The burden of representation is an interesting one, particularly in the mediums of film and photography. Their parallels to reality make representations seem so true, but as we already know, this is a facade. The phrase takes on many meanings, but I think the one that is most pertinent is the way in which we represent an individual, community, or culture through means of communication.
In my opinion, it is important for an artist (or any content creator) to have a fair understanding what they are talking about, especially if it is a comment on any certain group of people. That understanding can come from research, in-person interactions, or being a part of that community in some way. If you’re going to take the time to join or start a conversation, at least make sure you know what you’re talking about.
In the arts, a simple (and very valid) way to assert your experience with the subjects your engaging with is to include yourself in the work, at least when it’s relevant. Although not always necessary, it helps if you’re doing something that can be perceived as even slightly critical or controversial, especially if it’s a portrayal of other human beings. By being willing to include yourself in a representation of a community, you are very obviously saying, “I’m a part of this”.
I do this a lot because I find that the ideas I am interested in are often based on personal experience. If I’m not literally represented in my work, I make sure that it is known how I arrived at photographing a certain subject and why it is important to me. I feel that if I am opening a dialogue, I am asserting some level of authority on the matter. By contributing my own image to a project allows me to both represent the concepts I am exploring directly, and puts me on the same level of the other people I am photographing.
Me and My Mother (Ages 21 and 37 consecutively)
Young Mothers, 2014
Portraiture makes those photographed vulnerable to some degree. Their photographic representation is now out in the world and essentially owned by the photographer and can be decontextualized or recontexutalized in many ways, shapes, and forms, even without the subject’s or the photographer’s permission. I want to make sure that if I am putting anyone in a vulnerable situation with my work, that they are not alone.
Amanda with Shotgun and Hot Cheetos
HOT PICS, 2014
Including myself in work that represents also allows me to take things further than I would ask other people to go. See the above example. It is a much more extreme photograph than anything else in HOT PICS, but I don’t think I would ask anyone to hold a shotgun pointing in the general direction of their head while suggestively eating Hot Cheetos. While I think it is important to the purpose of the series, it is also important that I am the one doing it. By using myself, I can make the image exactly how I want without putting someone else’s representation at stake.
In the film, “Do the Right Thing”, the director, Spike Lee, casts himself in the role of the main character. The film, I think, is an honest (and not always flattering) interpretation of the topic at hand. By including himself in the representation of this african-american neighborhood, he is easing the criticality of the work, and solidifying his place in the community that he is talking about.
Artists, writers, and other creators of media can never speak for other people, but we/they often try to use our/their skills to bring attention to a community that we may or may not identify with. It’s a little easier when you are a part of the group that you are engaging with, but it’s impossible to represent someone other than yourself with 100% accuracy, or to even do them justice. All we can really do is try.