Evaluation Student No: 11002269
In a world of material prosperity and mass production the identity of an individual is often reduced to the appearance of a person and “you are what you wear” (Williams, K., 2012) becomes a commonly used practice to analyse other individuals’ character.
Whereas most people try to fit in with the conventions of mainstream consumer culture there are also plenty of individuals, such as ‘Goths’, that show resistance to the commonly practiced act of conformity.
My project explores the fluidity of someone’s identity via his or her appearance and the extent to which identities are constructed and idealised within media context.
Conformity is a psychological concept first popularly explored in the 1960s.
Solomon Asch was one of the first to conduct experiments to measure the tendency of humans to conform their response to a task according to what everyone else is doing (McLeod, 2008).
He discovered that the main factor of motivation behind conformity is that humans seek sympathy from other human beings, which they are attempting to gain by sticking to the opinion of the group rather than challenging it (Adams, R. N., p.30-36,1953).
In that moment the individual therefore values the identity of the group over their own identity.
Humans are naturally prone to believe in the word of the group rather than an individual, even if the individual is himself or herself (McLeod, S., 2008). Investigations show that the need of conformity increases by the number of the group (McLeod, S., 2008).
Consequently, the temptation to conform to the masses in relation to the immensity of mainstream culture is becoming increasingly difficult to resist. These experiments conclude the ways in which western individuals perform everyday habits and external appearance based on a set of conventions performed in their social environment.
Whereas science can give the answer to why humans tend to seek conformity, curiosity emerges around whomever is responsible to establish conventions of what is considered the standards of mainstream culture.
‘Attention economy’ is a term used to describe “ a system that revolves primarily around paying, receiving and seeking what is most intrinsically limited and not replaceable by anything else, namely the attention of other human beings” (Terranova, T., p.2, 2012).
Terranova (2012, p.1-2) explains how this builds on the theory of ‘economy Darwinism’ and the survival of the “fittest”.
Trends and ‘upgrades’ in consumer culture constantly encourage consumers to buy into being “up to date” within a certain lifestyle (Armitage, S., 2013). Even though the term ‘upgrade culture’ is usually associated with technology the principle of constant material obsession to be with the ‘trend’ can be applied to other industries of contemporary consumer culture, too.
Consequently products sold within the contemporary consumer culture are marketed in a way that sells ‘idealised lifestyles’ through various ways of brand-to-consumer communication.
Material goods therefore invite the consumer to pay in order to conform to their desired lifestyle (He, Y.; Liang, B., p.352, 2012).
A “trend” is a marketing strategy that is based on the concept of ‘attention economy’ in order to keep customers buying the newest products.
As a result conventions of mainstream identity often come from ideologies spread within media products, especially advertising.
Books like “You are What You Wear” by Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner, offer readers a basic guide to how appearance can be used as a key to connect the internal to the external self (Williams, K., 2012).
It describes a way to ‘market’ yourself by controlling your appearance and ‘shaping your identity’.
This is based on the assumption that appearance is directly linked to personality and can be used as a tool to analyse yourself and others.
For my production on ‘appearance and fashion trends’ it was therefore part of the process to research what is considered particularly fashionable in menswear right now in order to be able to construct the identity of a mainstream “fashionite”.
My research was based on magazines and especially window displays of mainstream labels like H&M and Zara, which are commonly known to have “ cat walk” inspired mass-market fashion.
In other words they make the newest trends in fashion accessible to the mass commoner.
The results of my research showed that especially symbols like moustaches, crosses and triangles as well as knit wear in form of beanies or pullovers seem to be contemporary symbols of fashion-ability.
It is in human nature to seek out for the belonging to a group (Hinshelwood, R. D., p.5 2009).
As consumers of fashion and other material goods, the individuals achieve a certain sense of belonging and self-identity. Freud calls this the ‘ego-ideal’, the self one aspires to be based on the ideologies of the group one belongs to, the ‘group ideal’ that becomes the “primary task” (Hinshelwood, R. D.,p.7, 2009).
Ideology “refers to a system of beliefs that a group, a mass, or a society share concerning the origin and functions of their common social life and the cultural and ethical demands and expectations they hold for society” (Hinshelwood, R. D. ,p.5, 2009).
Conforming to the ideologies of a group is our natural response to hierarchy and power.
McLeod (2008) outlines how hierarchy and status increases the tendency of conformity in the less powerful.
In the context of media products, the consumer is of less power than the media producer and does therefore easily respond with acceptance of the received idea.
This phenomenon was further explored by the famous experiments of Stanley Milgram on ‘obedience’ and why humans ‘obey’ to authorities and adapt their ideals (McLeod,S., 2007).
Identities within media texts are often idealised versions of the realistic image one could be. They outline ‘unachievable’ identities to maintain the need of ‘continuous consumption’.
Once the product reaches the consumer the representation of an identity is mastered to ‘perfection’, this is the ideal the consumer receives and accepts. The finished product rarely shows the effort that has gone into constructing ‘the perfect image’.
The extent to which media context and therefore the image of the ideal is constructed is something we can easily oversee and often forget.
Therefore I have decided to make the ‘production process’ a part of my project.
In order to represent the ‘construction of identity ‘ I have included a montaging technique that appears as if two images have been ‘cut up’ and glued back together.
The two images merge into one identity but at a closer look the viewer is able to see the individual images.
Originally I planned to exhibit the portraits supported by recordings of the actual photo production.
This would have further emphasised the “construction” behind identity and what happens behind the scenes to create an image that communicates the intended meaning.
Unfortunately I was not able to make use of the recordings I have made as there were issues exporting the files from my phone onto my laptop.
Even without the recordings the overall look and idea behind my portraits will still conclude to outline “the construction of identity”.
During my production I have learnt that every detail counts and that one you should make use of everything one can within the limited space of the image. Everything included in the image should therefore support the overall meaning of the picture.
Consequently it is crucial to have a production plan that considers how to achieve the desired outcome successfully.
One of my subjects I had to shoot twice simply because the amount of planning and preparation I had invested the first time was not efficient enough. The second time I wrote a list of requisites that would best embody what I wanted to bring across, so I went out to buy the required requisites instead of limiting my options by using the items I already had at hand.
The theme I had to plan the most thoroughly was ‘appearance of fashion trends’.
Finding requisites that embody the most up to date fashion trends as well as out-dated fashion styles turned out to be a lot more challenging than expected.
In order to do this successfully I looked for items, which are strongly limited in their life span as ‘fashionable item’.
All items were based on contemporary or long gone fashion trends.
For obvious reasons the list of ‘contemporary trends’ was a lot easier to access than the ‘old-fashioned’ one.
In order to successfully realise my project I had to carefully plan each photo shoot in advance and know exactly what I want the outcome to be, which does not just allow yourself to work more productively but also makes the job of the subject a lot easier.
Obviously not all can be foreseen so I did encounter a variety of struggles during and post my production process.
Studio Photography has the downside of having numerous uncontrollable factors that come into play with your success of completing a good photo session.
These include the ability of the subject to ‘perform’, the presence and functionality of equipment in the studio as well as overall organisation outside your control (the booking system and availability of the studio).
All of the above I have encountered difficulties with during my production.
There are however a list of benefits of using the studio to take portraits of individuals.
In the studio, you as the producer are in control of who and what is in the image.
It also means being able to have lighting to ‘emphasise’ your subject’s appearance aesthetically as well as contextually.
It creates an image of high quality with focus on the essential content: the subject, nothing else.
Even within the process of production there appears to be a certain level of conformity in terms of the ‘look’ of the image.
There are particular ways in which females are usually lit in contrast to the lighting technique used to portray men.
Similarly I found myself asking my subject to do gender specific poses when communicating with them during the photo shoot.
So I myself had become a victim of conforming to mainstream ideas of what a portrait is supposed to look like and how to best represent certain niche identities.
For example I would work with poses that are commonly associated with ‘lower class’ groups in my photo session on ‘class’ or ask my subject representing ‘subculture’ to come across melancholy and thoughtful as one would stereotypically imagine a person from the ‘Goth’ subculture.
Critically speaking, it would have been very interesting to rebel against these stereotypical representations and explore ways in which they could be more freely express themselves as individual.
For example the man that adopts a feminine identity changed his poses according to his transformation. It would have been interesting to see the subject communicating feminine body language whilst in his ‘masculine’ state and communicating manliness in his ‘female’ version.
This is to conclude that conformity is not necessarily limited to the ‘consumer of media texts’ but is also performed by the producer.
Individuals who define their identity with a niche can be classified as ‘non-conformers’ (McLeod, S., 2008) as they are resisting the natural urge to be part of the mainstream norm.
The five themes I have chosen for my portraits are all identities that exist outside the conventions of mainstream culture and rebel against the performance of conformity within the mass market.
Differentiating yourself from the ‘mass’ means that you are taking an active role in the construction of your identity.
The identity of the individual then becomes more important than the group’s identity.
Nevertheless being a ‘non-conformer’ does not mean that you do not have the need for a sense of belonging. Often ‘non-conformers’ form groups that are considered ‘niche’ markets in consumerism terms.
The multi-media age offers individuals the opportunity to actively construct your personalised identity without limitations of truth and reality.
Creating your own game avatar is a growing pleasure to escape the limitations of identity in real life (Boot, C., 2007).
Robbie Cooper explores the relation between real life identities and individual’s avatars in his photo collection called the “Alter Ego” (Popova, M., 2011)
He portrays his subjects next to a depiction of their game avatars.
Avatars are the modern age way to forget about all existing ideas of conformity in real life and escape to a world where you can create “yourself” in the exact ways you like.
Facebook offers the user a more bound-to-reality approach of constructing your ‘personal profile’ but also leaves individuals power over things to share with others and build up to a desired “image”.
In real life being a “non-conformer” (McLeod,S. 2008) can be a lot more challenging, especially when socialising with “conformers”.
Being different from the mainstream can often mean being judged and reduced to a cultural stereotype. Everything that is different is unfamiliar and therefore likely to be generalised.
In the 1880s the forensic scientist Bertillon built an entire study on physiognomy the face (Jason, M., 2012).
The Bertillon system evolves around the theory that human beings’ facial features are linked with a genetic tendency to commit a crime. Bertillon claimed that using his method he could determine criminal behaviour in individuals as well as the sort of crime they are prone to commit.
Reducing someone’s character and personality to a person’s appearance is common practice among the population of our society.
The individuals I have portrayed in my project differ from mainstream ideology of class, religion, fashion, (sub) culture and the performance of gender.
Even if their identities exists outside conventions of mainstream culture I am hoping to outline that changing their look will not necessarily change their character.
Identity is something constructed and does therefore not classify certain personalities.
My project attempts to question the idea of appearance being directly linked to somebody’s personality and the part we play in shaping our identity.
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