When different understandings of identity come into conflict with each other it can be quite contentious. When I moved to a suburban area after living in a student area I was shocked
to discover the different expectations now on me to be a good neighbour. In the student area anonymity was the norm but here I was expected to introduce myself and tend to my weeds!
This example is more about collective identity and expectations. You may wish to think about collective or individual identity. Can you think of some examples from your own experience, or of someone you know, where there was a clash of identity? What happened and can you see how fluctuating notions of identity are still potentially problematic? What does it mean, for you, to be yourself?
My story: good job, company car, magistrate, small village where, yes, people do tut if you let the weeds grow. Then I realised several years ago I was living their collective identity while suppressing my own.
That isn’t the way to a fulfilling life. Imagine dying and still never have discovered who you actually are, having assessed your worth, skills and talents only by the yardstick of others?
Yes, we need to play the game. We wear their style of clothes when asking them to pay us for doing their work. We conform for 8 hours a day. But it’s a work uniform now, its not who I really am.
Outwardly, nothing changed in the beginning except my hair grew. I saw that people responded to me differently because I no longer fitted their preconceived expectations of who I ought to be. I was reminded of when I used to ride a motorcycle and people in shops would treat me differently for no reason apart from wearing leathers on my next visit.
Funniest moment: needed a bandana to stop my hair flapping in my eyes when out hiking on windswept moors. Looking my suit and tie up and down, the lady in the shop said “what do you need it for, a mid-life crisis?”.
It’s a shame that the commercial mechanisms of modern society are all oriented towards stifling individual identity and manipulate us to adhere to an established norm. Britain used to be famed for its eccentrics – now the power of advertising makes us obsess over the minutiae of virtually identical car shapes and colours; wear the same fashions; watch the same films; work in the same industries. Governments nudge us to comply, aspire and behave with a preferred collective identity. In that way society behaves with predictability.
We are all unique, even if we are encouraged to act as though we are not by the powers that control our lives.
Maybe the role of the portrait photographer is to spot this individuality and tease it out.