- The quality or condition of being a specified person or thing.
- Individuality or personality
(The Oxford Encyclopaedic English Dictionary)
What identity means and whether or not one’s identity is acceptable to others depends on time and place. Identity might be defined by official documents, physical appearance, social status, wealth, class etc. These are somewhat fixed and historically people stayed within these bounds.
Today we define ourselves more by our beliefs, interests, career, values. We may mix with those that share our beliefs and values, becoming one of a “tribe”. Western society treats identity as self-made, not a fixed phenomenon. Eastern cultures adopt cultural norms more readily,
Research Post – Identity
If our identity in the modern world is defined by our own beliefs, values, race, gender, career, then our identity must be almost unique. But, many of these parameters are shared with many other people, and if we congregate with others of like mind, then our tribe becomes collective. I believe that our individual and collective identities co-exist. Perhaps we may not always be aware that they do so, and certainly I believe that at any one time, either our individual or collective identity will be dominant. We may go out of our front door one day with our individual identity and hardly recognise that we share any common aspect with our neighbour, but yet on a following day, walk out with the pride of being part of the community that we readily identify with.
I have friends who are gay. They identify themselves as gay. Their willingness to “act out” their identity is strongly dependent on the company that they are in, and whether that company can accept that identity as acceptable, tolerable, unacceptable, uncomfortable etc. This gay couple when walking through town must encounter the whole range, and perhaps their identity is fluctuating the whole time, even unknowingly.
I can hardly explain what it means to be myself, as to a large extent I can never be myself, if by that I mean, how I would behave were I in a vacuum free of external interfaces, and in addition, free from cultural norms. My behaviour with my wife and children might be categorised as my normal behaviour, but that behaviour is adjusted to maintain harmony, yes, but also naturally through ones affection for them. Equally my work colleagues might feel that they have ownership of my identity, but they would be equally wrong and right.
Photography and Identity
A photograph resembles the reality in front of the camera, so photographs can speak of identity. But photographs can also examine identity below the surface.
Portrait artists learn about the identity of the sitter through R&D or the research stage. The artist will spend time with their subjects, getting to know them and the community they live in, or visit their schools and so on. This process will provide information and inspiration, which will impact on the final work.
Exercise 1 – Constructing a Portrait
I have recently changed my profile picture to the one showed above. This self-portrait was taken as part of an assignment and was designed to portray me as a confident, competent executive, in control of my environment, a successful businessman.
This is an accurate representation of me during the day, of me the executive. But I have another side, the photographer, and yet another, the academic. If I were to focus on me the photographer or perhaps more accurately the photography student, how would I represent this identity? As I write this now I am still in my work clothes, but I am leaning over a PC. Maybe I should produce a portrait of me looking like some archetypal flamboyant photographer, but the portrayal would be false.
In the end, this image is as accurate a portrayal of my identity as I can imagine.
Where are we?
I feel more at home in the countryside but have spent most of my adult life in towns and cities. I can relate to either environment and probably, my identity can be partly described in terms of sky, mountains, dales, cafes, pubs, night clubs … My choice of Square Mile (a nearby town with decaying half and a thriving half) reflected the disparity of poverty and wealth I grew up with and my acceptance of and disenchantment with this dichotomy has stayed with me.