Exploration of Identity through Photography


Authored by Kaitlyn

Like any pre-teen, I loved taking photos of our cute, new puppy, and of course the selfies in the bathroom mirror *face palm*. Fast forward to college. I moved to the Grand Rapids area to attend Grand Valley State University and I had no idea what I was going to major in. To be honest, I could see myself flourishing in many different career paths [hence this Collective…]. In awe of the first winter on the West Side of Michigan, I decided to grab my point and shoot from my childhood years and take some photos. This hobby continued into the spring and summer as I found myself looking for editing software and having a blast creating my photos into Sepia tones *another face palm* . A year later, I called my mom and told her I thought I might buy a DSLR camera to help make some money for college. She was VERY skeptical, but trusted my decision and thought I better continue my education along with photography. So I did just that— and enrolled as a photography major. Wow, was she upset. I ensured her that I would work my caboose as hard as I could and I wouldn’t fail. Every critique on my images from film processing was written down and corrected before the time to turn in my assignments. I studied and just KNEW that I was destined to be a… fashion photographer…. wait what? Yep, I typed that correctly; Fashion was my passion. 

What I’ve neglected to tell you is thus far is that growing up, I wasn't a thin kid, and got made fun of for my weight in my earlier school days. I ASPIRED to look like the women in Vogue and I thought if I could at least produce those images for the magazine, I’d feel pretty darn good about myself. But whoa, was I wrong. Every fashion shoot I photographed left me feeling more foreign in my own skin. I felt ugly and that my place would always be BEHIND the camera. Then, I moved to Italy, where I was a complete foreigner and definitely unwelcome. And after that experience, I promised myself that I would try my hardest to make sure no person ever felt that way in my presence. 

While photographing external beauty through portraiture and fashion techniques, I found a deeper appreciation for the word “beauty”. Beauty not only found in conversations with my models, or from a greater sense of the world around me in which I attained after studying abroad, but also beauty within myself and beauty within the abundant potential I posses as an image maker.  

One day as I was talking with a friend, the words just poured out of me. How can I contribute image-making in the very same way that left ME feeling less than valid? How could I raise a beautiful baby girl in the future who may struggle with her own image and has a mother who photographs super models all day long? How could I look my sweet child in the face and tell him or her that they are perfect just the way they were created, all the while I liquify and hide the flaws of my subjects on a computer screen for mass consumption? So I set out to change the way I delivered fashion. I tried to shine a positive light on those who felt like they didn’t belong because of their tattoos, sexual preferences, religions, culture, etc. My professors, and friends were pretty darn shocked [and impressed] to see a beautiful girl covered in tattoos and piercings in a little swim suit on the cover of my project. I started to turn some heads.

And this was the blossoming of me


After studying abroad in Italy for seven months, I realized that so many people here in the US are quick to judge, whether it is toward a body type, sexual preferences, gender identity, religion, ethnic group or even the tattooed figure. We constantly make up a person’s identity for them rather than discovering it by simply getting to know them. After realizing this, I tried to explain how I felt to my family and friends, but they just could not understand. What better way to tell them how I felt, than make them see it for themselves through a series of images? I decided to work on a piece, which I named Conventional vs. Autonomous Beauty. I wanted to portray the emotions one wears when they are expected to be something they are not in the name of beauty vs. how they wish the world would accept them as beautiful. I asked each of them to come dressed as they feel they should look in public to be considered beautiful. As they sat in the stool to be photographed, none of them smiled. Rose even asked me to photoshop her skin a lighter shade than it is. Then I asked them to return to the studio as if there was no pre-conceived notion of beauty— dressed as they would like to be accepted out in the world by others. The images got much attention and were accepted in a gallery to be exhibited, where I also received helpful feedback and constructive criticism on the photos. I was told by many to continue my studies! The results, I believe, speak for themselves. 

At the beginning of my Senior Capstone, I tried to continue that project with a different spin. I wanted to bring a new level of appreciation to fashion by also raising awareness to some of the controversial issues that succumb our lives each day. I tried to continue my understanding of identity as well open the minds’ of others to concepts of awareness and competence through fashion photographs.

While I was able to produce a few compelling images, they were too literal and gave the viewer almost every piece of information, so much so that there was no room for interpretation. I decided to take a new route, something I’ve never done before, leading me to my final Thesis Images. Although the first series was unsuccessful as a body of images because of how limiting their potential to arise one’s own meaning was, they lead me to think outside the box

El-Duende is the spirit of evocation, a physical or emotional response to art, an inexpressible aesthetic experience. Through time-lapse photographs of various types of dances and dancers, I hope to show harmonious relationships that are evocative of human spirits interacting with one another, and of this most human of experiences, regardless of whatever differences exist among us.

Breaking free from my photographing norms, I attempted to portray my thoughts in a unique and refreshing way.  Through long-exposure photography, I captured evocative, smoke-like figures with varying colors to signify each dancer that modeled for me. While these photographs were redolent in abstraction, I intended them to represent the idea of coexistence and living in together harmony. By merging two congruous, yet diverse images together in a pensive fashion, I uncovered yet another layer to the beauty in that which is unable to see with the naked eye.

When you strip away one’s identity, what has one, then, become? In my eyes, we are left with a physical entity, a simple being in our presence. Set aside our incongruities, and we are able to coincide. Without dissimilarities, we would be equal, we would be one. I believe that we were given our distinctions for a reason, and whatever that purpose may be, we must be able to achieve this intention with happiness and compassion.

On this journey, though, we experience life. We encounter ups and downs, struggles, and relief. However, I firmly believe that each occurrence, whether it be good or bad, shapes and molds us into the people we become. If we would appreciate and have gratitude for every moment in life, or every person we come across, we would be able to attain the most beautiful and meaningful peace of mind.

Even today, this is what my work is about. Jumbled and scattered in my head, when I get behind a camera, it all seems to make sense to me. It is when you let a person in and they you, that you become more accepting and gracious of others. When you share a piece of your story, and listen to that of another’s you grow. You learn more about the life we are living, hence deepen our understanding more and more about the beautiful contrasts amid each of us. 

The light in me sees, honors, and bows to the light in each of you.

Kaitlyn BowmanComment