“The power of society, remains irrational, however we try to rationalise it,” (Horkheimer and Adorno 1944, 1997:41)
To give our human existence purpose and meaning we pursue our lives according to a system of socially constructed conventions and realities effectively imposed upon us by a society lacking in the rationality that supposedly binds it together.
In simple terms we are shaped by rules which make no sense. This assignment is a photographic exploration of the human condition within the boundaries of this irrational society.
Photographic and creative concept
The above statement provides the wider context for the assignment where we focus in on the comfortable material home and lifestyle deeply embedded within our cultural framework as one of the major aspirations and purposes of modern human existence, and as such, a recognised metaphor and symbol of the successful life within the conventional society.
Whilst I draw upon my own thoughts and experiences the use of my ‘self’ is not to make an autobiographical statement but to use these self-portraits to “touch upon broader, universal issues and themes” (Bright, S. 2010:25).
In the series I pose as the average ‘middle-class’ person in their average ‘middle-class’ house. There are no specific links to personal history only standard reference points such as mass produced curtains, bathroom tiles, pine floorboards, garden hedges and designer aftershave.
The images are constructed in settings portraying a life and existence, which to all intense purposes is exactly the same as the lives of many others in the same socio-economic category and this familiarity allows access and is used to establish a relationship with the viewer.
The scenes are self-portraits posed and gesturing in a constructed manner with the intention of suggesting to the viewer that they may possess a sense of identity with the broader context surrounding the images; that we can never find the rationality that we are conditioned by society to believe exists.
The constructed nature of the scenes highlight the ambiguous relationship between the image, reality and objectivity and this relationship acts as a metaphor for an exploration of the mass deception that Horkheimer and Adorno (1944) described.
A key motivation behind this assignment was to consider the contribution that we all make in the construction of this pantomime and the reasons why we can play our parts without missing, questioning or improvising on our lines.
At the same time I recognise that it more likely that the viewer will form their own interpretation and rationalise the meaning according to their own viewpoint and needs. This becomes ironic in relation to the broader context that we search for a rationality which cannot be found.
Research and background development
Initially I kept a personal diary for three weeks’ and this journal became a document of my frustration and disbelief in the happenings in the world.
During this period there were significant events magnifying a sense of absurdity including the UK’s EU campaign and referendum, terrorist attacks in Western Europe, the continuation of the Syrian War and refugee crisis and the unjustified shootings of black people and police officers in America. Even as we speak we have seen the banning of the burkini on French beaches.
This sense of absurdity was exacerbated by what I began to see as a general lack of objectivity, fairness, transparency and at times even truthfulness in everyday human behaviour and by reflecting on my diary entries I could see that I was finding myself in varying states of disillusionment.
Whilst away on holiday I began to recognise that the only coping mechanism I could utilise was to see the absurdity in life and this was the creative catalyst for the idea of the assignment.
My research was led by a deep desire to explore my personal thoughts and feelings whilst referring to credible sources accessed from a broad spectrum of mediums including art photography and academic cultural sociology studies to ensure that the assignment was fuelled by genuine intellectual content.
Potential for development of this assignment
By creating a gallery wall I could experiment with different combinations to show how the images might appear in an exhibition-like context and this allows a more fluid and complex interpretation of the images.
I think that the nature of the images also lend themselves to a successful presentation in a photo-book format if the collection of images could be extended. With more variety and diversification in the composition the number of images could be increased in order to justify the production of a book.
I think that a more specific focus on human behaviour might be an interesting development as this is a subject which is of great interest to myself.
Other important observations
Taking up the role of model and subject was initially un-nerving but quickly became very liberating and increased my confidence which in turn improved the creative process.
I was able to personally explore and express feelings and ideas whereas working with models can be restrictive in this respect. This benefited the quality and direction of my photography and it felt very exciting.
By working independently and free from the pressures of finding willing models I could take the necessary time to find the best working solutions and this improved my technical approach.
Experimenting with presentation through a makeshift gallery wall also had an enormous impact in developing how I interpreted the images and enhanced the creative and intellectual value of the assignment as well as the enjoyment of preparing the work.
I was able to break away from a linear thought process and the usual formal structure with a beginning, middle and end. This more flexible approach created a format for interpreting and developing the series in a much more fluid and complex manner.
All of these liberating factors created by far the most inspiring experience of photography that I have undertaken to date and hopefully this will benefit the quality of my work.
Bright, S (2010) Auto-Focus the self-portrait in contemporary photography London: Thames and Hudson Limited
Elina Brotherus les-femmes-de-la-maison-carre (online) at
http://www.elinabrotherus.com/photography/#/les-femmes-de-la-maison-carre/ (accessed 21 July 2016)
Simmons, L. Sussman, E. (2015) Jimmy DeSana Suburban New York: Aperture Foundation.
Eggleston, W (2002), William Eggleston’s Guide, 2nd edition. Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York
Esslin, M (1974) The Theatre of the Absurd London: Eyre Methuen Limited (review see here)
Horkheimer, M and Adorno, T (1944) ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ In: Spillman, L (ed.) Cultural Sociology (1997). London: Wiley-Blackwell. pp 39-46. (review see here)
Naomi Klein, (2010) No Logo. revised 10th anniversary edition release, London Fourth Estate reviewed (review see here)
‘Lisa Ohlweiler Self-portraits’, Bright, S (2010) Auto-Focus the self-portrait in contemporary photography London: Thames and Hudson Limited pp. 84-85.