PhD proposal – Photography and Reflection: Images of My Self, 2010

This is my proposal for PhD, with the working title as above. It was strictly limited to 1000 words and so is somewhat staccato in tone.

Research interest and aim

I make self-portraits and my research is focused on my self in pictures. An earlier practice pointed towards the gap and exchange between subject (me) and object (the self in the picture) I notice confusion when I look at a picture of myself indicating a complex relationship between my self and the image (Fava et al., 2005). Previous practice drew my attention to this and this research project will illuminate that relationship in order to understand the self.

Research Question
If a picture has the power to fix or disrupt the idea of self, what occurs between the image and the self? What is self in relation to subject and object? (Clarke 1997) Drawing upon theories and concepts from psychology and photography, I will use photography practice and digital composition to personally explore this relationship, what Barthes calls the ‘umbilicus’ (1993). My contribution is to the understanding of the visual self: the idea of the self as projected by, and received from, a photographic montage.

• Produce series of self-portraits using digital photographic technologies.
• Use a humanistic therapeutic framework (Rogers, 2004) make a phenomenological analysis developed out of ongoing reflective practice (Schon, 1991) and to site those findings against a framework based in theories of the self, with reference to Gergen. These will be disseminated and discussed in the form of a closed reflective blog
• Final presentation will take the form of an exhibition with a 30,000-word supporting thesis.

In Western photography women have worked with self-portraiture and a theoretical framework stemming from ‘identity’. Claude Cahun, using the visual methodology of Surrealism, made a series of enigmatic images (Bate, 2003). Despite its roots, Cahun’s work defies psychoanalytic photography theory. Similar critique could be made of the work of Jo Spence, whose practice coined the phrase phototherapy (1986). Its intrinsic political feminism now appears at odds with its psychoanalytic theoretical framework. Also, there are women artists who are using themselves as subject and whose practices offer a theoretical counterpoint to this. For example, in my view, Cindy Sherman’s work is feminist and political rather than personal – what Bright calls ‘a crucial manifestation of feminist and postmodern theories’ (2010, p101).

The psychoanalysis model of the self (Freud, 1969) has links to photography. The Surrealist Manifesto written in 1924 was forged from it (Bate, 2003). However, thinking about the self has shifted its subjectivist viewpoint. So, in my view, rather than the subject being ‘out there’ it moves to being ‘in here’. This has been developed by Gergen, who refers to knowledge as ‘an artefact of communal interchange’ (K. J. Gergen, 1995) a term that parallels the dynamics my project. Gergen’s thought is described in The Saturated Self (K. Gergen, 2000). He talks about an age of the crisis of knowledge. This is dealt by a multiplicity of selves encountered through a myriad of mediums (both still and moving): email avatar, YouTube clips, season ticket photo card, staff pass, Skype etc. Daily I encounter a multitude of pictures that inform my self. Thus the framework for my project incorporates these newer ideas of how the self is understood and yet still accommodates notions of the subject established within photography theory.

However Gergen’s theory of self is a discourse (Burr 2003) and this forging of words does address:
1. Embodiment – “biological machine that provides the material preconditions for subjectivity, thought, emotion and language”
2. Materiality – “where the body meets and experiences the world”, for my purposes the self-ness in and out of a photograph
3. Power of institutions.
These three “elements that are not reducible to discourse” (Cromby & Nightingale 1999). However by working with artefact and self I believe I will be able to consider both embodiment and materiality. Institutional power is beyond the scope of this research but provides field for further research.

Photography theory
Psychoanalysis has underpinned the discussion about how women are portrayed in the visual arts (Mulvey, 2009; Zizek, 1992) and how ‘she’ is seen through an uncritical scopophilia. However, this misogyny creates an environment for feminist schools to flourish (Berger 2008) and becomes a fertile field for women artists (Doy, 2004; Meskimmon, 1996). Thus there is an established field of women working with self-portraiture, particularly using appropriation in various forms: Cahun (Doy, 2007) and Spence (1986). Appropriation as a method is defined as a postmodern practice (Solomon-Godeau, 1994) and compliments Gergen’s ideas of how we understand the self.

I will use a ‘bricolage’ methodology (Barrett, 2010), a ‘do-it-yourself’ with emphasis on the self: making and reflection/dissemination, or what Coessans et al. say is a way of “thinking ‘inside’ one’s actions … “in which the subjective can be observed as if it were objective” (2009, p70). This is described in relation to the work of Patricia Cain as “exploring more intensely, more deeply the phenomenon at hand” (p58). The existing practice of making series of self-portraits will continue. I have started working with genre imagery (the Madonna), and my intention is to develop a strand that moves across gender. The images are made using digital photographic technologies offering a convincing trompe-l’oeil that works seamlessly with the natural realism of the basic medium.

This process will be logged as I work through a closed reflective blog. The blog will diarise process and progress, giving a structured forum for reflexive and reflective comment. This process will be circular and layered, with advancement coming from “mindfully holding theory in consideration of the visual message” (Sullivan, 2009). The knowledge will stem from the practice with the practice as the illuminating factor rather than more words. The research findings will be shown as an exhibition with a supporting thesis and also published as a photography book. The learning will be found in the making (ibid) , and the knowledge published in the exhibition and thesis.

Ethical considerations
I am my subject. I will obtain permissions for any “appropriated” images in recognition of the rights owners.


Barrett, E., 2010. Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry E. Barrett & B. Bolt, eds., I B Tauris & Co Ltd.
Barthes, R., 1993. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography New Ed., Vintage Classics.
Bate, D., 2003. Photography and Surrealism: Sexuality, Colonialism and Social Dissent, I.B.Tauris.
Berger, J., 2008. Ways of Seeing Reprint., Penguin Classics.
Bright, S., 2010. Auto Focus: The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography: The Self Portrait in Contemporary Phtoography, Thames & Hudson.
Burr, V., 2003. Social Constructionism 2nd Revised ed., Routledge.
Clarke, G., 1997. The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History 1st ed., Oxford Paperbacks.
Coessens, K., Douglas, A. & Crispin, D., 2009. The Artistic Turn: A Manifesto (Orpheus Research Centre in Music Series, Leuven University Press.
Cromby, J. & Nightingale, D.J., 1999. What’s wrong with social constructionism. Social constructionist psychology: A critical analysis of theory and practice, pp.1–19. Available at:’s%20wrong%20with%20constructionism.pdf [Accessed September 1, 2012].
Doy, G., 2007. Claude Cahun: A Sensual Politics of Photography illustrated ed., I.B.Tauris.
Doy, G., 2004. Picturing the Self: Changing Views of the Subject in Visual Culture illustrated ed., I.B.Tauris.
Elliott, D.: Dangerous Spaces – in: Illes, C. & Roberts, R., 1997. In Visible Light: Photography and Classification in Art, Science and the Everyday C. Illes, ed., Museum of Modern Art, Oxford.
Fava, S., 2005. Intervision, University College Falmouth.
Freud, S., 1969. An Outline of Psychoanalysis J. Strachey, ed., Chatto & Windus.
Gergen, K., 2000. The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life 1st ed., Basic Books.
Gergen, K.J., 1995. Realities and Relationships: Soundings in Social Construction, Harvard University Press.
Meskimmon, M., 1996. The Art of Reflection: Women Artists’ Self-Portraiture in the Twentieth Century, Scarlet Press.
Mulvey, L., 2009. Visual and Other Pleasures 2 Ed., Palgrave Macmillan.
Rogers, C.R., 2004. On Becoming a Person New Ed., Constable.
Schon, D.A., 1991. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action New ed., Ashgate Publishing Limited.
Sobieszek, R., 1999. Ghost in the Shell: Photography and the Human Soul, 1850-2000, MIT Press.
Solomon-Godeau, A., 1994. Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions and Practices New ed., University of Minnesota Press.
Spence, J., 1986. Putting Myself in the Picture: A Political, Personal and Photographic Autobiography, Camden Press.
Sullivan, G., 2009. Art Practice as Research: Inquiry in Visual Arts Second ed., Sage Publications, Inc.
Zizek, S., 1992. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture New ed., MIT Press.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply