This identity is shared.

I can’t seem to remember anything about high school, which makes the idea of designing a series of workshops for high school students a very frightening prospect.

The sign for historic Bennington, Vermont.

The sign for historic Bennington, Vermont.

This summer, I’ll try out a couple of workshops at a nearby high school. I’ll see how those go and modify them accordingly for the Fall semester. On the one hand, it’s research: how do high school students in Bennington conceptualize their relationship to the Bennington community? What do they imagine ‘the Bennington community’ means? But on the other hand, these workshops ought to be fun. Research should be fun! Especially when I expect this group of high school kids to participate willingly –Yikes!

What I know for sure at this moment is that we’ll begin with the self. We’ll create self-portraits in writing and in pictures and we’ll share them with each other. Hopefully this will start us into a discussion about the way each one of us is relating to him/herself.

Self-portraiture is quite common, but no less powerful because of this. A self-portrait is an artifact of one’s self-concept. As viewers (or readers) of self-portraits, we can react to them in various ways — we can say of a self-portrait that it is beautiful. Or that it is unexpected, or unconventional. To what are we reacting? It is certainly possible to see a self-portrait and react based upon whether or not we like the person in the picture — but there’s much missed in this way of looking. Most importantly, the person in a self-portrait does not always correspond to the person who made it. In many cases, self-portraits are like ‘portraits proper’ in that they convey someone else, a separate or imagined self.

Triple portrait of Cardinal de Richelieu

Triple Portrait of Cardinal Richelieu (1585 – 1642) by Philippe de Champaigne

The imagined self could represent an individual, or it could represent a collective. Self-portraits that (re)present collective identity are photographs that utilize a visual cultural vocabulary (i.e.e cultural symbols and signs) in order to point us toward an understanding of the pictured individual(s) that is outside, that is beyond individuality. A great example of this is the Contemporary Self-Portraits Project. Through assisted self-portraiture workshops, inhabitants of Finland, Estonia, Ireland, Latvia and Sweden will attempt to collectively create “a picture of a local European identity.” This identity is shared. And the collective self is imagined in the sense that there is no individual who corresponds to an ideal cultural prototype. There is no person who perfectly embodies the local European identity, for example. Thus, a series of self-portraits that attempts to portray a collective identity imagines the culturally shared identity.

So, in thinking about who is identified in any given self-portrait, it seems that there are two directions in which to think. (1) Thinking inwards: how is the pictured individual distinct? Who is this person, essentially? (2) Thinking outwards: how is this person similar to others? Who belongs to that group? If I come up with a workshop that gets students thinking in both these directions about their own identities, then I know I’ve got a good workshop. I’ll try!

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One thought on “This identity is shared.

  1. I like the idea of a collective self-portrait. Countrywide. I’d like to see what the European self-portrait will become. Imagine Haiti with all its divisions and internal fights, drawing and creating a collective self-portrait. Could a project like that appease internal rivalry and foster unity? I imagine choosing participants from the street, randomly, any day, and having them pour over their creative hunger and longing. I imagine an unshaped form, floating, with no destination, changing colors and becoming nothing. Thanks for an inspiring post.

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