Photography Projects for Students: Examining Identity

Photography Projects for Students: Examining Identity
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Examining the Self Through the Lens

Writers are told to write about what they know. Equally, a good starting point for any college photography projects for students is to begin with the self. As human beings, we examine our physical identity on a daily basis; checking our reflection in the mirror, a shop window or just by touching our own skin. We are also bound in our cultural identity; how we use expression, dress, and behave has been created by the culture that we have grown up in. Our personal identity is much harder to define, as it is made up of our own experiences and reactions to those experiences, like how we feel and think.

All of the things that make a person can be reflected in a photograph. Physicality, culture and personality can be shown if the right set up, staging, light or even accidental snap are used correctly. Students can explore their own identity with a camera in many ways - asking students to be creative and think, in the case of the camera, “inside the box.” Students should be asked to think about not just making straight self-portraiture to examine identity, but to also consider their surroundings - the objects that are around them and those which reflect what and who they are.

At the beginning of the project, before students start to take images, they should start to identify what they would like to use in terms of objects, settings or even just lighting. They should select that which might reflect who they are at this moment in time. Students should look at other photographers and how they have handled the self-portrait or works. Photographers and artists such as Sophie Calle, Tracey Emin, Richard Billingham and Cindy Sherman have all used identity as part of their work. Examining how they have used it, and what methods they employed, could really assist in gaining an understanding about how identity is portrayed through the photographic image.

Creating a Body of Work

Identity and narrative - image Zoe Van-de-Velde

Students’ next step should be to take the photographs they have proposed, and find out what works and what does not. It may be that the student has chosen to take images of the items they carry around with them everyday. Depending on the size, this sort of imagery may need to be taken in a soft box or in a studio. Or, it could be that the student decides to place the objects in a familiar environment. The most important point here is that the student project should encourage experimentation to the highest degree. Students should be pushed to create images that are not just technically proficient, but also create meaning and narratives in the image that the viewer can read or relate to. If the student, for instance, does choose to take on the self-portrait, they should use their self-timer function to truly create something that has only been seen with their own eye.

It is interesting to note that another person/photographer would certainly take the image of that person differently. In fact, this idea of having many people take an image of one person could also be an interesting idea as photography projects for students, as this opens up arguments about our identity and how we are seen by the world. Once the student has created a final set of images that really push the boundaries of exploring their own identity, they should then begin to think about how the images will be presented. Students should still be looking at the work of other photographers, particularly focusing on how narratives are created and work is placed together.

Presentation of Photography in the Digital Age

Sophie Calle - Exquisite Pain

Today images are everywhere, and the world around us is a visual feast. In some ways, this is to the students’ advantage, as creating photographic images is much easier and less time consuming than it used to be with traditional photography. In other ways, this is a disadvantage. It can lead to sloppy workmanship, and the student is entering an already flooded marketplace.

Presenting the final images can be done in various ways. Traditional approaches can and still are taken with digital imagery and if the student chooses they can simply create a hand-made album or photo book. Hand-made works offer kinesthetic qualities to the work; being able to handle and touch the photographs or book is very appealing to people. Students can create their own binding by sewing and gluing the pages. They can choose the paper and how they present the images (and text, if appropriate). This kind of student or college project will always be interesting, and should be encouraged - understanding how a book or album works is a vital skill in photography. Students can also go the other way and go completely paperless. For instance, they can choose to create a blog, website or even a slideshow on Photobucket or Picasa to be viewed online. If the student chooses, they could create an exhibition in a either physical space or online. There are many other ways of presenting photographic work, such as placing it in a box, placing it on furniture, making a book online and then have it printed, or even placing the works on fabric.

As this project was about exploring identity, it is important to remind students that the final presentation should reflect the nature of the work. Picking the best format to suit the work created is essential as great images can lose their impact if placed in the wrong format or used in a way that jars with the work. Looking at how other artist have presented their work can be a great source of inspiration. Tracey Emin created a tent with “all the people she had slept with” sewn into the fabric. Sophie Calle creates books that juxtapose text and image to tell personal stories and performance pieces. Other artists, like Helen Chadwick, have placed their art on furniture. Exploring new ideas and techniques should expand the students project to create something that borders on becoming professional.

Student projects in photography should optimize the creative potential of the students involved. By looking at other photographers and artists, thinking about how photography itself works and by using creative methods for final presentation students’ should be able to explore the medium and their own intentions. Students should be encouraged to keep a production log or journal to show how they began and the progress they have made throughout whilst creating the work. A celebration of the students’ work through a group exhibition could be a great way to finish this project.


Cotton, Charlotte, The Photograph as Contemporary Art, Thames & Hudson, London, 2004

Calle, Sophie, Exquisite Pain, Thames & Hudson, 2004

Image Credits

Image One: Tracey Emin Flickr CC Loura’s Photostream

Image Two: Copyright Zoe Van-de-Velde: Self-Portrait, The Bridge Hotel, London

Image Three: Sophie Calle: Image of the book “Exquisite Pain” Flickr CC Gadl’s Photostream