Culture, Identity, and Representation


The concept of objectification has special relevance to photography. In one sense, photography inadvertently objectifies people people by turning them into something to be looked at” -Solomon – Godeu  (Wells, 1997)

We each individually represent our own culture and identity, through our country, skin colour, body structure, the way we speak, the way we dress, all of these elements are what define us to everyone else around us. You could consider it a book cover if you like, a first impression everyone gets of you, before they get to know you and your personality. However, people can make impressions of you without ever meeting you, through forms of media that are meant to represent you, whether for better or for worse, it differs from person to person, yet can result with consequences.

When looking at photography, the key characteristic to the image is the dependence of a physical object or person, with the essence that the original exposure has immortalised a moment in time. When coming from a conceptual approach, we tend not to concentrate on physical presence in the image, but it’s meaning, looking not only at what is literally laid out in front of us in the image, but perhaps the social reasons within, or the metaphors, creating its meaning. Liz Wells explains that the realism and familiarity brought about by the visual representations in a photograph reaffirm our sense of identity, rendering it a very powerful force. An example of this Is Edward Steichan’s “The Family of Man” exhibition in New York in 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition consisted of 508 photographs from 68 different countries; Irving Penn, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Bill Brandt are just some of the many photographers, both famous and unknown, that took part in this exhibition. Steichan’s aim was to mark “the universality of human experience and photography’s role in it’s documentation” (Steichen and Stoller, 1955). During the time it was open, it became the most popular exhibition in the history of photography as well as the culmination of Steichan’s career. The photographs were grouped thematically around subjects relevant to all cultures, including love, children and death, with many of the images concentrating on the commonalities that bind people and cultures together around the word. The exhibition toured for 8 years, making stops in 37 different countries, with 9 million people viewing it. Steichan’s “Family of Man” had accomplished expressing humanism in the decade following world war II, and could be considered when of the most positives outcomes of photography representing culture and identity as well as giving us a sense of equality amongst cultures.



I never made a person look bad. They do that themselves. The portrait is your mirror. It’s you.”

– August Sander (, 2010)


Diane Arbus was an American photographer well recognised for her black and white photographs of circus “freaks”, explaining that her photos were of “deviant, marginal people, or of the people whose lives were ugly or surreal”(O’Hagan, 2011), explaining that the camera could be a little bit cold, a little bit harsh, yet its scrutiny reveals the truth. Arbus’ work is considered problematic for viewers, due to her transgression from the boundaries of portrait photography, photographing apparent”freaks” of which she formed long lasting relations with. This Is where people start to question whether Arbus is a humanist or a voyeur, claiming that is she felt at home when photographing these outsiders, she surely expressed a sense of guilty pleasure when taking the images. A statement which is backed up by Arbus confessing “there’s some thrill in going to a sideshow..I felt a mixture of shame and awe”(O’Hagan, 2011). Siding strongly with aspect of voyeurism, yet these images Arbus has are not representing, nor exploiting her new friends in a bad light, the essence of her pleasure is projected on them. Sontag explains that Arbus makes us not only question her motives of looking at “people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive”(O’Hagan, 2011) but also our own, explaining that Arbus’s outlook is “based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other”. What Sontag is referring to when she talks about “the other”, is an individual who is perceived by the dominant group as not belonging, or being different in a fundamental way. All outsiders are strangers would be considered “other”, as the dominant group would consider themselves the norm, thus those who contrast against them are deemed inferior, and our treated “accordingly” to the group, which from an outsider perspective, would usually be deemed unjust. In society, they may have no legal rights, regarded as unintelligent, or sub-human. In Arbus’ case, I feel that her personal voyeuristic idiane-arbus-1342353522_bmages of the other have a concept that defines an element of humanism, and therefore, it is hard to put Arbus solely into either category; I believe she is both.



Looking at exploitation of secluded cultures, the Massai people have made a stand, stating that “photographers are invading our culture”. The Massai people are on of the native tribes, that feel victimised and hunted buy photographers who seem to believe they have free access into an exotic land, filled with wildlife and indigenous people, where the law to protect these tribes remains scarce. They have stated that “Western photographers are stepping over boundaries, not being sensitive to our culture and way of life. They are invading and exploiting our people for profit purposes” (, 2014). As we have seen from Steichan’s “The Family of Man” exhibition, of course many of us want to know and see ever detail of world around us, we are intrigued and fascinated in discovering the beauty of both nature and mankind, as well as the utopia of all humanity being united. Yet their comes a time when we cross a line of respect, violating and soiling other’s culture, identity and representation. The Massai people claim they have discovered disturbing images of a circumcision event, a sacred rite to their culture, no intended for the masses of the public, let alone be sold in the western world, making the Massai people feel sad, violated, and disappointed. When we look at the pictures of tribes, we can ask ourselves just who is this person in the picture? Do they even know their picture is being sold? What is their name? Did they receive anything in return, or even give consent for the photograph? Theses are all questions we tend to ignore when viewing an image, or have never stopped to think about, and when these, victims, if you like, feel that “wild animals are given better recognition than their people” (, 2014), it is really time for us to stop and have a hard think about the images that surround us. They request that the public don’t buy books with nude images of the indigenous people and encourage booksellers to buy books that our culturally sensitive to the indigenous cultures. They also wish for us to let the bookseller know that we care about where the sources comes from, as well as credit the people in the images, and have the photographer show respect and privacy for the individual community and culture, as well as give something back to them.


However, it is not all doom and gloom for western photographers entering different cultures to project their identity and represent them. An example of the good is American photographic journalist Steve McCurry’s “Afghan Girl”. Working under National Geographic McCurry found Sharbat Gula at a refugee camp in Pakistan, where he took her photograph, which soon became the front cover for the journal. The photograph has been likened to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and has gone on to be called “The First World’s First World Mona Lisa”, as well as becoming the most recognised photograph in the history of national geographic. Although her name was not known, the image was titled Afghan Girl, and it wasn’t long before the image became a symbol for both the 1980s Afghan conflict, and the refugee situation worldwide. The identity of Gula remained unknown for over 17 years, although McCurry made several attempts in the 1990s to find her, of which he was unsuccessful. The team had finally located Gula in 2002, with her identity being confirmed through an iris recognition, she recalled having her photo taken, yet had never seen her world famous portrait before. McCurry learnt about her life story, and how her parent had been killed in the soviet bombing when she was six years old, forcing her to seek refuge in the Nasir Bagh camp. More images were taken of Gula, which were used as a cover story of her life, and she also took part in a television documentation “search for the Afghan Girl”. National Geographic went on to set up a charity called the Afghan Girls fund, with the goal of educating Afghan girls and young women, as well as covering the costs for a medical treatment of her family, and a pilgrimage to Mecca. These acts got to show how important giving something back to those in need can be. It also shows the importance of just one photo; the image represented something bigger than just Gula’s identity, it represented the many innocent victims of war and poverty, something National Geographic had managed to begin to exploit and bring justice too.





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