‘Flow between Fact and Fiction.’ Analysis of Identity Dynamics in Visual Representation —  2003

AuthorAn van. Dienderen
EditorsR. Pinxten, G. Verstraete and C. Longman
Published byBerghahn Books (Series Culture and Politics / Politics and Culture), New York - Oxford



The picture presented in this contribution is the ‘original’ print of the image reproduced on the cover. At this point in the fabrication of the volume, I have no idea as to what the impact of the mode of production on the photo might be. The decisions made by the editors, the graphic designer, the PR managers, and others are left in the ‘interval’ between the moment when I write down and the moment when the reader perceives the book. In this interval decisions are taken, meaning will flow, and perceptions change. Yet I want to start this contribution by analysing the differences between both pictures, since it seems a reflective way to roughly take up some of the issues elaborated in what follows. I therefore invite the reader to compare and weigh the importance of the changes.

What attracted me in viewing the image was the immediate closeness of the conversation between the man and the woman. The daily sharing of some thoughts. The movement of the man’s head toward the woman as a way to make their space more intimate. But at a closer look, I noticed that what is in focus is not this cosy gathering, for the faces of the persons are somewhat vague; it is the background: the wall with the two torn ads, the window with the reflection of a strip light. It becomes clear that the space defined by this sharpness of the focus, is a public space. It might be a bus, a train, or an airport hall. What this image suggests, then, is a moment grasped and defined by the communal character of the space. The tension between the intimacy of the two, and the sharpness of the background, is what makes this picture interesting. Public spaces are generally laden with cultural meanings, where the identity construction of a community takes place. Even though in recent times the analysis might be slightly different, as public spaces seem more segmented and privatised than they were decades ago, there is still a sense of marking going on. This marking or labelling throws us immediately into the discussion Pinxten and Verstraete started in this volume. Shall we perceive this image as typically Russian, as the ads seem to suggest? Can we treat this image as a vehicle that is filled with ideological issues? Seemingly, this image is apt to do so. With the ads written in Russian but representing the Statue of Liberty, one can embark on topics such as the cold war, power relations, and deterritorialisation. One could suggest that the hats indicate a cold climate, thus referring to Russia. Obviously, this kind of argument is rather weak in trying to classify a cultural identity. One may also argue that the central position of the persons is a typically Western approach of depicting figural scenes. However, as the editors argue, the culturality dimension is only one of the parameters in defining identity dynamics. In this case, the identity of the people photographed is not only marked by the supposedly Russian characters. That would be a reduction of the perception induced by the image. The narrative of public spaces also consistently marks the persons. The public space is recognisable by all who have experienced urban environments and this identification might start off a sociological analysis. Moreover, the psychological and gender traits of this image are familiar to the viewers: the performances expressed by this man and woman construct a space of conversation which is common and so will be recognisable to many.

The picture on the cover and the one next to this article differ, although the image in itself is the same. The mode of production has shifted the interpretation. Is this an important shift? Do these differences change the reading of the image? Of course they do: a colour that is added, a shift in composition, a blurring of sharpness change the perception of an image drastically. In this example, the difference between the two images is such that the one on the cover is reduced to a mere illustration. The image next to this article is a complex reading that can be started with the shift in focus of the lens, defining a communal space, which leads to a composite identity dynamics characterised by urban, cultural and psychological elements, among others. The image on the cover has lost this complexity because it is impossible to view this shift in focus. Due to the blurring of the colour and the reduction in focus, the viewer cannot see that there is an interesting tension between the people and their environment. The identity represented in this image is mainly characterised by its ‘Russianness’, the cultural identity marker to which the complexity of the picture as a whole has been reduced.

The above analysis is an example of the impact of the mode of production on identity dynamics in visual representations. As Pinxten and Verstraete argue, identity construction is based on the interplay of narratives and labels within a certain socio-cultural context. In this view, labels are fixed identity markers and narratives are constantly mobile through the dynamics caused by the intertwining of fact and fiction. This contribution complements their theory on identity dynamics, in dealing with the dense and rich relationship between the construction of identities and the influence of visual media, particularly documentaries. The construction of the self (of an individual, a group, a community) and the construction of selves in visual representations are highly interlaced.

Arjun Appadurai provides a solid ground for the examination of the impact of electronic media in relation to migration, deterritorialisation[i] and ‘self-making’: ‘The importance of media is not so much as direct sources of new images and scenarios for life possibilities but as semiotic diacritics of great power, which also inflect social contact with the metropolitan world facilitated by other channels’. (Appadurai 1996: 53) In order to further scrutinise this tangible affiliation between identity dynamics and visual representation, I will explore the mode of production of documentaries as a site of critique. Most often the mode of production is not taken into account: what is shown is perceived as real, as factual. The question on how the footage is filmed and edited is most often not traceable in the documentary itself. My aim is to look for methodological strategies in documentary production in which the mode of production functions as a site where the viewer can question the identity dynamics produced in the film. To legitimate methodological perspectives it is necessary to scrutinise the image itself. This research starts from the inherent underspecification of the visual. I will first present two paradigms on this important aspect of the image in order to contextualize the analysis of documentary footage. Thereafter I will turn to some methodological strategies developed in the seminars on visual anthropology at Ghent University, which were organised by Rik Pinxten and myself.

One paradigm is offered by the relativists Nelson Goodman and Catherine Elgin (1988). These authors developed a challenging theory in which they differentiate symbolic systems: representational or pictorial, linguistic and notational systems (1988: 9). They offer a comparison between those systems based on semantic and syntactic qualities by which the open tokenness of images is established. Cognitive linguists Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner have conceived another paradigm. Their theory on Mental Spaces (Fauconnier 1997; Fauconnier and Turner 1999) offers challenging perspectives which allow for analyses of documentary as a blend between mode of production, content and form on the one hand, and a blend between fact and fiction on the other.

[i] Arjun Appadurai (1996: 49): ‘There is an urgent need to focus on the cultural dynamics of what is now called deterritorialization. This term applies not only to obvious examples such as transnational corporations and money markets but also to ethnic groups, sectarian movements, and political formations, which increasingly operate in ways that transcend specific territorial boundaries and identities.’