Research point: Identity

The question of identity is central to the practice of portrait photography. Who am I looking at?” (Roswell 2007: 79)

I’ve looked at the use of identity as a photographic subject in previous courses (notably the self-portraiture action in Context & Narrative) and will summarise some of my earlier conclusions here, alongside my findings from more recent reading.

Structure and agency

Kath Woodward’s Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity, 2004) does an excellent job of explaining the ingredients of identity:

  • Structures
    • external: what the course notes calls ‘social identity’
    • socially recognised positions, constraints, expectations
    • can tend towards stereotypes
  • Agency
    • internal: what the course notes calls ‘personal identity’
    • personality, self-definition, individual control
    • to some degree, operates within the accepted parameters of structures

(Woodward 2004: 6-8)

As previously noted, artists like Cindy Sherman work within the sphere of structures, which lead to stereotypes – pointing out that if societal roles (in this case gender roles) are constructed externally, then they can be rejected – or subverted, mocked, redirected (Marien 2014: 451).

The interplay between the social and personal identities is important; some aspects of social identity are given – e.g. gender, class, ethnicity, nationality – whilst others are self-selected – e.g. sporting allegiances, political opinion, musical tastes (religion is an interesting one: it’s either mandated or chosen, depending on the culture in question…)

This latter type, self-selected identity, offers less scope for human agency than might first appear; one is always selecting from available sets defined by the structures. Such structures are often oppositional in nature, so identity is a matter of both similarity and difference: Catholic/Protestant, Tory/Labour, United/City, etc (Woodward 2004: 33-39).

It’s interesting to note that a sub-genre of documentary photography has emerged, the pseudo-anthropoligical approach of photographing members of a particular social group or ‘tribe’ (e.g. wrestling fans, nudists, battle re-enactors, gamers, goths, cosplay enthusiasts… the list is endless). This kind of project de-emphasises the individual and focuses on the shared identity of the group – the structure, not the human agency.

The self and the projected personality

One aspect that interests me is the dichotomy between one’s own personal identity and the ‘masks’ that one has to wear in order to navigate (occasional or everyday) situations. How one projects oneself to others can be markedly different to how one actually feels inside, and this masquerade can get incredibly tiring.

Through the prism of social and personal identity / structure and agency, this issue is about the social structures being mis-aligned with individual preferences, and the tension this causes for the individual – the group thinks you are ‘one of them’ but you don’t. This is different from people outside the group having a ‘wrong’ view of you (stereotyping); this is more about lacking the self-confidence to ‘be yourself’ and changing yourself to ‘fit in’.

My personal experience of years of having to be a confident, self-assured, ambitious management consultant when I mostly felt the exact opposite of those things was the trigger for taking a career break to study full-time. Maybe this is something I will explore in future assignments.

Identity and female artists

Most of the photographers we looked at in the self-portraiture part of C&N were female. I concluded that women are inherently more curious about the notions of identity, particularly in the context of social structures.

Nikki S Lee’s Projects are about social group identities, while Trish Morrissey’s Front and Dita Pepe’s similar Self-Portraits with Men are concerned with female family roles. In all three examples the artists insert themselves into existing groups to make their statements about identity.

A quote from an interview with Lee:

“In Buddhism there’s a saying that goes something like ‘I can be someone else and that someone else can be me as well.’ Thoughts like this one—thoughts that cause you to view yourself in other people’s shoes—were my main focus, so the people play a significant role.” (Creators’ Project 2010)

Gillian Wearing’s Album pictures are concerned with familial identities in a different way: the pictures where she masquerades as family members make the viewer consider how character traits of others may have affected one’s own identity (both adopting and reacting against other people’s traits). The examples where she masquerades as earlier versions of herself are, to me, about the mutability and multiplicity of identity; it is not a fixed entity, not even at a particular point in time.

It’s possible that women express their identities via photography more than men do as they work to redress the balance of centuries of patriarchy; women may contemplate issues of identity more than men do because they are asserting identity – as representing their gender and as individuals – in a way that men have never really had to.


Angier, R. (2007). Train Your Gaze. Lausanne: AVA

Bright, S. (2010) Auto Focus: the Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography. London: Thames & Hudson

Marien, M.W. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History. (4th ed). UK: Laurence King Publishing.

Woodward, K. (ed.) (2004) Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity (2nd edition). London: Open University. (accessed 01/08/2015)

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