What is British?
“One may say that identity has now become a prism through which other topical aspects of contemporary life are spotted, grasped and examined.”
Zygmunt Bauman (2001)
The “What is British?” project arose out of a desire to explore identities found and encountered within a limited urban area. From a sociological point of view I wanted to explore in photographs notions of British identity, however to do this on a scale that is economically feasible and practical would not be possible within that time frame and financial resources that were available to me. I decided that by limiting the area to within approximately one mile of the Rotherhithe tunnel in the East End of London, this would give me an area that was both economically, culturally and ethnically diverse enough that it would allow me to make a start of examining contemporary British identities. While notions of identity have far ranging consequences for the individual, recent postmodern conceptions of identity have implications for all members of societies globally. Post-modern interpretations of how the “other” is seen within societies 1 and boundaries that are created and maintained, all affect how differing identities are perceived. London is a city that has undergone rapid change from an industrial city at the centre of a global empire in the nineteenth century, to the current global city as defined by Sassen 2, which de-industrialised while becoming a global hub for the finance and banking industries. The East End of London has been at the centre of this change that has developments that have dramatically alter the areas urban environment. Using photography to study various identities can help define who has access to the many varieties of urban space available within an area. While some people get to choose their identity, others have their identities forced on them by their circumstances 3. We live in a society where community has been under threat by a process of individualization 4, leading us to assert our own individual identities. This renders our common sense of community as redundant. With identities becoming surrogates of community 5, the possibility of overcoming communal or social misfortune gets negated as individual trouble or strife. Photography by its nature looks at the particular, a specific person, event or place. As a artist, I work using photography to explore the social landscape using a documentary style that explores notions of identity. By creating imagery that retains the person within the landscape and social setting, it is possible to understand more of the sociological context within which the subject lives. Supplying visual clues to their identities are not only what they are wearing, their accessories, or hairstyles but also their ethnicity and their physiognomy. This then makes it possible to use these outward signifiers to allow us to make assumptions about identities. Michael Wayne Plant’s practice has been influenced has been the work of Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, William Eggleston and Paul Graham, photographers who choose to use photography as a means of personal exploration of their social milieu.
1 Sardar, Ziauddin (1998) Postmodernism and The Other. London: Pluto Press. 2 Sassen, Saskia (2001) The Global City. New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 3 Bauman, Zygmunt (2004: 38) Identity. Cambridge: Polity Press. 4 Beck, Ulrich & Beck-Gernsheim, Elisabeth (20001) Individualization. London: Sage 5 Bauman, Zygmunt (2001: 151) The Individualised Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.