Photographic exploration of personal identity formation
Greg Klassen has focussed his artistic attention and intention on the exploration of personal identity formation. This series of portraits in landscape form – “Who?” – is constructed from perceived fragments of identity through extensive dialogue with mostly fellow artists from Canada. The project interrogates not just how subjects see themselves, but how and if that sense of self-perception can be conveyed to an audience in the form of a non-linear narrative through photography. The complex constructions of a person’s self are built up from anywhere between 30 and 300 separate photographs.
Greg, you are a Marine Biogeographer and artist, who has been dealing with Asperger’s syndrome your whole life. Even though this diagnosis poses a daily challenge for you when it comes to social interaction – and we will talk about this later on – you are always looking for ‘new victims’ for your lifetime project, called ‘Who’. What direction do you take when trying to get to know them?
Greg: There are 2 important questions that meet at the centre of the project: ‘how is it done?’ and ‘why is it done?’ I always ask ‘why?’ when I approach any project. For me that question drives everything else, including the ‘how’.
So why ‘Who’?
Greg: My lifetime project centres on our very poor understanding of intentionality, of why the very notion of defining and projecting an identity separates self from other, and how we go about making that happen.
Your series focuses on interrogating identity. As identity has a personal and a social component, do you approach this topic from a philosophical as well as a psychological angle?
Greg: Absolutely. And I should point out that I have – simultaneously – both a very dispassionate philosophical and deeply personal interest in pursuing this interrogation. And both centre on what may be our time’s most pressing philosophical debate: the question of the relationship between mind and body and how various contemporary ‘answers’ affect how we relate to self and others, our “theory of mind.”
According to Descartes’ philosophy, mind and body are distinct. Descartes’ thesis – now called “mind-body dualism” – basically claims that mind and body are separate. His thesis is based on the notion that the mind consists of the spiritual essence whereas the body consists of the physical one. As a scientist, do you buy into the idea that both entities are completely separate?
Greg: Yes, Cartesian dualism – also know as substance dualism – has, for several centuries now, been at the heart of this debate surrounding the relationship between mind and body. But since Descartes most philosophies have rejected dualism in favour of Idealism (simplistically: all mind) or materialism (simplistically: all body). The notion of self, as I am exploring it, is caught squarely between these poles. You ask me where I stand on this debate “as a scientist”. But I am both scientist and artist – and many other things. I do believe that, both as scientist and artist, it is my responsibility to question. I believe that art, my art at any rate, needs to contribute to the debate in such a way as to challenge anything that may smack of entrenched perceptions. So, no, as a matter of philosophy, I do not ‘buy into’ Cartesian dualism, but neither do I accept, uncritically, its so called alternatives: I find myself in a philosophical in-between space.
There has been a trend to reinterpret ‘identity’ to be synonymous with ‘cultural identity’. Why have you focused your artistic intention on the exploration of personal identity?
Greg: This claim – of identity being culturally derived – is at present most closely associated with post modernist ideologies but has roots that tie it strongly with the Idealist camp in the mind-body debate. Given what I said before, I am inherently sceptical of this proposition as a blanket statement. But I have also found myself at odds with the claims that identity is entirely, or even primarily, socially/culturally constructed for very personal reasons. Given that scepticism, it seemed a natural step for me to start my explorations of identity at first principles: with the individual.
You say that you are good talking to people, but not good talking with people – non-verbal cues go right over your head. Why is it difficult for you to read body language?
Greg: Well, that ties in with my personal reasons for wanting to research identity issues as an artist. I’ve known all my life that I was somehow different from the people around me. I was always missing things socially, misunderstanding people, having difficulty connecting with others. I had what one of my closest friends referred to as a serious case of “foot-in-mouth-disease”. It turns out – much to my relief – that I’m not simply some insensitive jerk who refuses to conform to social norms. Fairly late in life, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, also known as High Functioning Autism.
So what would be the main issue arising from this diagnosis that is relevant to our discussion?
Greg: We are dealing with a neurological condition that adversely affects the normal brain functioning that allows for the automatic, non-conscious recognition and response to typical nonverbal social cues.
Meaning that dealing with Asperger’s syndrome poses a daily challenge for you when it comes to social interaction. Tell us a bit more about the issues you are facing as an artist with Asperger’s.
Greg: Generally speaking, the most important issues relates directly to the notion of empathy, which for the purpose of this discussion is simply an expression of the ability to connect, non-consciously, through non-verbal communication with other individuals. People, like myself, with neurological conditions on the autism spectrum tend to have varying degrees of impairment when it comes to empathy. The main means of accessing this ability for someone like myself is consciously, much like learning a foreign language. And that is the first aspect of what I do when exploring the perceptions of my subjects regarding their personal identities through the “Who?” project: learn their individual language(s) of ‘self-construction’ through intensive dialogue.
Postmodernism often explores or celebrates a sense of cultural dislocation. What do you mean when you say that having a neurological makeup like Asperger’s means that there is no native culture, any social condition is – a priori -, one of dislocation?
Greg: I think the best way to answer that is through the ‘foreign language’ analogy I mentioned earlier. Most people grow up with one – native – language, one culture, and each new one added to our experience is measured against that first one – and is usually found lacking. In a sense, cultural dislocation derives from the failure of the new language/culture to integrate into our – already fully developed – sense of identity.
A new language, especially if learned late in life, almost never develops to the same level of fluency as that first language.
Greg: That is correct. In that sense each new culture is just like a new language to the average person. Part of that dislocation experience thus comes from the fact that empathy – the specific form non-verbal communication takes as we mature – is honed, and fixed, in that first cultural experience. Because of my distinctive neurological makeup that honing process apparently never fully took. In a very important sense, those such as myself don’t appear to develop a fixed, native language/culture against which to measure new cultural experiences, thus dislocation is perpetual.
Has this lifetime project become a way for you to understand people better?
Greg: Yes and no. This is one of those situations that has led me to realize just how problematic the postmodernist perspective on identity is for the neurodistinct. The chief effect of the postmodern cultural construction of identity is that postmodernists have largely seen the ‘self’ as something completely pliable and thus moulded through society. In the postmodern view, identity, if it can be said to exist at all, becomes a matter of conscious choice. But we now understand much more clearly, thanks mainly to the recent efforts of neuroscientists, that for the neurologically distinct, there is no such choice. But postmodernist thinking cannot accommodate the genetically based innateness of neurological distinctness. Neurological conditions, such as Asperger’s not only severely restrict such freedom, they are philosophically – and empirically – incompatible with constructivist thinking.
What does that mean for your artistic research?
Greg: When I explore how my identity formation is constrained – by my neurological condition for example – I also provide a case study for the need to reinterpret the perspectival bias that postmodern ideology has imposed on our thinking for far too long. In that last sense my answer to your question can be a guarded and provisional yes: a new form of understanding others emerges from this project.
“In the postmodern view, identity, if it can be said to exist at all, is a matter of choice…
For the neurologically distinct, there is not such choice.”
For you, the camera is secondary. You said that you never pick up the camera during the first phase as you photograph with your brain. And you pay particular attention to repetition during the interview. Why is that?
Greg: That’s actually two – though ultimately related – questions: my relationship to the camera and my relationship to the subject: Although procedurally the camera is definitely ‘secondary’ – I see the camera as a way to realize my vision not as a medium that constrains my process – photography, as concept, is a very active participant in my research. Photography, often seen as incapable of conveying narrative content, provides a direct analogue to the social ‘disability’ of a ‘neurodistinct’ person such as myself. The camera is not simply my tool of choice, it is an extension of my sensory system.
The question of repetition is strongly informed by the fact that I tend not to ‘think-in-words’. When people repeat certain specifics about themselves that tends to be a clear indication – usually non-conscious – that they consider that, whatever ‘that’ happens to be, to be of particular importance to their self-perception. To fully assimilate what people tell me, I must ‘translate’ from words, from language, to my personal symbology. Here repetition, especially with slight contextual modifications – served to refine the signal to noise ratio, to clarify my understanding of what is being communicated.
When looking at your work, the observer sees a whole of fragmentary images – the make up one human being after months, sometimes years, of getting to know them. As a scientist, you are gifted with a special pattern recognition for small details and the ability to put them together compositionally. Is this how you create order out of chaos in your science as well as in your art?
Greg: Yes, pattern recognition – especially spatial pattern recognition – seems to be a great strength of mine. According to all psychological tests I’ve been subjected to, I score off the charts on spatial tests. Apparently that is one of the silver linings in my Asperger’s cloud. But how that translates to me ‘as’ scientist or artist is less obvious. First, I would say that I don’t ‘create’ order out of chaos. If anything, I just see the patterns underlying some form(s) of order more clearly than others apparently do. But to me ‘as artist’ – I hate having to make these qualifications all the time – what is most intriguing is that – if we assume that the so-called fragments of an identity represent chaos – I seem to be able to sift out the pattern from that apparent chaos, but the ‘order’ – the empathic reaction to a perceived ‘whole’ that is the goal of the “Who?” series usually evades me and is brought to the table by my audience. In this way, my work becomes a social experiment.
Your pictures do not represent photography as we know it. Every picture is the result of sometimes excruciating collaboration between you and the person you portray, showing an amazing depth of subsequent layers to the surface characteristic. As not every person will open up to you in the same way, you must allow for a difference in depth of the story-telling of your photograph?
Greg: I could go on for hours about this issue of what photography is and is not, so for brevities sake let me just throw this back at you: why do you think that my work is not photography? There are clearly enough people out there who think that to make this question more than hypothetical. Perhaps when we see something that we can’t neatly put into preconceived boxes we should question the adequacy of the box not that which doesn’t seem to fit…
The layering – both literal and conceptual – in producing images for the “Who?” series is, in my mind, a direct reflection of how we see others in every day life. When we first meet someone we immediately form an initial, surface impression. Some aspect of that first impression is always present in the “Who?” series. As we get to know others better, additional layers are revealed. That again is reflected in the series with the addition of increasingly complex layers of relations between versions of the individual, their interactions with one another and the objects brought into the images.
How far, do you think, can we go toward a ‘true’ understanding of any other person?
Greg: I think that depends both on the efforts we are willing to put into the act – taking into account innate differences in, for instance, empathic abilities – and the willingness of that other to reveal themselves to us. The different depths of story-telling in different “Who?” images, as you put it, are simply a reflection of the reality that we do not get to know all people to the same degree or depth.
Some of your photographs contain up to 300 images. They usually range around 30 images. Storytelling is crucial to your art: as one cannot have a narrative without a movement from a to b, would you insist on 3 images as a minimum for your picture?
Greg: Ah, when you say 3 images you are referring to the number of versions/representations of the individual subjects. It seems that historically, regardless of individual photographic styles, portraits tended toward single images of a person. I wondered how one could access that person’s sense of identity from just one singular view of them – a question that has lead postmodernists to reject, wholesale, the notion of personal identity. I wanted to explore whether multiple views, multiple versions, of a person could collectively speak more coherently to this idea that we are never just one single, unitary thing and yet somehow form a coherent sense of self.
Unlike the postmodernists, have you been searching for a sense of collective whole?
Greg: Yes. This idea is at least partially influenced by what astro-physicists refer to as the “three body problem”. When you have two bodies – in their case, planetary bodies – you can easily calculate, and predict their relation to one another. The moment you add a third the problem becomes intractable. But at some point such systems become self-organizing – in a way that scientists understand but cannot predict to any certainty. That is order out of chaos, the idea of emergent organization. I believe that the mind, the self, and therefore our ‘sense’ of identity is such a self-organizing system. So, I tend to insist that at least three versions of a subject be used in the imagery as a way of exploring the idea that identities are emergent properties.
There is only so much you can bring to the image as a viewer. In your artist talks, however, the audience learns a lot about the photographs’ background story. How important is it that the photograph stands on its own?
Greg: At one level these photographs – any work of art for that matter – must be able to stand on their own, if only in the sense that they, hopefully, survive their creator. At another level no work ever does. Art can only exist, I would argue, because we are social animals. No work of art is a blank slate to which a viewer brings his/her unique perspective. When a visitor looks at one of these images, how does the narrative that I and my subject put into the image communicate and interact with the narrative that the audience constructs? In this way the series becomes a microcosm, a laboratory experiment, in the power of an image-as-mediator between personal and social narratives of identity. Telling the back-story to any specific image only takes on importance as a way to evaluate the level of connection between those two forms of narrative.
In the academic arts, there is no specific truth. You once said: ‘if there is no external truth, why bother with it?’ Is there an objective truth?
Greg: The idea of there being no truth, which as you said is closely tied with academic arts today, is most recently influenced by postmodernist ideology, which in turn can trace its beliefs to the Idealism of Continental Philosophy, and ultimately back to the Sophists of ancient Greece. But it is Descartes who introduced us to a crucial supporting argument that has been particularly damaging. He argued that since our senses can be fooled they cannot be trusted. Although no one would disagree with the premise of his argument his conclusion is at best faulty. Yes, our senses can be fooled but for the most part they are remarkably good at connecting us directly with a very real world. In fact, it is that sense of truth – that we all intuitively experience – that photography is so very good at revealing to us. And this relationship between our innate expectation of objective truth – of perceiving this external reality as it really is – and the unique ability of photography to undermine that expectation when it is seen to ‘fool’ us is at the heart of how the “Who?” images speak: on the one hand they feed into our expectations of objective reality, at the same time they represent a more subjective interpretation of that same reality. We are left with a paradox. Our solution can be to either simply damn the images as fakes, or to start going down a new path: that truth is neither simple nor solely external: understanding/unravelling truth(s) involves both the subjective and objective, is both external and internal simultaneously.
The different images in every single one of your photographs connect because ‘they underline what connects people’. Why do you – as an artist – try to find those connections?
Greg: This ‘why?’ is simultaneously the simplest and most complex and fundamental issue underlying all of my artistic research. The simple answer is this: I truly believe that these ‘connections’ are the root of what makes human beings human. The complexity comes in when one tries to unravel how that is so, how the artist in me can reveal/communicate that and, most importantly, what that has to do with personal and social identity formation and expression. During my time as an art student I became very much aware that current academic thinking on identity in the arts actively denies underlying universals, reviles the very notion of anything smacking of innateness.
Would you say that you now better understand the physiological and evolutionary basis of your neurological condition?
Greg: Indeed, I do. And I also better understand the profound paradox that my very existence creates for postmodernist thinking on identity. I am exploring these connections because I see them as a way out of the postmodernist paradox I, and those like me represent! I am searching for them as an artist because those influenced by postmodern thinking inherently mistrust scientific evidence. If I can make them real to my audience as an artist, I can perhaps provide a more palatable vehicle for renewed reflection on identity issues.
“There ought to be important overlaps of narrative that viewers make up for themselves with what the artist wants to say, regardless of cultural background.”
You do repeats over months. You assemble everything at the scene. You position your camera for hours in the same spot. Can you give us a quick summary regarding the technical set-up for a shoot?
Greg: I assume you are referring to the entire process not just the shoot. Making a “Who?” image is a three-step process, it involves: talking, shooting, and composing. The talking consists of a series of conversations with my subjects. In the process I start assembling a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle in my mind made up of pieces without fixed shapes. This is where the notion of repetition becomes important. As my collaborators talk about themselves, the picture in my mind starts to coalesce, in a way analogous to the ‘order-out-of-chaos’ notion. At some point we come to the collective realization that we have a ‘picture’ that is a good representation of that person’s self-image – or at least as much as (s)he is willing to share.
Is this is the point when you prepare to shoot the picture that is fully formed in your head?
Greg: Correct. You might say this act of photographing becomes a way of embodying – and thus blending – a sense of subjective phenomenal experience with its objective counterpart. The actual process of photographing is usually the least of the three steps – one reason why we earlier discussed my sense that the camera is secondary. Shooting takes an average of 2-4 hours. I then proceed to the third step where I take all the photographic fragments and compose them on my computer in photoshop. In some ways this is my favourite part of the process. The final act of this step is to present this image back to my subject. The reaction at this stage is crucial to the survival of the image: if it works for my subject it gets added to the series, if it doesn’t work then we either move on or try again.
I was amazed to hear that you are colour-blind. For this particular series, you spend thousands of hours working with Photoshop. Tell us a bit more about how the mathematical representation of colours has helped you to work as an artist dealing with colour-blindness.
Greg: This could be a whole interview topic all its own. Being colour-blind, or chromatically challenged as I like to say, is similar to having Asperger’s in the sense that it is a genetically determined and thus innate aspect of who I am. My Asperger’s, and to a lesser extent my colour-blindness, have taught me that I cannot just ignore the very real limitations these condition place on me – both personally and socially – but they have also shown that “limitations” are not absolutes. I now believe that it is the very fact of Asperger’s that lets me see my social surroundings in a unique and revealing way. Similarly, I have found that although my colour sense makes it very difficult to ‘create’ colour and colour combinations from scratch, I can work with colour.
Ever since you were 14 years old, you used to work in a darkroom. In 2006, you went back to school after deciding to become a full-time artist. Participating in a workshop with the Canadian nature photographer Freeman Patterson has changed your creative direction forever. Why?
Greg: Freeman provided me with something I had been missing. Like most artists, I can cite numerous artists in my field who have influenced my work. For instance, in my teens Ansel Adams woke me up to the need for technical expertise both behind the camera and in the darkroom. Jerry Uelsmann showed me that photography was also capable of revealing the inner, phenomenal world, making it as ‘real’ as the strict representationalism of, say, an Adams. What Freeman brought to photography, to my conception of what photography can do, is a sense of humanity.
Daniela Herold: Greg Klassen, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with my readers.
Greg: No, thank you, Daniela. This has been very stimulating for me not least because it has encouraged me to reevaluate many thoughts and ideas that have been influencing my work, in some cases nagging me at the edge of consciousness.
About Greg Klassen
Artist website www.two-ravens-studio.ca