This exercise brought more than its fair share of salutary lessons. The stated aim, according to the course notes, was “to get people to question what a doctor or a student or a politician looks like.”
I actually feel that I covered this quite well with my first assignment. JP, for example, has a doctorate and is a qualified psychotherapist but it wasn’t hard to portray him like this:
Nevertheless, as I am dedicated to my studies and somewhat of a completist, I arranged for a friend to model and we began plotting personas and disguises. It was an elucidating experience working through the logic of how the potential audience could be tricked as it reveals much about our own prejudices as well as demanding some precision in terms of using the right visual language to convey the message.
Obviously an ideal scenario would be to have a friend who looks like a cheap hooker but is in fact an MP or know someone with a tattooed face whose day job is being a board director for a FTSE100 company. Unfortunately I am not acquainted with such people and so the exercise quickly looked like it might become rather insulting to my subject unless I was very careful. During the planning process I became less and less convinced that I would learn very much that I don’t already know. Yes, people pigeonhole others and make judgements based on how they look and we make sense of the world by ascribing identities and associations. Yes, many aspects of our identities are purely social or cultural constructs and we perform every day to confirm and/or challenge this. Yes, there are lots of conflicting things going on behind our masks.
To add to the complexity of this mini-project, my model had become very excited at the idea of dressing up and had brought several outfits, some having been purchased (for fancy dress party purposes allegedly) from Ann Summers. In addition, I feared that the network of friends and family that I might poll for their guesses about the model’s real identity would focus on specific clues to authenticity rather than be too revealing about their prejudices.
So I changed tack slightly and decided to record a number of aspects of my model’s true character with a few false interests thrown in to trick the audience.
So what did I learn?
- People are extremely complex
- Someone might love trees but hate gardening
- If you photograph someone near a bamboo plant to indicate a love of wild nature, the viewer may think this is a symbol of the Orient and read the image wrongly
- My friend learned Russian at school because she was blonde and pretty and felt she needed some unusual skills or people would not take her seriously. As she was the only student learning Russian, the lessons were held in the school stationery store, barely larger than a cupboard. The teacher was very odd. He cut off his shirt sleeves every summer and then sewed them back on for winter
- People love to dress up to play out certain fantasies. That is not why Cindy Sherman does it though!
- If you manage to capture some amazing images through careful planning, a strong creative approach and brilliant collaboration with the model and then the model decides that the results are too personal and they don’t want anyone to see them, it is like stumbling across gold but then having to bury deep in the ground and never go back
- This has been an extremely tough test of my integrity as a photographer and a friend
So in lieu of the Stereotype Exercise pictures I was hoping to post, here is a photograph I took of a clown who is actually a High Court judge…