“You just have to smile…” This project is titled Encountering Culture. We should examine the sources of pressures within society and whether I am in harmony or conflict with the social structure I am part of. By the end of the project I will have made a portfolio of 10 photographic pieces or equivalent. My initial approach for this project is to explore something personal to me. I feel that this will create a project that I am deeply involved in and one that I can explore in a lot more depth.
First I want to look at what other peoples social pressures are. I would like to explore other people’s fears and what is hiding behind the first appearance when I first meet them. I went out into the streets of Coventry and asked strangers what their biggest social pressure is and then took a portrait of them. This is a very daunting task for me to do, as talking to anyone, let alone strangers, fills me with dread and uncertainty.
I asked a number of people and alot of people said “No” straight away. At first, I saw this as my failure, but then after further thought I realised that perhaps this is a reflection on people wanting to hide their true pressures and fears. People dont like to admit or talk about things that worry them or things that make life difficult. The strangers who did say “Yes” to participating in my project were often quite awkward and didnt really want to share very much with me. I have Asperger’s syndrome and often feel alone in this. It is common for an Aspie to spend a lot of time trying to work out the rules of the world, of social interactions and to have a genuine feeling that they do not fit in anywhere, so it was important to me to try to find how other people are affected by differences and pressures in their lives. On reflection, this first attempt at getting strangers to share with me their pressures, did not work as well as I had hoped, perhaps because I froze when speaking to them, and I did not sound very welcoming or inviting in conversation about their social pressures. I would like to find a way to improve my approach in order to get more personal accounts of people’s pressures.
I found a photographer called, Gillian Wearing who photographs strangers and asks them to hold up a piece of paper with what they are really thinking on them. I think that having their handwriting and exactly what they wrote with them holding it in the photograph is a very truthful way of documenting findings. I think that it would seem more meaningful and more truthful to present it in this way. I looked at her book, ‘Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say’. This book is a photo book by Gillian Wearing and has an artist’s statement at the beginning. She wrote, “Perhaps the fascination in the relationship between the person and their slogan is in the confidence or diffidence of the people being ‘imaged’ in the first place.” I found this particularly interesting as it connects with my project and really emphasises the aim to get people to open up to me.
To build on what I found in Gillian’s work about getting strangers to be honest and open, I would like to try to open up a little bit myself to the strangers that I speak to. Perhaps to let them know my reasons behind this project and why it is so important to me that they do open up to me. So, I came up with the idea of using my knowledge of my Asperger’s Syndrome to get people to speak more. I looked at this book, Performance Art From Futurism to the Present, about performance art and decided to use photography to record my performance. I had the idea of writing a sign and including that I have a type of Autism as well as explaining my project a little bit. I then would write asking if they would take part in my project. I will not speak through this perfomance at all. The reason for this is that my biggest social pressure is communication because I have Asperger’s Syndrome so as soon as I start talking then I freeze. Also the lack of speaking in my perfomance symbolises me showing the stranger my own social pressure in the hope that they will share theirs. Also, without me guiding them, gives them the freedom to write down their pressure or fear in anyway that they want to and therefore becoming more ‘truthful’. I want to ask them what their hidden ‘fear’ is rather than their issues or differences in order to find out not what the disability or cause is but how it affects them in everyday life.
What is Asperger’s Syndrome? In order to explain this from a scientific and diagnostic point of view rather than a personal account, I took a look at The National Autistic website. The first point that I found interesting was that, ‘You cannot tell that someone has Asperger’s syndrome by looking at them. Because of this Asperger’s syndrome is sometimes called a hidden disability.’ This is important in what I am trying to explore in that I am asking others what their hidden fears are. My fear/pressure is hidden too. It is not immediately obvious to strangers so this really does help me create a similarity and connection with the strangers I am talking to. People with Asperger’s syndrome may find it difficult to;
- meet other people and to make new friends
- tell people what they need, and how they feel
- understand what other people think, and how they feel.
People with Asperger’s Syndrome are also often very sensitive to the five senses; Sight, Sound, Touch , Smell and Taste. They may be very sensitive and find certain things stressful but on the other hand might find them very interesting and be very in tune and enjoy experiencing these senses.
“Rules” for an Aspie
There are a lot of self-help books for being a person with Asperger’s Syndrome. They help show how to live life whilst making it as less stressful as possible. I have read a couple that are for female adults with Asperger’s syndrome which i think is important and relevant as I am basing this project on my own experience of being a female Aspie. I read a number of these books and one in particular, Safety Skills for Asperger Women, that outlines “Rules for an Aspie”. “Rules” that outline what to do and what not to do in order to reduce stress as much as possible. I want to almost challenge these “rules” and try to show through my photography a sense of how the world looks to me. Out of all these suggested ‘rules’ of how to live life as an Aspie, I have chosen a few points that are most important and relevant to my life. I have rephrased and reworked the advice found in these books to come up with 5 neat ‘Rules’ that I would like to explore during this project:
- Rule number 1 – You must be normal. Abide by the unwritten social rules that you must instinctively know.
- Rule number 2 – You must be normal. Avoid situations that make you panic by keeping to quiet places.
- Rule number 3 – You must be normal. Don’t mention all the patterns and disturbances that cloud your vision everyday, that others cannot see.
- Rule number 4 – You must be normal. Pretend you understand the world that you found yourself living in. Don’t point out that it doesn’t make sense.
- Rule number 5 – You must be normal. Don’t correct people even when you remember the exact date and time and every other specific detail of every day.
Rule number 1 – You must be normal. Abide by the unwritten social rules that you must instinctively know.
With this rule, on further consideration I really want to challenge the advice given about keeping safe when talking to people and following the unwritten social rules. Going up to strangers with a little written sign is definitely going against this advice. This makes me want to do it more. Although it does fill me with dread, I feel that it is extremely important to do it, not just in regards to my project but also to prove it to myself that I can manage to do it. It becomes less about the outcome of what I manage to get out of people and more about the process of doing it. Which leads me onto the concept of Performance Art.
As what I am about to do with my project is perfomance art and my use of photography here is a record of my performance, I reviewed a book on Performance Art by RoseLee Goldberg titled ‘Performance Art from Futurism to the Present’. “Art is concerned with the HOW and not the WHAT; not with the literal content, but with the performance of the factual content. The performance – how it’s done – that is the content of art.” explains Josef Albers to students in a lecture at Black Mountain College, North Carolina. (Page 121) The song ‘One Day’ by Asaf Avidan has particularly inspired me recently. The main lyrics are “One day baby we’ll be old, oh baby we’ll be old and think about the stories we could have told.” It just reminds me that life doesn’t last forever and eventually we will be old and wondering why we didn’t do things, and regrets will be there. I really want to succeed with interacting with strangers for this project and break the Asperger’s ‘rule’ advising not to put myself in situations such as I will be doing. So I want to do it, it will add to my stories that I can tell. And to tell other peoples stories through this series of photographs.
This is the sign I went up to people holding in my hands, I didn’t say a word. I wanted to be silent so that people could freely and truthfully chose what they wrote and how they wrote it and how they held their message up. Also I wanted me being silent to reflect and symbolise my own social pressure of communication because of my Asperger’s.
Each time before you do a print, you have to do a test print to find the right exposure time. You cover the whole paper up apart from a section and set the timer to 3 seconds. You then uncover a bit more and expose for 3 more seconds. You keep doing this until you reach the end of the paper. You then put it through the developer, stop and fix for the set amount of time and take the test print outside into normal light to see which is the correct exposure time, you are now ready to do your print!
Having done the test print and contact sheet I printed a number of the Stranger photos:
So, after printing these photographs, I was happy with what some people wrote however others were less deep. Although some of the messages they wrote were not what I was hoping for, they still show something about society. A lot of people I asked said ,”No” to participating in my project, and most of the people who said ,”Yes” still wrote fairy vague and one word answers. This shows that people are still reluctant to share their true fears and pressures. The culture that we have grown up in has taught us to hide the parts of us and our lives that make us seem different or weaker. There is pressure to be happy and completely okay. I reviewed the images I had shot and collected. I printed a number that I specifically selected in order to create a photographic piece with them. This time, I printed them all the same size and added in black ones with a message written on them to represent people who said No to sharing their fears. I chose the deep and meaningful messages that people had written along with some jokey or less deep ones in order to show the contrast and the mix of how much people chose to share.
To show where people said No to being part of my project I overlaid this piece of acetate onto the photographic paper. I had written a message on the acetate with black whiteboard marker.
The fact that people said “No” to sharing their fears suggests stigma towards Disabilities, Mental health and fears in general. People don’t want to share their fears in worry that people will judge them and what they are talking about. Culture has caused and built up this stigma. I reviewed this book, Stigma A social Psychological Analysis by Irwin Katz and found ,’there is reason to believe that responses to deviancy can be either hostile and rejecting or friendly, sympathetic, and helpful, depending on the circumstances of contact.” This is talking about the stigma attached when sharing our fears and that either way it is recognised as something we shouldn’t be sharing, regardless of the response. I also reviewed an online version of the book, The Mark of shame Stigma of Mental Illness and an Agenda for Change by Stephen P Hinshaw where he outlines that Otto Wahl states, ““It is still socially acceptable for cartoonists, policymakers, health-care professionals, and the public-at-large to mock, stereotype, avoid, and otherwise denigrate people who experience a mental disorder.” This suggests that it is very difficult to remove this stigma that is constantly shown to us in our everyday lives.
I took a look at an artist named Michael Madore, he has Asperger’s Syndrome too. I found a video titled, Portrait of an Artist with Asperger’s Syndrome on BBC News where Madore talks about his experiences and how the world appears to him. I can really relate to his words and I feel truly inspired. His attention to detail is very familiar to me, his art just seems to make sense in my eyes. In the video he describes the world as “kind of impenetrable. You know, a thicket, a noisy thicket.” An article about him written on Respiro Art, goes into depth about how he feels as well. It particularly caught my attention when he said, ‘By the time I got to college, it was okay to be in your own world’. He went to Art College so his technique of distancing himself and being in his own world helped his work, creativity comes with this. I believe that his Asperger’s was a gift in this way in that his art was very specific, he has a very specific attention to detail which is what makes his work so unique. I would love to be able to see myself like this, that my difficulties can be a gift if channeled in the right way.
Rule number 2 – You must be normal. Avoid situations that make you panic by keeping to quiet places.
SENSITIVITY TO SOUNDS
With Asperger’s Syndrome, sounds are amplified and I am much more sensitive to them. When I am in a room, I can hear beats in sounds and it all almost sounds like a song. I can’t ignore tiny sounds in the room and they really jump out at me. I want to convey this in a photographic piece.
I took a self portrait trying to show stress with sounds around.
After experimenting with different exposure times in the darkroom as well as varying the contrast and using dodging and burning to create a more striking image, I decided that this particular image doesn’t work. The focus of attention is on my eyes which suggests that I am struggling with aspects of vision here. However, I want the focus to be on the ears and of sounds so I decided to reshoot and perhaps photograph a close up of an ear or me covering my ears. Before I shoot this I wanted to explore typography to add to my image and communicate my experience more successfully.
Duane Michals is a photographer who writes text below an image and sometimes around his images to help the reader see deeper into the meaning of the image. Although he is not writing directly onto the images, his work is still inspiring me with my idea in that adding text can help enhance the message of your work.
Jim Goldberg is a photographer who also uses text but on top of the photographs instead. His typography adds a lot to the images and represents the hopes and thoughts of the people in the photograph. It gives context and makes us think further into the photographs.
I was inspired by Duane Michals and Jim Goldberg so I tried out typography on the image of me with my hands on my face. I wanted to use onomatopoeia sounds to communicate the idea of too much sound and how obvious everything is to me even if in an apparent quiet, free from people room. Like Goldberg and Michals, I wanted to provide extra context and try a creative approach in order to show sounds.
Originally I had written on acetate to show the onomatopoeia sounds but later realised that my background for the image that I wanted the text for was white so these would not show up when I overlay the acetate onto the image when exposing in the darkroom. I was worried that my new method of writing straight onto the print itself would look tacky and unfinished but with all these words written over and on top of each other, I think the effect works rather well. To emphasise the fact that its sound that I am sensitive to here, I am going to change the main image to me holding my hands over my ears and with my eyes shut so as not to draw attention to my eyes.
I think that having the onomatopoeia words written around this new image, communicates my idea a lot more successfully. I would like to reinforce this even more, so I took images of all the objects that I could hear (other people probably wouldn’t normally pick all these sounds out) whilst sitting in a room. I want to print these images as squares and place them around the main image of me surrounded by onomatopoeia words. I felt that this approach was too obvious and doesn’t leave people trying to work out or interpret my idea. I wouldn’t want to make the piece too ambiguous either but I feel that this wouldn’t happen because of my ‘rule’ that will be written with the piece. So, I have decided to photograph sources of sound.
I took these first set of images to begin with but then decided that there weren’t enough to make my point with.
So, I decided to reshoot to add some more noise sources. This time I sat down and wrote a list of all the noises I could hear whilst in the rooms and then photographed all the sources those noises came from.
Rule number 3 – You must be normal. Don’t mention all the patterns and disturbances that cloud your vision everyday, that others cannot see.
I had a look at two artists whose work I think relates to Visual Stress.
Bridget Riley is an abstract artist who creates these very psycadellic pieces. I found them inspiring as they show some of the visual stress that I experience everyday in everyday objects that others would be fine looking at.
An example of Visual Stress found on the British Dyslexia Association Website:
Firstly, to try to communicate the visual stress that I experience, I photographed grafitti that I saw in the street.I also photographed an image I found on google images of a pattern. I took these two images of the grafitti on my iPhone to show the difference to when I print them in the darkroom.
I then printed it in the darkroom and put maximum contrast on them. This is how they turned out:
I feel that painting over them or manipulating them further could help with symbolising how the world looks to me and how visual stress is from my account.
I think the paint adds an element of how i see the visual stress and makes me wonder and think about why I have painted over the prints.
RORSCHACH’S INKBLOT TEST
The inkblot tests are often used by psychologists to find out how people are feeling and what they see in ambiguous images. I listened to this audio clip from the library, Dr Inkblot on Radio 4 which told me more about the theory behind this test and shows it in action. Seeing as this part of my project is about me seeing everything diffferently to other people – I see disturbances in light over everyday objects. This can be stressful and distracting. I think using the idea of ambiguous inkblot tests echoes my interpretation in everyday objects in comparison to how others see it.
To develop this further, I have decided to make my own patterns of visual stress and then photograph them. This way I can show exactly how visual stress is for me. I considered overlaying them on a cityscape or alternatively keeping them purely abstract. These are the scanned in inkblot artworks:
I took photos of them and printed them in the darkroom at maximum contrast and correct exposure for these at 6 seconds:
After seeing them, I have decided to use the originals as I feel that they are a lot more effective in showing my visual stress. You can also see the texture on them and the difference between the black ‘ink’ and the dry brush strokes. I am also going to add colour with brush strokes to show my visual stress. The main colours with my visual stress are blue and yellow:
Rule number 4 – You must be normal. Pretend you understand the world that you found yourself living in. Don’t point out that it doesn’t make sense.
STUCK IN MY OWN WORLD
I would like to explore the way that my Asperger’s means that I am stuck in my own world. People with Asperger’s often only see things in one way and its difficult to come out of that ‘bubble’. The world is like an unsolvable puzzle that I have been trying to work out my whole life and will still be trying to work it out forever. This does cause my anxiety. There are so many unwritten rules in life and all of this is so confusing. I would like to explore this feeling in a photographic piece as a performance art. Where the photography acts as a record of the performance itself. My idea is to go out into the street and place a large see-through funnel to my face and then place it on the ground with my face in it. The significance of this is that the funnel represents being stuck in my own world, I can see out and people can see it but neither can fully interact and can never fully understand what its like to be outside the funnel and vice versa. The funnel is a symbol of how my mind works and how I see the world. To help me plan and do the performance art, I have looked at a number of performance artists to try to get an understanding of how and why performance art is executed:
In Terence Koh’s exhibition titled, nothingtoodoo, shown at Mary Boone Gallery in New York, Koh took a vow of silence and slowly circled a giant mound of salt on his knees. The significance of white is important, I read that he mostly wears white and even his cat is white. He circled and circled this mound slowly and took breaks occasionally for about 5 minutes by lying down and stretching. I notice that even these breaks are part of the performance.
Wafaa Bilal Wafaa Bilal is an Iraqi-born artist who did a 24 hour live performance art piece. His brother was killed by a missile at a checkpoint in their hometown of Kufa, Iraq in 2004. The performance piece was called, and Counting… where he turned his body into a canvas and had his back tatood with a borderless map of Iraq covered with one dot for each American casualty near the cities where they died. The 5,000 dead American soldiers were represented by red dots and the 100,000 Iraqi casualties were represented by dots of green UV ink, invisible unless under black light. Throughout the performance different people read out the names of those who had died. Nate Hill
Nate Hill is an American performance artist who created ‘Death bear’. He goes round dressed in a bear costume that he constructed. He goes to peoples homes arranged and takes their painful objects that remind them on pain and relationships for example. He then takes them and stores them in an attempt to remove the pain from that person. These quotes are from the vimeo I watched, Death Bear Gets Sad So You Don’t Have To, reported by Mary Plummer: “I take the objects and then I hear about the sadness but then I leave and I am kind of left with it for the rest of the day.” “It’s important when doing performance art to make it relatable to people on an emotional level. You will be far more successful.”
Having looked at three performance artists, it’s very clear to me now that the process is very important, the quality of the photos are not what mattered, the photos are just a record of the performance. It is the process that it important.
A song that I have been listening to, My Body is a Cage by Arcade fire makes me think of how I feel separated by the world as though in a cage. It has been inspiration to complete my performance and I thought about this song in my head whilst doing the performance. I want to put a funnel to my face and place it on a surface. It will be covering up the senses – I am stuck in my own world. It also shows that I have one way of thinking and that cant see any other different ways. As it was a performance piece, I had to recruit someone else to take the photographs. I took this photo below on my iPhone and showed it to them so they had an idea of the composition and angle that I wanted:
I also tried increasing the exposure time by 1 second to see how this would turn out. Now you can see my face through the cone. I feel that this loses something, having my jacket and the cone slightly overexposed actually brings the focus to the cone and makes me seem a bit ghostly and I think adds to the concept and the performance. Here is my image where my face is visible through the cone:
Rule number 5 – You must be normal. Don’t correct people even when you remember the exact date and time and every other specific detail of every day.
I have an excellent memory for little details. Not always completely useful but really small details that other people probably wouldn’t even notice and definitely not remember. So, I took a number of images throughout the day and I want to expose them all on top of each other like a double exposure.
I created this double exposure trying to show that I remember details in an unusual and very precise way. However, after talking it through with people, such as my tutor, I decided that it actually gives the impression that details are blurred and merged into one. This was not the way I wanted it to be seen. So, I have decided to explore other ways to represent my ‘photographic’ memory. One way could be just having the details of a day as different images next to each other, however I feel that this takes away from the idea and also doesn’t represent how precisely I remember details from everything and how i remember the specific date and time etc. When meeting someone, I even still remember the colour of their lipstick. Perhaps I do not always remember the important or useful details that other people do. I have decided to write a handwritten list for this piece. A list outlining details I remember from a specific time.
I wanted to keep it natural as though I had written it the same day as it happened. I start with just the date and then list everything I still remember now (December 2014) about a stranger that I glanced at on the street. I even surprised myself with the amount of tiny details that I remember about this woman. If I made a mistake and crossed it out, I did not redo it. I wanted to keep it like this, on note paper and just use this as my final piece. I think the crossing out and the natural feeling to this really adds to my idea and helps show that it is truthful.
“You just have to smile…” – Whenever I used to be afraid of doing something or being somewhere, particularly going to new places or having a change in routine, my boyfriend at the time used to say, “you just have to smile..” Although this did comfort me and gave me a mission to carry out when in uncomfortable situations, I still see it as a reflection on society. It highlights that when faced with a pressure, it can be fixed by covering it up with a smile. Smile and no one will see any further. You just have to smile. I feel that this title links with my project well. It is a very personal title to me so fits in with my account of Asperger’s syndrome as well as it being a reflection on the stranger project in that people hide their fears and pressures. The strangers who wrote down what I was hoping for them to write; something meaningful and their true greatest fear still hid behind a smile. This reminds me of when people say, “If you can’t laugh then you will just cry.” The strangers who wrote one word answers are seeming to be hiding what they are really afraid of, perhaps they haven’t realised it themselves yet. And the strangers who said No, are perhaps hiding completely, they do not want to expose themselves to their greatest fear or pressure so completely avoiding it is easiest. So, this title that I have chosen not only fits in with my personal photographs showing my own experience of Asperger’s syndrome but fits with the part looking at other peoples pressures.
I would like to display my work in a large A3 sketchbook. I want to use the Asperger’s ‘rules’ and make a kind of Rule book that I am challenging and displaying my experience of it. The ‘Rules’ do slightly annoy me. I completely understand that these ‘rules’ are made to make life easier for an Aspie but knowing these rules does make me feel restricted. I partly did this project to be able to prove to myself that some of these rules can and will be broken and also to allow me to communicate to other people, through my photographs, just a snippet of how life is with Asperger’s.
Placement on the page
I spent time trying out different page placements in order to find the best arrangement with the maximum impact to communicate my project and opinions.
I considered grouping together the more deep and then less deep Stranger’s messages together on two separate pages.
I went across to The Herbert Art Gallery to look for artists statements. I found one by Jason Scott Tilley about his exhibition, People of India.
“These sometimes very brief encounters or in many cases re-encounters, with people I had known for a number of years, were made with very little direction from me. I simply sought to capture an essence of their spirit as I found them.”
I found that the importance of artist statements are to provide the reader with the information to successfully read the photographs/art pieces in the project. But not to give everything away so there would be no need to see the photographs. Sometimes the statements are written by others about the artists work.
MY ARTIST STATEMENT
When I was young, I used to wish that I would fit in. I am glad I didn’t get my wish.
Asperger’s syndrome is a lifelong condition. My brain is wired differently. The world is like a huge problem that I have been trying to work out my whole life. I am still working on it.
Just smile and no one will know.
In these images I have described parts of my world for others to glimpse.
Culture has a certain way of doing everything. If you are different to this or fall outside the lines of ‘normal’ then of course, you will be open to judgement and prejudice. Being different isn’t always bad. With conditions such as Asperger’s Syndrome, if you channel the difference in the right way and learn the ‘rules’ to a certain extent then you can succeed and make use of your differences. Conflict arises between people who are ‘different’ and those who are less so. My condition means that I am always going to have some conflict with the way social structure is and will never fully understand it.
Baron-Choen, S. (2008) Autism and Asperger Syndrome. The facts, Oxford University Press
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Instructables. Available at <http://www.instructables.com/id/Make-Rorschach-painting-in-5-minutes/>
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Tilley, S. People of India exhibition showing at the Herbert Art Gallery (November 2014)
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