Category Archives: Introduction to Course

A Square Mile -update

A Square Mile – A Walk in the Park

I did the Square Mile exercise at the very beginning of this course of study, now over 2 years ago. At the time I was pleased with it. It was the first time I had done a piece of work that was designed to ‘tell a story’ for many years. Looking back, while I still think it was interesting (I focused on the very changeable weather in a Scottish spring) in reality the images did not tell much about the local area and what it means to me. It was about the wider place – Scotland, and the time of year – spring, and the weather – variable!

If I redid this exercise now – and I might yet do so – I would concentrate on the places that I go to and see regularly, my street, the local coffee shop, the comic book store, the library and the people I meet at these places. It would be an interesting exercise to stand outside my house and take pictures of everyone who walks along the street over a few hours. I might get some very odd looks and need to do a lot of explanation, but it would tell a lot about the area especially if I got a little bit of information from everyone – who they were, what they did, and why they were there.

Simply thinking about this shows how much my attitudes to photography have changed over the 2 years and also how much my confidence has grown. At that stage I would not have thought about asking relative strangers to allow me to take pictures of them – now I am considering the implications and the need for a card to give them together with an information sheet on the project!

Theories of Identity

Theoretical Underpinning of identity:

A person’s identity is made up of a series of layers that come from a combination of genes, early nurture and experience as an adult.

Humans are a species that has more capability for conscious thought (as far as we are aware) than any other species on outer planet.  Susan Black says, ‘Humans belong to the group of conscious beings that are carbon-based, solar system dependent, limited in knowledge, prone to error and mortal’ (Black, 2018). As part of our make-up we have an identity, which is part physical, part psychological and part social. Erickson, a behavioural psychologist working in the 1050’s  (quoted in Black, 2018) defined identity as ‘either (a) a social category, defined by membership rules and (alleged) characteristic attributes or expected behaviors, or (b) socially distinguishing features that a person takes a special pride in or views as unchangeable but socially consequential (or (a) and (b) at once).’  That is, he is saying that identity is a social construct dependent on the groups you belong to and the things you are interested in. Black, however, argues that the physical identity of a person is equally important and asks, ‘How much alteration can a biological entity sustain while remaining recognisable as the same individual and maintaining its traceable identity?’ (Black, 2019).

Maintaining your identity is important and is emphasised in the multiple stories from around the world of lost, stolen or fake identities both couched as history and as fiction, often in folklore. This means names (as a crucial part of our identity) are central and finding out that our name is ‘fake’ may be very traumatic. Our name and heritage are our base, our bedrock and it should not be made of sand! The importance of our perceived heritage can make a profound impact on who we are.


Our initial identity comes from our genes. Our genetic code is very similar to that of  chimpanzees and the other great apes who are tribal species where the strongest aim to be the leader of the tribe and may be very aggressive in obtaining that goal but when they get there they will often protect the weaker members, while still remaining aggressive to outsiders.


Behaviour is believed to be caused by environment. As humans we absorb the stories that flow around our culture to make sense of who we are and what we want to be. In Europe this follows on from the Ancient Greek tradition of individuality featuring a strong person who aims to be a moral leader. This probably developed from the need to be an entrepreneur, because of the limited pastures and need for each small group of people to be self sufficient. Aristotle shows that individuality was key. There was also frequent engagement with foreigners and different beliefs systems and values that allowed further for the development of individuality (provided you were rich and strong enough). This is thought of as the ‘independent construal – the inherent separateness of distinct persons. (Markus and Kitayama, 1991)

This was very different from ancient China with its wide pastoral areas and need for large projects and grand schemes. Group harmony was paramount rather than individuality. Harmony came from people who knew their place in life and stuck to it. Confucius was a major exponent of this. Identity is part of a group! This concept continues to hold in much of the  Eastern world even today and may lead a very different views of  of who you are and how you should interact with others with a need to consider multiple perspectives and seeing things in a wider context rather than as single objects and a simple right or wrong in the Western world. This as described as the ‘interdependent construal – the fundamental connectedness of human beings to each other’ (Markus and Kitayama, 1991).

There are similar variances in other cultures even on a relatively small scale. Southern USA males are often said to be more belligerent than northern ones, northern Chinese people who live in small communities are said to be more individualistic than southern ones who rely on large communities to work the large paddy fields.

These theories of the development of identity are very broad based and obviously do not explain individual variation but may well underpin some of it.


A person’s identity consists of an internal interpreter which makes up stories to explain why things happen and the underlying emotions and drives. In the modern world, especially in the west, there is an assumption that you can (and should) be a hero. A star of your own story. Be perfect. There is a (wrong) assumption that everybody thinks like you do. This has led to a massive ‘wellness’ industry. It is true that meaningful core projects (work, hobbies, religion – it varies from person to person) do act to improve our well being and are essential to our sense of self identity. However, the self (your identity) is formed from series of overlapping layers that often seeks validation from others. Your ‘self’ changes depending on where you are, your role and on how other people are treating you.

The onset of personal computers and the internet was a game changer. You are visible and have to be the best at everything, perfect or others see that you are not! The problem is that we end up judging others very harshly. No time or space for the underdog. We lose sight of the fact that we a a social species and depend on others and also that what we do impacts on a lot of people. Individual responsibility is a myth. This has led to the development of a new pattern of identity especially in the younger generations. The selfie people, where the ambition is to be known!  Social media plays on that, and also on a the (very basic) need for tribal approval.


How much of our personality is due to genetics? How much nurture? Behaviour is a combination of situation and genes.  People are not all the same. Identity is a core part of your person and is undoubtedly partly secondary to your background. Showing a person’s identity therefore becomes complex. A simple snapshot can only show a fragment, but will a million images tell anything more?


Black, S. (2018). All That Remains. [Place of publication not identified]: BLACK SWAN.

Markus, H. and Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98(2), pp.224-253.

Storr, W. (2017). Selfie. London: Picador.




Grayson Perry – Picturing Identities

Grayson Perry (born 1960) is an English multimedia artist who, among his large oeuvre, specialises in making portraits. His portraits are not, however, simple representations of a face or a body.  He spends considerable time with the person, or group of people that he intends to portray, getting to know them, talking to their friends and colleagues, joining in with their activities and, probably most importantly, thinking before making an image, which might be a piece of pottery, a tapestry or a painting.

Perry is known for his eclectic persona. He is a transvestite (and proud of it) and a television personality. He comments on the contemporary arts scene, and on what he sees as British prejudices. He has made several television programs about making art and portraiture, two of which All Man and Who We are as particularly fascinating. Unfortunately, episode 1 do Who We Are does not seem to be available for download on any source available in the UK, but episodes 2 and 3 are well worth watching.

Who We Are 2 looks at how you can show families in portraits.  He looks at 3 families

  • A religious group who act as an extended family and live together. Here he notes that ritual makes up an important part of their lives, together with the need to be accepting of others and also give things up to act as a single unit. He comments that ‘other people act as a mirror, a reflecting surface’ and that allows you to understand yourself and him to understand the group
    • He made a reliquary casket showing the caring aspect of the family, based on the older form of religious icons

      © Grayson Perry
  • A complex family unit of 2 white gay men raising a mixed-race child. This brought up issues about how you define yourself, both about race and the LGBTQ+ axis, together with the fact that society tends to put people ‘in pockets’ and to tell their story you need to tale the back out again. Identity is formed of multiple layers, a feeling rather than a conscious knowledge, and these need to be explored to make an image
    • He made a pottery jar showing the surrounding and caring aspect of a family

      © Grayson Perry
  • A couple of older people one of whom has Alzheimer’s disease. Here he looked at how the loss of memory affected identity. Taking away the layers, especially when you loose professional accomplishments. Identity then starts to rely on the memories of others – but the carer can also then loose (or change) their own identity, becoming a shadow. Your identity can also be part of being a couple – so if this is lost it changes – Alzheimer’s is described as “ a random bombing raid on the whole of the mind”.
    • He made a funeral urn for memories, composed of multiple photo shattered and cut apart, then recomposed.

Who We Are 3 looks at tribes, groups of people whose identity is bound up in their culture.

  • Belfast people – where portraits that reflect the past violence are still everywhere. Symbols tell a story, might be tattoos, might be clothes. Possibly an ‘old-fashioned view of what Britishness is, and very different from the view in other parts of Britain. Thinking about how identical I’d affected by where you live, especially by where you were born.
    • He made a flag that was in many ways a caricature, wondering if humour could help the situation, but a risk of it being offensive

      © Grayson Perry
  • Obese women – looking at how your identity is fashioned by what other people think of you. How your body can make you an outsider, a negative impact similar to the effect the one that other minority groups get from the world. Being in a group allows acceptance and may improve confidence with a positive effect on mental health.
    • He made a series of statues, playing on the theme of the Willendorf Venus. Objects of beauty.

      © Grayson Perry
  • Deaf people who have their own culture based on a visual not spoken language and which can be very different. Not hearing is often seen as a disability but should be considered a difference. There can be a conflict between cultures especially if you are born into one but live within another. How does that impact on your identity? It becomes an internal (and external) negotiation.
    • He made a very visual and colourful silk screen printing based on a set of hearing aid covers

All Man 1 looked at the identity men give themselves.  He looked closely at the culture of extreme ‘macho’ men including cage fighters. The surface personality may be very brutal but underneath the person may be very gentle. The fighter described “being broken inside” and “its all we have left’ coming from a run-down, working class area with little opportunities for work remaining.  The risk of suicide is high. Men are not encouraged to recognise their feelings. He made a banner that echoed the banners that are still paraded in the villages and towns and also a very ‘frilly’, gentle pot, a very feminine object to commemorate the life (and death) of a man who couldn’t cope and who had killed himself. A masculine banner and a feminine pot. Cloth and pottery. Hard and soft. Both working together to tell the story.

© Grayson Perry


Both series showed the depth of investigation required to produce a meaningful piece of artwork that told a story of the person or group of people and their lives. Emotion is needed, both from the person and the artist. A connection of some sort needs to be formed. To make a good portrait you need to be part detective, part psychologist.  You need to look at what the person shows to the world, and also what is underneath it, consider their lives and the lives of other around them and the culture they live in now together with the one they were born into. Not a simple task.

What is Identity?

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.

I am:

  • 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

I am:

  • 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.

Diary (1 of 1)


Bragg, M. (2019) In Our Time, Authenticity, BBC Radio

Soutter, L. (2018). Why Art Photography?. Oxon: Routledge.