Tag Archives: social identity

Jason Evans “Strictly”

This series provides an opportunity for me to sort out some of my thoughts on identity, following listening and reading a couple of OU OpenLearn courses, namely Understanding Identity and Identity in Question.

The courses posit that our identities are partly formed from the inside (how we perceive ourselves) and partly from the outside (how society sees us). Much of each of these is unconscious and we have little control over it, but a portion (they mention 10%) is something we are aware of and have agency over. Identity is about both belonging and differentiation, and we show both through actions and symbols which have meaning to others. Think of teen groups, such as punks and emos as examples.

How we prioritise the elements of our identity depends on the situation (place) we inhabit at any one time, and also where we are in our lives. Two personal examples are shown below, where I have listed some of the more important elements of my own identity in that time and place, in order of their priority at the time.

Some of these elements of identity are externally applied, such as manager, or woman, but others, which may be more important on a personal level, are internal parts of that identity (pregnant, in a relationship).

When applied to Jason Evans’ work Strictly, which was published in the journal I-D in 1991, things get very complicated. Evans was working at the time as a fashion photographer with Simon Foxton and took the typological series for a fashion magazine. The subject is black urban dandies, which is a very particular niche identity, where symbols (eclectic and daring clothing ensembles) are used to express a particular sense of style. I have no idea as to Evans’ ethnicity, but whether or not he is black, it seems highly likely that he has appropriated black dandyism as a means of fashion advertising. The images mix fashion photography with documentary photography in a topological style which has a (false) air of authenticity. Here, we have advertising using identity to both create and sell a certain style, which will apparently make one part of an exclusive group. A great marketing ploy. Fashion, big business and marketing are intrinsically linked in a way that makes people feel both individual and part of a group at the same time.








Historic portraiture


The portrait is a sign whose purpose is both the description of an individual and the inscription of social identity. (Tagg, 1988, p37)

Unpacking this statement, it is easy to understand the description of an individual, and I take it to mean what they physically look like. The inscription of social identity is a bit more complex, so I consulted Google and came up with this explanatory article. It seems that social identity is our perception of how we fit into society, at the group, cultural and even national level. Tagg is arguing that the act of making a portrait is a way of making public where the sitter fits into society, often through the background trappings and the clothes the sitter wears. Historically, the information we gleaned from the setting of a painted portrait and how the sitter was placed in relation to that was important information about  his (usually) status and place in society. Only the rich could afford to have their portraits made, and to own one was something of a status symbol in its own right.

For interest, below are two photographic portraits which illustrate Tagg’s statement quite clearly.

The advent of photography continued this symbolism, as in its early days, again only the rich could afford it. However, as time has move forward, photography has become available to more and more people, it is easy to assume that the social identity element is disappearing. Far from it! Smartphone cameras, available to all, have made that inscription available to all, while the “selfie” allows the photographer complete control to inscribe the social identity they wish to display. This may, or may not have anything to do with reality. An excellent example of this is Amalia Ulman’s constructed life, which turned out to be entirely fictitious, and which I looked at here. Nowadays, we can all be who we want to be online, rather than revealing the truth about our dull, unremarkable lives.

A second point from this section of the coursework is to note that history is not a firm construct. When one begins to break it down, there is the past, where things happened, and there is history, or historiography, which is how the events were/are interpreted, and even whether they are recalled at all. It is important that we realise that most of what we understand about history has been filtered through a white, male, rich European sieve, which failed to recognise the lives and achievements of anyone who did not fit into that group. Where are the stories of women, of the poor, and of ethnic minorities?




Tagg, J. (1988) The burden of representation: essays on photographies and histories. Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press