The Question of Identity

August 24, 2011 § 7 Comments

Whether it’s candid or posed, Polaroid or Photoshopped, photographs have a way of telling the truth about us. They get our split-second expressions and our body language. They reveal things we don’t even know about ourselves. And talented photographers know how to tease this out.

Los Angeles photographer and filmmaker Judy Starkman did a series called “The Secret Life of Swimmers.” During her time swimming at the Culver City Plunge pool, she was struck by people who swam half-naked in the pool with strangers, the people dressed in work clothes who walked to their cars to go to some other life, and the transformation in between. So she took photos of her fellow swimmers and then visited them in their workplace, in their “secret life” and second identity.

Photography by Judy Starkman

Starkman says that the pool is “an equalizer.” Everyone is in the same situation; little remains of a carefully constructed identity. It reminds me of a woman who grew up under Taliban rule saying she preferred wearing a burqa because then the young and old, the beautiful and ugly, the rich and poor were on equal footing. See more swimmer photos here. 

Sacha Goldberger (remember his superhero grandma project?) does a similar project featuring joggers in all their disheveled sweatiness after they’ve just run and a week later when they’ve showered, spruced up, and posed in the same position.

Photography by Sacha Goldberger

Goldberger tells My Modern Met that he “wanted to show the difference between our natural and brute side versus how we represent ourselves to society.” It’s interesting to think which reflects us more: the natural working out state or the fashion-based state that expresses our creativity and taste. Personally, this project only reinforces my aversion to running–I’ve never seen a runner look like they’re having fun. See more before and after photos here.

In her series and book 2nd: The Face of Defeat, Sandy Nicholson captures the people we never hear about — those second place winners who were close, but not enough, and thus forgettable. From Canada’s spelling bees to air guitar finals to ballroom dance, she lets those who’ve lost take the spotlight.

Photography by Sandy Nicholson

It’s an emotional moment, to be good but not first place good. Often the 2nd place people want to be a good sport, acknowledge the ecstatic winner, and hold their head up high (after all, 2nd place is still quite the achievement), but struggling with disappointment brings the mask down and we see their true selves. See more sad photos here.

Philippe Halsman found a way to capture people’s true identity through his “jumpology” series in the 1940s and 50s. He said, “When you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping, and the mask falls, so that the real person appears.” The New York Times says the act of jumping “requires giving in to something like  joy,” clearly evident in Halsman’s photo of Audrey Hepburn below.

Photography by Philippe Halsman

See more mid-air photos here.

I think I’ve always been aware of this ability photographs have and as an introvert have gone a bit camera shy as much as I love being behind the camera. In my reluctance to join the Facebook crowd years ago, I began choosing profile pictures that didn’t quite share all of me with the mass public. Here are some of my past favorites in which I refuse to reveal my identity.

On the other hand, maybe they say quite a bit about me.



§ 7 Responses to The Question of Identity

  • E says:

    How about competitive divers mid-dive?

    Love the idea of capturing people jumping. I wanna jump.

  • Nick Mahr says:

    I like the runner before and after. To comment on your distaste for the activity: Adam C. and I frequently have fun while running. There are days I’m pooped after running, but just as many that I end with an endorphin-induced smile.
    Nick M.

    • Somebody told me I never looked happy when I was writing either, so I suppose there’s something to be said for enjoying a challenge even if it takes a lot out of you. I’ll try to remember there are 2 happy-looking runners out there.

  • Steven Grahmann says:

    I just posted the link to the jogger pics on my Gomer Facebook page, I think our listeners will love it. Thanks for the post, Abi!

    ps I always enjoy your candid Facebook profile pics. I think they do say a lot about you.

    • I bet they would! I loved how he tried to capture them in the same position/with the same gestures. It shows the difference even more.

      And I’ll have to go back to changing up my profile pics more often.

  • Leah says:

    Abigail, I meant to tell you that I used the Secret Life of Swimmers in four of my first classes last week, as an introduction to this idea of the selves we present, particularly in a classroom, and how we pick up these new identities and parts in each space. I love the reminder that we often just know a portion of a person’s story, and we may never know the impact our small-showed portion in a space may have on the grander scheme of the whole self of another’s life.

    I couldn’t remember where I had stumbled across it until perusing your blog again this morning. : ) Thanks for the teachable moment. And the opportunity to stun 70+ people with pictures of men in speedos at 8AM.

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