I am fascinated by the way in which a portrait can reveal the subtlest aspects of psychological inner-life – those fundamental elements at the core of an individual human’s being. For a portrait painting, the artist might capture a likeness that flickers with a hint of consternation, or mischievousness, or one that alludes to courage, or sadness. The artistic style of any painted portrait allows the communication of additional allusions. Colour palette, bravura brushstrokes or seamless application of paint can signal fiery or cool temperament. Further still, symbols representative of more externally discernible aspects of a sitter’s life or ‘identity’ might include objects the person uses in their work (a telescope, books). The artist’s style in itself might represent an idea crucial to the sitter’s world. For me, when I look at Nick Mourtzakis’ portrait of Australian philosopher of consciousness David Chalmers, the abstracted crystalline architecture that defines the sitter’s visage is evocative of the brain’s plasticity, rendering it as flickering matrixes.
What about a photographic portrait? Proximity or distance might symbolise intimacy or reserve. Props and setting might signal profession. Colour intensity or monochromic palette might weigh energy or solemnity. We are always looking at photos of people. Photos describe the world to us. Photos invent idealised bodies. Photos reveal trauma, despair and horror. Photos mark achievements and milestones. Can we breach the surface? Can we really look at a person in a photograph and feel something almost authentic?
Each of us experiences the world through the prism of our own, subjective view. Our biology and brain sets the scene. Neurobiologist Dick Swaab explains the basis for fundamental aspects of our identity, and therefore our subjective perception: ‘Nothing would seem simpler than seeing at birth whether a child is a boy or girl. After all, gender is determined from the moment of conception: Two XX chromosomes will become a girl, an X and a Y chromosome a boy. The boy’s Y chromosome starts the process that causes the male hormone testosterone to be produced. The presence or absence of testosterone makes the child develop male or female sex organs between the sixth and twelfth week of pregnancy. The brain differentiates along male or female lines in the second half of pregnancy, due to a male baby producing a peak of testosterone or a female baby not doing so. It’s in that period that the feeling of being a man or woman – our gender identity – is fixed in our brains for the rest of our lives.’
What about when our subjective experience does not align exactly with the dominant expectations of how we should feel, act, and appear? ‘Sexual orientation’, Swaab makes clear, ‘is determined by many structural and functional differences in the brain, all of which develop in the womb during the second half of pregnancy’. Likewise, as Swaab explains, ‘tiny variations in genes associated with the effect of hormones on brain development have been found to increase the likelihood of transsexuality’. This, too, occurs in the womb.
Once manifested, our conscious awareness of the world around us is forcefully affected by the society into which we have emerged. The era in which we are born informs our worldview. The place we grow up (city, desert, slum or tower) pushes us around. The attitudes of family and associates guide our thinking. Maybe all of this aligns with our instincts; maybe not. Maybe something allows us to take an objective view of our situation and say, ‘Wow – I am so fortunate to inhabit the life I have’. Maybe we will view our situation and think, ‘Actually, this is not for me’. We have the right to choose – if we are fortunate – or at least we have the illusion of choice. ‘Since free choice is elevated into a supreme value,’ writes philosopher Slavoj i‑ek, ‘social control and domination can no longer appear as infringing the subject’s freedom; it has to appear as (and be sustained by) the very self-experience of individuals as free’.
At some point, our own self-awareness arises. Our self-awareness informs how we respond to our environment – even on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis. Physicist Lee Smolin says, ‘Surprise is inherent in the structure of the world’. It is a useful maxim to keep in mind. I have written the advice down on paper and placed it beside my bathroom mirror, along with his caution: ‘To be human is to live suspended between danger and opportunity’.
This is good reminder to stay calm when something ‘freaky’ happens! It allows a workable context for comprehending why someone might react differently to how you expected. When you almost didn’t see a car, or cyclist, or you got a fright, the advice helps you process apparent dissonance. Self-awareness cultivates how we react to these surprises. It is self-awareness that drives our responses to obstacles and opportunities in life (maybe my obstacle is your opportunity).
Growing up, during childhood, and into adolescence and young adulthood we are composing ourselves. We are learning how to inhabit our body, learning how to accept ourselves, learning to love ourselves. All the while our unconscious drives and automatic processes (breathing, walking, sleeping) churn on. And once we reach some moment of subjective self-awareness (and think, okay, this is me and it is fine) we are faced with our relation to all the others like us, all the others different to us, each making and re-making their own worlds.
Zoom further out and ecological forces buffet all these subjective selves. We are constrained or liberated by technological forces. Algorithms interpret communication. Do you go along with the flow? Do you conform, adapt or reject? Do you embrace difference? Difference is ‘the undoing of all stabilities’ writes philosopher Elizabeth Grosz. This sense of subjectivity allows us to break free of our own personal histories and their hold on us. We can embrace ‘becoming more’.
Wow. Can a photograph of a person really allude to all this? I think it is feasible. I think that ‘all this’ is what animates the most subtle-powerful photographic portraits. A subtle-powerful photographic portrait can communicate what it is to come into being. Coming into being with all the pain and all the release.
Dr Christopher Chapman, Senior Curator National Portrait Gallery and judge, National Photographic Portrait Prize 2018