: Sternberg Press.
NPR (2013) Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch. Available at https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/04/13/177126294/five-reasons-why-people-code-switch [accessed 17.01.19]
Perry, G. (2014) Who Are You? Available at https://www.channel4.com/programmes/grayson-perry-who-are-you [accessed 17.01.19]

IAP A1: battling dread and doubts

From the moment I first looked through the course pdf for Identity & Place at the beginning of November 2018 I was filled with dread about the prospect of having to engage with strangers for the first assignment – a dread so intense that it has even blocked me from starting work on the exercises as I battled with indecision about whether to drop out of the course. On many days I made a firm decision to continue and then an equally firm decision to drop out, seesawing between the two positions repeatedly as I ran through their respective pros and cons.

Hoping that it would make me feel better equipped to face the task, I watched an instructional youtube video on asking strangers to pose for portraits, took a LinkedIn Learning course on the same subject and another on photographing people in natural light – but if anything these made me feel even more apprehensive as I realised how little idea I had about what I was trying to achieve. Finally I reached a point where it became clear that just going out and asking some strangers whether I could take their photo was going to be less of an emotional rollercoaster than continuing to prevaricate, so I did exactly that. In a roughly two-hour walk around Brighton beach and marina I managed to find two suitable targets, both of whom were surprisingly willing to have their photo taken.

Although I felt relieved to have two subjects under my belt, I realised I was no closer to having a sense of what I was trying to achieve. I did, however, come to the conclusion that the photos in which the subject looked directly at the camera had most potential, so made a resolution to make sure I included similarly direct shots in subsequent sessions. It took another half a dozen outings over a couple of weeks before I finally had sufficient images to find a theme, and my doubts about continuing with the course persisted throughout this period. It was only when I started reading Art & Fear (Bayles & Orland, 1993), recommended by a peer to whom I confided my feelings, that I realised that my doubts and feelings of inadequacy didn’t necessarily mean I wasn’t suited to the course – or indeed, to being a photographer/artist.

Now that I have my images and a potential theme for the assignment I am very happy that I didn’t drop out. This probably won’t be the last time I feel such overwhelming doubts, but knowing that I found a way through this time will surely help when similar feelings arise in the future.

References and resources

Bayles, D. and Orland, T. (1993) Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. Santa Cruz, Oregon: Image Continuum Press.
Windsor, J. (2018) How to ask strangers for photos. Available at https://youtu.be/BWip3-T3ev4 [accessed 06.03.18]

Stopping and re-starting the course

Back in March I was really struggling with IAP, and felt stressed and overwhelmed by the challenges ahead. All the sense of enjoyment and of exploring and expressing my creativity that I’d had when I started the course just over a year earlier had disappeared, and I wondered why on earth I was doing it when it was making me so miserable. Eventually I decided to take a break and see how I felt further down the line.

At first it was a massive relief to sweep all the stress and anxiety away in one fell swoop, and I was not at all sure that I’d want to return. Rather than force a decision one way or the other, I decided just to leave my options open for as long as I needed to or until time ran out.

Nine months later at the beginning of December I felt ready to dip my toes back into the water. I decided to pick up where I’d left off and see how that felt before making a formal decision. I completed the part 1 exercises and found that I had a new way forward for the work I’d already done for the first assignment. And I enjoyed it. So I got in touch with the student office to let them know I was returning to the course, and here I am.

Reflection on inside/outside

Exercise 3.1 asks us to place archive images into two categories – mirrors and windows. For the purposes of the exercise, these categories are considered from the point of view of the photographer. Thus we are taking the viewpoint of John Szarkowski’s 1978 Mirrors and Windows exhibition and equating mirrors to autobiographical/inward-facing subject matter and windows to world-exploring/outward-looking subjects.

As Bull (2010) points out, Szarkowski’s approach is a modernist one and considers only the content of the image. In this respect it is actually quite different to the similarly-titled categories of inside and outside examined by Solomon-Godeau (1994). The difference arises because Solomon-Godeau takes a postmodernist approach, which considers the context in which an image has been made to reveal as much as, or even perhaps more than, its content. Like Rosler (1975) and Sontag (1979 p.55), who derides the photographer who gazes “on other people’s reality with curiosity, with detachment, […] as if that activity transcends class interests, as if its perspective is universal”, Solomon-Godeau argues that the photographer has to have to have directly lived the subject/s’ experience to be capable of documenting it in a credible and authentic manner.

These ideas have led directly or indirectly to the concept of cultural appropriation and its underlying presumption that only an insider is qualified to comment or build on the experience of any particular socially distinct group, ie one based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion or other culturally defined parameters. But where do we draw the insider/outsider line? Is anyone who has, for example, lived on the street on The Bowery qualified to comment on the experience of everyone else who has done the same? Or would a young white man’s experience in that environment be significantly different to that of a black man, a woman, an elderly person?

It is worth pointing out that at the time Solomon-Godeau and Sontag were writing it was generally believed that the framework through which people viewed the world was determined by their own social position and personal experience, and was essentially fixed and immutable. There was of course a long tradition of thought proposing an alternative argument – that that our perception of the world is, like reality itself, multidimensional and fluid – but this has only very recently become the prevailing paradigm. Today we argue not about facts but perspective, to the extent that arguments are now opposed not on factual grounds but on grounds of biased perspective: they are simply “fake news”.

The understanding that perspective is fluid and does not necessarily run along the same faultlines as class/gender/ethnic etc divisions has become increasingly evident in the past four years. In an era where it is common currency that all perception and analysis starts with a point of view and there is no longer any credence in the idea of absolute truth or a definitive version of events, perspective is the dividing line between insider and outsider viewpoints. Nothing has made this clearer than Brexit, which has revealed the underlying perspective faultline running through every subject from identity politics to global warming to welfare to immigration. This faultline emanates from the emotion-based principles described in Philipp Hübi’s essay in Tillmans (2018) – care, freedom, fairness, loyalty, authority and purity – which themselves boil down to a single axis: the ability/willingness to put oneself in the shoes of others, aka compassion.

Where the modernist perspective focused on content and the postmodernists focused on context, the post-postmodernist perspective focuses on perspective itself. Modernism says you point the camera one way or the other. Postmodernism says you have to have lived the experience of your subject. Post-postmodernism says compassion and conscious perspective enables you to place yourself in the shoes of your subject. For the photographer, the question becomes: are we recording the subject’s behaviour (outsider perspective) or sharing their experience (insider perspective)?

I would also argue that while the postmodernist analysis zoomed out from the close modernist focus on the image to include consideration of the photographer and even the context in which the image is viewed, it did not zoom out far enough to include the viewer of the image, and could not have done, because information about the viewer’s response was not available in those days. Images at that time were mostly consumed in magazines at home, and in public galleries viewers’ perspective would tend to be guided by the accompanying materials and there was generally no forum or other medium for hearing and recording viewers’ thoughts. So the viewer’s input is not something that Solomon-Godeau, Sontag et al could even have thought about considering or even encountering.

Today the situation could not be more different, and the perspective of the viewer is perhaps of even greater relevance to the insider/outsider divide than that of the photographer. Images are constantly commented on in social media and other public forums, and everyone can be a curator, interpreter and critic. It is now commonplace that identical images are interpreted in completely opposing ways in different forums with different agendas.

I experienced an enlightening example of this when I worked as an invigilator at the 2018 Brighton Photo Biennial and spoke at length to hundreds of festival visitors. One of the installations I invigilated most regularly through the month was Uta Kögelsberger’s Uncertain Subjects Part II, comprising naked head-and-shoulder portraits of dozens of people of various nationalities who felt their views on Brexit were not being heard. Most people saw the format as an effective way of stripping down the differences between people and emphasising their commonalities, and it was so successful in creating a sense of familiarity/insiderness that several visitors each day told me they thought they recognised one or more of the subjects but couldn’t quite place them.

A small minority of male viewers, however, told me that they found the format distracting and disturbing, because the women’s naked shoulders made them unable to think about anything other than what their breasts might be like. Thus I learned that even in a case where the photographer has consciously taken and presented an insider perspective, the determining viewpoint is ultimately the one adopted by the viewer. This was demonstrated even more strongly by the viewpoint of Kögelsberger’s installation taken by many Brexit supporters, who saw the subjects’ one-line statements on what Brexit meant to them from a totally outsider perspective. Several Brexit supporters were actually incandescent with rage that they felt excluded by the installation because it didn’t reflect their own point of view, and a few even registered formal complaints that the work was biased.

References and resources

Bull, S. (2010) Photography. Routledge Introductions to Media and Communications. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Solomon-Godeau, A. (1994) Inside/Out. Available at http://www.photopedagogy.com/uploads/5/0/0/9/50097419/week_5_abigail_solomon-godeau_inside_out.pdf [accessed 13.02.20]
Rosler, M. (1975) The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems, 1974–74. Available at https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/95.117.a-x/ [accessed 13.02.20]
Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin Books.
Hübi, P. (2018) “The Power of Political Emotions: On Political Camp Formation and the New Right-Wing Populism” in Tillmans, W. (2018) Jahresring 64: What is Different? Berlin: Sternberg Press.