What is identity? This is far from a simple question as different people will understand both the word and the question in different ways.
Identity is a key part of your persona. It does not just include your name or your description but explains who you are and how you feel about yourself. Identity is fluid. It changes over time. It changes depending on where you are. It changes depending on who you are with. You need to be aware of your identity and understand it or you can disappear. That all sounds very abstract and overstated. Most people probably never think of the concept of identity beyond ‘I am John Smith’, ‘I am 6’ tall and have brown hair and blue eyes’ – a description that would satisfy a police report, but, in reality, this does not tell anyone who you are.
- A daughter, a wife, a partner and a mother
- A good friend and a bad enemy
- A doctor, a housewife, a cleaner and a cook
- A photographer, a knitter, a reader and a gardener
- White, British, female and heterosexual
- Overweight and under-exercised, often tired
- Obsessive, fussy and meticulous
- Retired but still working
- Very poor at relaxing and rarely stay still
- Easily frustrated with my own limitations and impatient with them
This list could go on and on. None of the items on it stand alone. Some days one is more prominent, some days others. None would help anyone pick me out when walking down the street or in an identity parade. I take on different personas depending on where I am. At work I am efficient, confident and outgoing. At home, much less confident, shy and tend to avoid people. This can cause interesting situations at times when people who know me in one setting suddenly meet me in another. When discussing authenticity Lucy Soutter says, ‘We all encounter a degree of contradiction between our experience of ourselves and the way we present ourselves to the world’ (Soutter, 2018). The same applies to identity. For further discussion on authenticity it is worth listening to:
Failure of your sense of identity can be catastrophic leading to breakdown of your feelings of self worth and even to suicide. How we present ourselves to the world may be very different from our internal thoughts, so it is not surprising that we find it so difficult to describe a person’s identity and even more difficult to show it in a portrait. When a portrait is a good one and has validity, it doesn’t just show the outward aspect of a person, but something of their inner being that some would call their soul.
So, what makes a good portrait? Knowledge has to be the key, applied with patience and understanding. A passport photograph tells you very little other than the key indicators for facial recognition, a snapshot may show more, and it is a contentious question about how much one of the ubiquitous selfies show! To show a person’s internal identity, their ‘real self’ much more is needed. It becomes important to study the person. To think about the setting, to consider what is important, to use the clues in the environment. All that is much easier to say than to do and takes time and the willingness to be open to the other person.
On my social media sites, I tend not to use a portrait. The images rotate around those of my pets or flowers. They give very little away. All it says about me is that I love cats (and have a bearded dragon) and am obsessive about photographing flowers in close detail. Some of this is self-protection. I work and live in the same area and am very conscious of my need to keep my home self private. This, in itself, says something about me. Recently, as my final image for Context and Narrative I produced a self-portrait reflected in both a window and a mirror. Multi-layered and fractured. This describes my feeling about myself and is a good leaping off point for this new course when I am looking for ways to show the identity of other people.
Bragg, M. (2019) In Our Time, Authenticity, BBC Radio
Soutter, L. (2018). Why Art Photography?. Oxon: Routledge.