How Can We Capture Someone’s Performance Identity Through Photography?

This next article is one i wrote for my Final Project for My Photography MA with a few minor adjustments.

The aim of this project was to examine the role of photography in illustrating and reflecting aspects of cultural life in this country. This was executed by focusing attention on two key themes performativity and identity. Performativity can be defined as the interdependent relationship between words and actions while identity in photographic terms can be defined as how people see themselves and how they see themselves in relation to others. I have examined these themes through the eyes of a variety of performers whose views about themselves and their art informed my work. I desired to show this through my photography. I seeked to answer the question does performativity and performance impact identity through photography?

The term Performativity was first introduced by the philosopher J.L. Austin which he defined as,  “The symbiotic or interdependent relationship between words and actions that the performative encompasses is a key aspect of performance art, with theorists and philosophers examining the role of actions, gestures and artistic decision-making through the idea of performativity.” He went on to say that, “Performance art can be photographic based artworks in which the actions of artists, performers or the audience are conveyed.” ( https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/p/performativity) Conveying ‘the actions of artists and performers is what I primarily want to show through my photographs and practice-based research. Capturing performance through photography has been used since its invention right up to the fashion today for ‘Selfies’ on mobile phones. (https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/performing-camera) The selfie is often a form of self-expression depicting a person how they desire to be seen for wider consumption. Arguably like photography in general, the selfie can also be seen as showing a snippet of one’s identity.

In one sense it can be argued that all photography is an exploration of identity and or of place. In photographic terms identity can be seen as an expression of individuality and the traits that set individuals apart from others and perhaps just as importantly, what defines them as being part of a distinct group.  This can be shown in a myriad of ways, such as “our choice of hairstyles, clothing, and make-up through to marks on our bodies including paint, tattoos, scars and piercings.” And of course, through ethnicity and race.  

 (https://www.thephotographicangle.co.uk/expressing-identity-through-photography/)  Expressions of identity can also be shown through performance and I  endeavored to link identity and performance in my photography by examining the ways in which the group of performers I used expressed themselves through their art.

Eight of the subjects of my shoots are actors and actresses so my starting point when capturing identity with these subjects was to take headshots because these are a trademark of their chosen profession. Although Headshots do not in themselves identify a person’s occupation, it can be argued that headshots become a part of their identity because it becomes natural to them throughout their career. I believe that headshots can capture the personality of the performer through different emotions but also need to be neutral in the sense that potential employers can picture them in varied roles. Headshots are more representative of the perceived identity of the performers, so casting directors and agents can see them as an individual. In the headshots the actors aren’t playing any character, so they adhere to be the most authentic version of the actor’s true self.

Another technique I used during my shoots was asking my performers to bring props that represent in some way, who they are.  It became rather noticeable during shooting that some of my performers had a vulnerable aspect to their identity that you wouldn’t expect from them. They used scarfs and jackets to hide parts of their face to represent the past shyness they had before performing improved their confidence.

When I look at identity in performers, I am trying to discover how they see themselves through photography and also perhaps capturing the memories they have made and are making during their past or current performances. I desired to show them in two different personas. One Performed and one not. Either way they have a story to tell.

As Stuart Freedman (Photographer) recently declared, we need “a return to a storytelling in photography as rigorous in thought and research as it is beautiful in construction and execution.” (Campbell, D: 2010) This is relevant because I decide to allow my subjects to tell their own story about identity and performativity and I gave their stories a face through having them record journal style excerpts about their performing identity and photographing them performing in the studio and taking natural portraits of them with the aim of capturing a sense of who they are.

A quote from the photographer Loretta Lux in the book Imaginary Portraits by Francine Prose (2005) states “ A work of art that focuses on a child seems to burrow under our skin, tunneling back through time and memory to a world whose details we long to recall, yet cannot, and so we invent a myth that only inserts another layer between us and what we are trying to recapture.” This is relevant for me because I was trying to capture the essence of who the person is and how they became a performer showcasing aspects of their memories in my photography.

Normally when doing a shoot, I will give directions to my model. However, in looking at their own identity I wanted to use the studio as a space to give them a platform to express themselves with little direction. “Space-whether a suspended pause, a blank area, an empty room or a limitless cosmos-performs.” (Portia Hannah:2011: Performance Perspectives:54). Peter Brook (Theatre Director) stated that I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged (Brook 1968:11: Performance Perspectives:58). I wanted to use the studio as an empty space to give them the freedom to express themselves as naturally as possible. If I told them what to do and how I wanted it done it would become more about how I wanted them to be perceived and not how they wanted to be perceived. I wanted their actions and responses to be as natural and as spontaneous as possible and not manipulated or staged by me. I was looking for authenticity.

In my search for authenticity I am also aware as a woman that gender plays a very important role in unpacking one’s identity. Judith Butler sums up the issues surrounding gender identity.

 “Gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed. It seems fair to say that certain kinds of acts are usually interpreted as expressive of a gender core of identity, and that these acts either conform to an expected gender identity or contest that expectation in some way” (Butler in Loxley, J:2007: p118). In using both male and female performers in my work I want to see whether the performers adhere to their normative gender identities or does the true self come out.

 The academic Patrice Pavis states, “The more the camera has to go in search of an actor who pretends to not be aware of it, and to exist without it, the more naturalistic and documentary the acting seems (Patrice Pavis: 2003:117). In my images of Sophie an actress shown below you can see how she, although performing for the camera has the ability to act natural as though the camera isn’t even an element. She is relaxed and it allows the viewer to delve deeper into her personality, trying to discover her identity in their eyes. No props are used but I have employed them in some instances with my performers to see whether or not their self-perception changes.

 The Philosopher Giles Deleuze states that “Behind the mask… are further masks, and even the most hidden is still a hiding place, and so on to infinity. The only illusion is that of unmasking something or someone (Howell, A: 1999:16). That we can truly unmask someone is probably an illusion, but we can surely unmask aspects of someone’s identity and sometimes the mask is used for that purpose.

The Theatre director Jacques Lecoq uses masks in his teachings, firstly in a neutral sense to put the actor in a state of discovery and then in an expressive sense in order for the actor to experience an emotional and expressive intensity which enables them to challenge themselves through playing the mask character and counter masked character (Jacques Lecoq: 2002:38-61).

In the fifth shoot I did for the project with Anna an actress I used the expressive mask to see what she would do and repeated the process with another four of my subjects. I discovered that you can learn a lot about a person by putting them in a mask because this gives them an expressive platform in which to create a character depicting how they see themselves as a performer, exaggerating their usual persona. Using a mask can push them to see how far they can discover themselves.

Also, it works equally well to strip the performer back into a neutral outfit (Black or White) as you see who they are without the props and behind the physical or metaphorical mask. The only direction I gave was for them to perform in any way they wished. This is important for authenticity as I wanted them to show me how they see themselves both naturally and as a performer. I asked each performer to bring a prop that means something to them to the studio. Then I tried some experimentation with masks to see what the performer would do with a mask on to represent whether they hide aspects of their identity or embrace them. Seeking an aspect of identity can be seen in the work of four noted photographers I have looked at while undertaking this project.

In The Article New Writing On Jane Bown (https://photoworks.org.uk/jane-bown/)  by Luke Dodd it is stated that “Many photographers talk of the portrait in terms of a contract with the subject, implying that the greater the rapport, the better the finished result. Jane liked it when there was a ‘spark’ with the sitter, but it was by no means necessary for her to produce startling results. The famous picture of Mick Jagger laughing was taken as Jane worked around him and the interviewer with very limited time.  And sometimes a rapport hindered her: the first time Jane photographed Bjork (having absolutely no idea who she was) it is obvious from the contacts that Jane had to really work at it because both of them were having too much fun – she exposed four rolls of film, always a sign that things were not ideal.” She shot Samuel Beckett with directness and candour after cornering him in a dark alley.

Jane Bown: Mick Jagger: 1977:London (https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw07529/Mick-Jagger)

Jane Bown: London:1995: Bjork (https://photoworks.org.uk/jane-bown/)

In Jane Bown’s portraits shown through the above hyperlinks we can see that she develops relationships with her subjects in order to capture their innermost emotions.  She tries to create a connection with the subject, and she won’t stop shooting until she has that glimmer of a special moment.

Jane Bown: London:1976: Samuele Beckett

https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw07089/Samuel-Beckett

However, Bown caught Samuel Beckett off guard, with this photo the aim is to expect the unexpected. Despite having no rapport with Beckett at all she perfectly captures a sense of him and that is what makes this image so special. As you can see from my images below my subject’s identity and personality is depicted through their emotions, through a smile, a look of sadness or a simple hand gesture. I haven’t asked my performers to do this I have built my own rapport and developed a connection between the subject and the camera. These moments have happened naturally as the shoot has developed.

The Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra places an emphasis on capturing the vulnerable side of her subjects. “With young people everything is much more on the surface—all the emotions,” the artist observed. “When you get older you know how to hide things.” (http://www.artnet.com/artists/rineke-dijkstra/)  In this project I have photographed both young and old performers and can see that difference between them Dijkstra mentions. The older performers are more subtle in expressing their emotions. Each performer brought their own kind of style to the shoot and had a completely different take on how they expressed themselves, irrespective of age. I needed the studio to be a platform for self-expression which is why I kept it neutral so their entire focus would be on the performer.

To see her bullfighters please see here https://theincubator.live/2016/11/27/rineke-dijkstra-bullfighters-1996/

 The Third photographer I have looked at Anouk Kruithof created a photographic project titled Becoming Blue, where she made constant but minor physical interventions to influence the person being portrayed. This was done so that her photos capture the subject’s gestures and facial expressions, interaction to the unknown, irritation or stress. Reactions out of the blue. poses and gestures of the persons portrayed obviously contradict such associations – a stylistic means that Kruithof deliberately chooses in order to visualize different emotional and psychological states during a process of surprise or even confrontation. (2006-2009)

Anouk’s work is all about adding an element of surprise to the shoot and catching the subject off guard. Her props if you could call them that were physical interventions through the use of pins. My interventions in the shoot were more subtle because as well as capturing the subjects in performance I was also capturing them off guard just as we were having a conversation about something.  They brought props themselves such as scarfs, mirrors, dream catchers and I brought masks to the shoot unknowing what the subject would do with them, which creates an exaggerated persona, of their identity.  The masks seemed to become something Shakespearean in nature for some of the subjects and I asked my subjects to perform for me in the studio.

Take a look at becoming blue on this link: https://www.anoukkruithof.nl/becoming-blue-1

For nearly a decade of her life, my final photographer Norma I. Quintana (2014)devoted every summer to a group of people few ever get to capture through a candid lens: circus performers The goal of her book Circus: A Traveling Life was to shine a light on this, “sense of family and tradition and culture and love of performance” that pervaded her behind the scenes experience of the circus. And while some images might seem sombre, especially knowing that Circus Chimera is no more, she sees the images as a celebration.

Norma’s work is all about an intimate delve into the lives of circus performers. The performers look at her as if they know her and have done for a long time. She got to know them over a 10-year time period and captured, those moments you wouldn’t normally see at times when they weren’t performing. I feel in my work I created quite a personal experience in that I had conversations with the performers as I was snapping and captured them at times when they were not performing. In doing so I was able to build a rapport and taking the performers outside their comfort zone off the stage to create a more intimate feel with a 1-2-1 shoot. I got them to perform as naturally as possible and listened to their stories and collected information about how performing is a part of their identity.

I chose to use two different ways of collecting data for the project. One was using an anonymous questionnaire about my two key themes. Here are my findings: 70% of my participants were female so there might be a slight bias in some of the results because it wasn’t an even split. I also asked how long each performer had been performing which is important because in doing that you can see how long it has been a part of their identity for.

First of all, I asked each performer what they believed performativity to be.  The best of the responses ‘being able to express a completely different part of yourself and show something new and exciting to the world’, ‘expression through entertainment or art’, ‘the way in which people perform and adapt themselves into their role during a performance’.

 Subject 5 perfectly captures the essence of what my project aims to reflect in his definition he says, ‘Sharing an idea, experience, emotion, some part of your life with the world’. This statement he has made states that performativity is demonstrated through parts of your identity and I want to know if they can both work in synchronisation. I am figuring out if we can capture identity through performance and this sums it up.

54% of participants thought gender influenced the type of performer you are and 70% believe gender affects the roles they have played. Out of those 70% 3 were male and stated that they would be unlikely to play a female role based on them looking too masculine but of the women that agreed, this response jumped out at me because it gives a more in-depth reason why  ‘In classical dancing the roles are typically very gender-specific, generally with the males in supporting roles to the females. However, that being said, due a lack of male dancers I have previously had the opportunity to dance in styles/roles which would traditionally be classed as male.’ This illustrates that Gender plays a big role in performance identity because you are mostly restricted in the type of performance you can do or role you can play.

In one of the lectures in a focus group it was suggested to me that performers might mask their identity, so I asked in the questionnaire what my subjects thought and 70% of them said No. Those responders said You can’t hide what you look like to an extent, but when I’m performing ‘I’m not me, I as a person am quite shy and when I am performing I don’t take this part of me on stage with me’, ‘You are always the same person and will express the moves in a certain way, dependent on your personality.’ ‘It is part of me as I have danced all my life.’ ‘It’s pretty much my life’. ‘I think that performing enables me to have another facet to my identity, in that when I am performing, I am not necessarily acting as myself. Yet there is an aspect of my personality which enjoy performance making it a part of who I am.’ ‘Performing is part of my identity. Acting, singing, martial arts and music have all helped to shape the person I have become.’ ‘Being a performer is what I am. It’s what I constantly think about, it’s how people perceive me.’

My final question in the questionnaire is the one I’ve been aiming to answer in the duration of this project ‘Can Photography capture identity in a performance?’. Of all the questions I asked this was the most unanimous yes with 92% of the subjects agreeing on this. They answered, ‘Through capturing performances and personalities’, ‘in emotion’, ‘Possibly, if it is well executed by both the photographer and the model’, ‘the way in which I dance is part of my identity’. Any photograph of a dancer will capture the dancers identity, I believe that in any character you can see a mark of the actor behind the role, Yes, when performing I feel the most like a woman and dancer and seeing myself mid-performance in a photograph enhances that. The two most in-depth responses as follows capture the essence of what my project is all about.

‘The expression of a performance is a visual act. In this way, I believe that the individual and personal nature of performance can be captured by an image, to display a person’s identity and attitude towards their performance.’

‘A photograph can capture the essence, the emotions of that instant. You can see dynamics within a scene, the characters’ emotions, who the characters are. Even in music, you cannot hear the music in an image, but you can capture the emotion the musicians and performers are expressing.” In large measure these comments summarize much of what I have been trying to achieve with this project.

I feel that I have managed to capture aspects of the identity of each of my performers through their individual expressions of performance. As Deleuze pointed out you cannot draw out the complete identity but through performativity you can show glimpses of it and this is what I believe I have achieved with this project.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: