Write a reflection in your learning log about some of the ways in which marginalised or under-represented people or groups could be badly or unhelpfully portrayed. How might being an insider help combat this? (OCA IAP, p66)
In reflecting upon this, I’ve drawn on some of the work studied since the beginning of my OCA course, with references to previous blog posts below.
Diane Arbus (1923–71) was duplicitous in her approach to subjects, with her main interest in being getting the photo. Her subject matter was often ‘freaks’. In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag showed an almost obsessive dislike of the work of Arbus, mentioning her name no less than 85 times. In one summing up of an Arbus show, Sontag says:
… lined up assorted monsters and borderline cases – most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothing; in dismall or barren surroundings … Arbus’s work does not invite viewers to identify with the pariahs and miserable-looking people she photographed. Humanity is not “one“. (Sontag, S. (2014), loc 394)
Of her own practice in the Aperture Monograph, Arbus says, ‘actually they tend to like me. I’m extremely likeable with them. I think I’m kind of two-faced.’ (Fitzgibbon A, 2016). Arbus viewed marginalised people as spectacles to be photographed and put on display, much like an old-fashioned circus freak-show. A way for ‘normal’ people to view the ‘other’ and make them feel appreciative of their own normality, ‘humanity is not one’, and perhaps happy in their own perception of superiority. It is an extension of this kind of ethos that can be found in photography in the popular press; for example, taking images of refugees out of context and showing them in an unflattering way to fuel the sense of difference in extreme right-wing orientated readers.
Bruce Davidson (b 1933) is a humanist photographer, who works closely with his subjects to understand their perspective on the world. An antithetical approach to the divisive use of photography discussed above. One example is his work Freedom Fighters, in which he followed black civil rights campaigners and joined them on their campaign bus, also putting himself in harm’s way of law enforcers. On this work he says:
“Yes, I was pulled in emotionally by the courageousness of those young kids (the Freedom Riders), who as soon as they got off that bus, they could have been murdered.” (ASX)
Davidson spent time with his subjects, sometimes photographing them over the course of one year or more. He describes him self as a humanist photographer. A humanist perspective can be defined as ‘a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; especially : a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason’ (Merriam-Webster.com)
Being or at least acting as an insider, with empathy towards subjects and their lives can help to build understanding and not foster division. Agreement is not necessary, but understanding is essential for a civilised society.
ASX [website]. Everything is Sacred – An Interview with Bruce Davidson (2006). Available from: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/12/interview-interview-with-bruce-davidson.html [accessed 8.11.16]
Fitzgibbon A (2015). Context.Fitzgibbonphotography [blog]. Inside/Out by Abigail Solomon-Godeau (May 2015). Available from: http://context.fitzgibbonphotography.com/insideout-by-abigail-solomon-godeau/ [accessed 7.11.16]
Fitzgibbon A (2016).Identity.Fitzgibbonphotography [blog]. Bruce Davidson at Fundación Mapfres (August 2016). Available from: http://identity.fitzgibbonphotography.com/tag/bruce-davidson/ [accessed 7.11.16]
Fitzgibbon A (2016). Identity.Fitzgibbonphotography [blog]. Diane Arbus, Aperture Monogram (July 2016). Available from: http://identity.fitzgibbonphotography.com/2016/07/10/diane-arbus-aperture-monogram/ [accessed 7.11.16]
Sontag, S. (2014). On Photography (Penguin Modern Classics) [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
The purpose of this exercise is explained in the first part of this post (see here), where I consider the idea of personality. This post shows the photos I made in response to the exercise.
Before shooting these photos, I read a book that’s been sitting on my book shelf in anticipation of the next self-portraits I would make; The camera I: Photographic self-portraits (follow link for post on the book). I found the book a help in adjusting my mindset to self-portraiture, which I’ve previously found a very difficult exercise. The book analyses the psychological challenges in making self-portraits as well as showing over 100 self-portraits by the greats of photography. Two aspects helped me in particular:
- Recognising that self-portraiture is an act – my internal self having a conversation with my surface; we are separate and there is no need to be puzzled and distracted about feeling self-conscious with oneself.
- There are just three general types of self-portraiture: delineation (straight representation of one’s own lines), distortion (for example through a mirror or other reflection), and disguise (pretending to be someone else, eg through dressing up or other disguise).
For this exercise, I decided for simple delineation along with a conversation with myself about aspects of my personality mentioned in part a) of this post – to see if that would elicit a response on the surface of my face.
Simple pop-up studio made with foam board and gaffer tape, with a black cloth drape. Camera Fuji X-T1, xf60mm f/2.4. Single flash light with shoot-through umbrella.
Click to open larger image files
- #1 crosses over into the ‘disguise’ type; it is an act of despair, shot in very low light. I am not a natural actor – I would need to practice acting skills to get into this area to any extent!
- There are a number of images that feature hands alongside the face to help with self-expression. Our hands are naturally expressive; for example they automatically calm or protect us. This could be an area of further exploration – ’emotional hands’.
- A few images feature props – my lighting set-up dummy (‘Ethel’), a guitar, a jacket for warm-weather travel, and a camera. These could be used to explore my relationship with a personal interest (though Ethel could draw dubious inferences). What we choose to do with our time and our lives contributes towards the uniqueness of our personalities.
- The images are deliberately stripped of context in the pop-up studio. In future I will explore contextual set-ups – for example like Bill Brandt’s work shown here.
Make a list of some aspects of your personality that make you unique. Start taking a few pictures that could begin to express this. How could you develop this into a body of work? (OCA IAP, p66)
Personality is word used casually everyday when finding out about people we meet or other people’s perceptions of people, but what does it mean exactly? The American Psychological Association (apa.org) offers this definition:
Personality refers to individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving. The study of personality focuses on two broad areas: One is understanding individual differences in particular personality characteristics, such as sociability or irritability. The other is understanding how the various parts of a person come together as a whole.
A well-known tool for assessing personality types is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) (see reference below for details), which uses 16 different personality types to categorise people. There is no good or bad type, just different types, who have different preferences in how they interact with the world and other people. I took a free online MBTI test to rediscover my type (been many years since doing one). Without going into the details, here is a general description of my ‘ENTP’ type (Teamtechnology):
you are someone who challenges the status quo, seeking to uncover the hidden potential or new possibilities in different situations. You start projects and introduce change on an experimental basis, not knowing fully what is going to happen, but in the expectation that it will lead to an improvement. You enjoy the challenge of doing something that has not been done before and seems impossible.
This is a general description (or stereotype), but what of aspects of my own personality:
- Easily bored without sufficient challenge.
- Curious about many different topics – sometimes too many, both art and science.
- Capable of getting completely engrossed in areas of interest, to the exclusion of things that could be higher priorities.
- Not particularly patient with people.
- Enjoy debating (some might say arguing), even if I have no particular attachment to a point of view.
- Artistic and numerate.
I will reflect on these aspects of personality and consider how they might be portrayed photographically (making a part b. of this exercise).
Myersbriggs.org [website]. Available from: http://www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/mbti-basics/ [accessed 31.10.16]
Teamtechnology [website]. ENTP Personality Types In-Depth. Available from: http://www.teamtechnology.co.uk/personality/types/entp/overview/ [accessed 31.10.16]
Go through your photographic archive and select around ten pictures. Separate them into two piles: one entitled ‘mirrors’ and the other entitled ‘windows’.
I quickly skimmed through my 2015 archive and selected a number of images for the exercise, without at first considering whether they are ‘windows’ into another world or ‘mirrors’ of my own world. For the purpose of part 3, we are asked to use our own perspective, as the photographer, in deciding whether to classify images as ‘windows’ or ‘mirrors’
I used an intuitive response to categorising the photographs and analysed my choices afterwards.
The ‘windows’ are all photographs outside of my own country and culture, so from that perspective they are easily categorised. However, one could also consider them as a mirror on my world, reflecting the places to which I have travelled and what things have caught my eye. The aware portraits could also be categorised as mirrors, with the subjects reflecting their view of me as a photographer.
The ‘mirrors’ are closer to my own identity: a street photograph in Leeds of two strangers obscured by a Union Flag umbrella – my nationality is mirrored as is a rainy day in Yorkshire, as part of my day-to-day life. The head portraits are of an old school friend and my son. Both reflect my life at different points in time, they have influenced who I am and I see them as mirrors.
It can be difficult categorising based on our perceptions of what we see; the world is highly interconnected and it is possible to hold different perceptions of the same thing. It is perhaps more a judgement of degrees of separation and taking a position based on a distance, rather than a general perception. It is also apparent that my rationale for the selections would not be clear to a viewer without context; even people I know would be unlikely to make the same categorisations on my behalf.