The sociologist Dr. Morris Rosenberg, famous for the self-esteem scale he developed, postulated that ‘self-concept’ is the totality of a person’s thoughts and feelings in reference to oneself as an object. Beginning from there, a glance at sociological literature on the subject shows that, discursively, identity is understood to be an important part of one’s ‘self-concept’. Dr. Altheide posits that it is that part of the self ‘by which we are known to others’. The construction of both identity and self therefore, are therefore not disparate events but simultaneous and bound in relation to one another.
Considering photography here, as a medium capable of holding up a mirror to both society and the self, The Others deftly provides a glimpse into the contradictions of India and its people, bound by both traditions and a zest for modernity informed by globalisation. On the one hand, this project is about the traditions of—and transitions undergone by—portraiture in India, particularly in the context of small local studios; on the other hand, it is a commentary on the visual codes of identity that makes announcements about an individual’s religious affiliations, regional background or vocation. Beneath these layers, still deeper, it is also—through its very process—a demonstration of how identity is a constructed: a projection of self, prone to alteration and enhancement. In other words, through his construction, Culmann reveals how identities are in fact, performed.
As a photographic project, The Others functions on several levels though it is primarily divided into four phases. The first phase offers a gallery of portraits shot with local studio setups, such as painted backgrounds and other props. The second phase, explores digital mediation and interpretation with computer generated and Photoshop-ed portraits that include ready kitch backgrounds and elegant headless bodies upon which a subject’s face may be pasted. It also includes formats with appearance modifiers such as hairstyles, coloured-frames, and additional gear such as hats, or more Indian-specific choices, such as turbans.
The third phase plays with the project’s larger ideas of perception, conception and construction — in this section, Culmann provided one half of a torn portrait each to two different photo labs and asked them to reconstruct the original portrait. This is an actual service provided by several local labs in the country who reproduce and colour older photographs. The contrast and variations in the resulting images are both amusing and illuminating; and underline how an individual’s identity is also constructed on the basis of how he or she is perceived. For the fourth and final phase of the project, Culmann asked painters to reproduce his black and white photographs as paintings using different styles. As in the case of the digital reconstruction, the artists were provided free reign with regard to their subjective portrayals, and choices of colours and backgrounds. The resultant paintings bring the project full circle, back to a wider context of portraiture and performance.
The four phases are used to track photographic narratives of Culmann’s several imagined-to-life characters, creating a story for each one. Though often hilarious, they are saved from a fate of simple caricature by both the authenticity of Culmann’s representations and the fact that they actively take apart the illusions created by these social mores and visual codes, rather than endorse them. By inserting himself into his fictions, Culmann further changes the traditional setup within which he is ‘the other’ documenting ‘the subject’; and in titling the work The Others, he also draws attention to constructions of identity that are coloured by perspectives outside of an existing social setup. Tangentially then, The Others may also be read as a commentary on colonial imaging and the nature of anthropological photography, as seen in The People of India volumes.
With such subject matter, that can so easily be reduced to becoming a mere farcical representation of the rigorous codes that determine compartmentalised identities in an Indian context, or its particular impulse to preserve these differences, it is admirable that Culmann manages to create several layers of meaning in The Others that negate any singular or one-dimensional reflection of a complex reality. Its playfulness is infused with a certain warmth that one finds in the best of parodies, seeking not to ridicule, but instead revel, in the absurdities of life.
A portrait, as Culmann so cleverly reveals through his deconstruction of its process, exists in a liminal space between fact and fiction. Extrapolating from this, is the larger premise that in some sense, notions of the self and identity themselves exist in the same liminal space—between truth and belief, reality and fantasy, existence and projection—between what is, and what is seen.
Olivier Culmann was born in Paris in 1970 and has been working as a photographer since 1992. He is a member of the Tendance Floue collective, the objective of which is to explore the world and to diversify the modes of representation in contemporary photography. He has been exhibited and published in both France and other places abroad. In 2011, he was the curator for India in the biennial event, Photoquai, organised by the Museum of Quai Branly in Paris.