Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Place, identity and belonging

When my son was small I read him bedtime stories, one of these stories was The Bunyip of Berkely's Creek, by Jenny Wagner. It begins with the following words:
The story focuses upon a strange creature seeking his identity. 'What am I'? What am I'? He is heard to cry. A platypus tells him that he’s bunyip, but it doesn't tell him what he looks like. He asks other Australian animals about his features but they give him conflicting viewpoints. When he asks a man about  what he is and what he looks like, the man tells him that Bunyips simply do not exist. This may have been because bunjips are creatures from Aboriginal mythology.
The bunjip is left with a quandary; he is both thing and non-thing.  However, the narrative ends on a positive note, for late that night, for no particular reason, something stirred in the black mud at the bottom of the billabong...something very large and very muddy was sitting on the bank. What am I? it murmured. What am I, what am I? it said and the bunjip replied:  You're a bunjip just like me. 
Identity or a search for it has been a feature of my discussions over the past few weeks whilst considering my relationship to subjects in photographs I've taken or photographic self-portraits. I believe that many of us are burdened with the same question that the bunjip asked - What am I? Often what we are told by our family or friends does not necessarily correspond with our internal sense of self. When I was a child I was often told by my grandmother who brought me up, that I was 'just like my mother', or 'just like my father', but her statement was almost always said to impose a negative self image. I was well into adulthood before I understood that although I looked like my parents I was not like them. However, I was still left with the question: What am I? and struggled to find my place. So identity and place appeared intertwined.
Whilst I was attending RMIT in 1998 I came across Richard Beard's Daguerreotype of a lady, 1842 from Faces: A Narrative History of the Portrait in Photography, 1977. I photocopied the image, pasted it in my journal and wrote:  I know I've seen this face before. She looks like me. I proceeded to look for my face throughout history, a strange thing to do perhaps, as though somehow my identity was already lodged in the faces of others. Eventually I just decided to overlay photos of my face over the faces of female family members to construct new identities. This allowed an erasure as well as incorporation of self upon other, a coalescence of present and past imperfectly meshed. I'm thinking now that perhaps in photographing others we obtain another sense of self, since at various points in our own history we can be said to be emerging as the bunjip did, from a strange mire that demands we question our place, identity and belonging.

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