Identity without Similarity: The Relation between the Individual and Her Picture

Maja Tabea Jerrentrup

Abstract: “This is me” we tend to say about pho­tographs of ourselves—which is remark­able giv­en that the image with which we iden­ti­fy is a two-dimen­sion­al visu­al tak­en from a very spe­cif­ic moment in our past. And yet the image is inter­pret­ed as an icon or an index of our present being. The prob­lem of see­ing sim­i­lar­i­ty where there is dif­fer­ence seems to be increas­ing with the rise of hob­by models—a niche demo­graph­ic made up of most­ly women between the age of 16 and 40, who enjoy pos­ing for the cam­era even if they aren’t get­ting paid for it. This paper inves­ti­gates the social and psy­cho­log­i­cal moti­va­tions behind hob­by mod­el­ling in the Ger­man-speak­ing context.

Résumé: «C’est moi», ten­dance à dire à pro­pos des pho­togra­phies de nous-mêmes, ce qui est éton­nant étant don­né que l'image n'est qu'une ver­sion à deux dimen­sions prise à un moment pré­cis de notre passé. Et pour­tant, l'image est inter­prétée comme une icône ou une référence de notre présent. Le prob­lème du rap­port à l'image sem­ble s'accentuer avec la mon­tée en puis­sance des mod­èles-pho­to qui s'exercent comme hob­by – prin­ci­pale­ment pour des femmes âgées de 16 à 40 ans, qui aiment pos­er pour la caméra même si elles ne sont pas rémunérées. Cet arti­cle exam­ine les moti­va­tions sociales et psy­chologiques du passe-temps de man­nequin dans le con­texte germanophone.

Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/IMAGE.OI.10.2.3 | PDF

This is me,” we say when talk­ing about pho­tographs. It is quite aston­ish­ing how much we iden­ti­fy with a pic­ture, which reduces us to a two-dimen­sion­al image and only shows us a spe­cif­ic moment already in the past.

A close con­nec­tion to iden­ti­ty accom­pa­nied pho­tog­ra­phy from the begin­ning: “Pho­tog­ra­phy … began his­tor­i­cal­ly as an art of the Per­son, of civ­il sta­tus, of what we might call, in all sens­es of the term, the body’s for­mal­i­ty” (Barthes 79).1 For Roland Barthes, pho­tog­ra­phy is con­sti­tu­tive not just of per­son­al iden­ti­ty, but also of cul­tur­al identity—mediating both the body of the per­son and, in the process, his or her “civ­il sta­tus.” We find a sim­i­lar dialec­tic in Jacques Lacan’s research on the dis­crep­an­cy between an ini­tial­ly frag­ment­ed self-aware­ness and the con­sis­tent image of self achieved through the mir­ror stage in ear­ly child­hood. Sylvia Broder­sen uses an anal­o­gy to pho­tog­ra­phy to explain the alien­ation by which this image of self is obtained in Lacan’s mir­ror stage: “As the ‘I’ in the expe­ri­ence of the mir­ror is based on an image, tthe iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the sub­ject with its self-image in the mir­ror is based on alien­ation. Like the mir­ror, pho­tog­ra­phy turns the sub­ject into an image” (Broder­sen 145, trans­la­tion MTJ).2 This is an alien­ation, how­ev­er, that now seems to be reg­u­lar­ly over­come by today’s typ­i­cal­ly media-expe­ri­enced user, who casu­al­ly asserts this is me when con­fronting her pho­to­graph­ic likeness.

For the main­te­nance of this like­ness, a thor­ough­ly cho­sen styling, com­plete with cos­tume, make-up, pos­ing, and set­ting is nec­es­sary today more than ever (Lauser 469-80; Pavis 174; Shuk­la 5). As Wal­ter Leim­gru­ber observes,

The increas­ing empha­sis on the body is often explained with the fact that because of dis­in­te­grat­ing social bound­aries and the dis­ap­pear­ance of tra­di­tion­al social class­es, which are tied to the social dis­tri­b­u­tion of roles, it has become nec­es­sary to posi­tion and dif­fer­en­ti­ate one­self through delib­er­ate­ly devel­op­ing an indi­vid­ual style. An active self-mar­ket­ing through per­for­ma­tive strate­gies of image cul­ti­va­tion and stag­ing of the self, in which the body plays a cen­tral role, has gained in impor­tance. (Leim­gru­ber 213-14, trans­la­tion MTJ)3

Wal­traud Posch sim­i­lar­ly men­tions as an exam­ple TV shows that deal with cre­at­ing the self through the body (see Posch 19). Fol­low­ing this trend, Ker­stin Bran­des sees the top­ic of “vis­i­bil­i­ty and iden­ti­ty” increas­ing­ly treat­ed both in art and pol­i­tics (Bran­des). Con­nect­ed to this focus on visu­al iden­ti­ty is a con­sid­er­a­tion of com­mu­ni­ca­tion through visu­al medi­a­tion. These approach­es come togeth­er in pho­tog­ra­phy, as pho­tog­ra­phy “function[s] as a tool for iden­ti­ty for­ma­tion and as a means for com­mu­ni­ca­tion” (Van Dijck 58).

Photography as Staging

The spe­cif­ic moment of tak­ing a pic­ture is–especially if the pho­tog­ra­ph­er does not hide his action—coined by var­i­ous aspects, that make the “pho­tog­ra­phy-I” dif­fer from real­i­ty (on the prob­lem of defin­ing real­i­ty in this con­text, see Dör­fler 11-52 and Venohr 47). In fact, pho­tog­ra­phy nat­u­ral­ly brings out people’s ten­den­cy to pose for the cam­era and adopt cer­tain facial expres­sions to com­mu­ni­cate some­thing (for the mean­ing and inter­pre­ta­tion of pos­ing, see Fre­und 75). This is evi­dent in pho­tographs tak­en to mark spe­cial occa­sions, such as par­ties, hol­i­days, or trips. In mod­el pho­tog­ra­phy, it is the tak­ing of the pho­to­graph itself that becomes the occasion.

Typ­i­cal­ly, one only under­stands these last kind of pho­tographs to be staged because in mod­el pho­tog­ra­phy the (only) “declared objec­tive … is the two-dimen­sion­al pic­ture,” (Weiss 50, trans­la­tion MTJ) and strate­gies of stag­ing are not hid­den .4 But stag­ing and pos­ing are not exclu­sive to mod­el pho­tog­ra­phy. In both mod­el and occa­sion­al pho­tog­ra­phy the pic­ture is shaped by fac­tors on both sides of the cam­era, from dress and make-up to light set-up and han­dling. As Daniele Mus­cioni­co writes, “Pho­tog­ra­phy does not just show a cer­tain event, but cre­ates it through the pure exis­tence of a pic­ture show­ing it” (Mus­cioni­co, trans­la­tion MTJ).5 Events often gain attrac­tive­ness and rel­e­vance through the pic­ture-ness that pho­tog­ra­phy cre­ates. This is espe­cial­ly evi­dent when look­ing at Insta­gram and Face­book: with­out an (attrac­tive) pic­ture, a moment becomes unin­ter­est­ing, near­ly not worth expe­ri­enc­ing or exist­ing. The post-pro­duc­tion fol­low­ing the act of tak­ing pic­tures has been made very sim­ple even for ama­teurs by smart­phone apps such as “Beau­ty Plus” and is now an inte­gra­tive com­po­nent of occa­sion­al photography.

Despite all these “manip­u­la­tions,” pho­tog­ra­phy is still seen by most peo­ple as being truth­ful. The sup­posed fac­tic­i­ty of pho­tog­ra­phy is espe­cial­ly notable when pic­tures are used to doc­u­ment or prove some­thing (for the prob­lem of the truth claim, see Lack­n­er). In fact, one can feel so much uni­ty with a pic­ture that one calls the image “I.” The rela­tion­ship between pho­tog­ra­phy and the per­son being pho­tographed has been inter­pret­ed in var­i­ous ways: using semi­otic terms, the pho­to­graph­ic image can be seen as an index (one leaves a trace on a film or a chip), as well as an icon (one is sim­i­lar to it) (see Larsen). But if due to styling, make-up, retouch­ing, and so on, there is hard­ly any sim­i­lar­i­ty left, the image should lose its sta­tus as an icon and, after post-pro­duc­tion, also the fea­tures of an index—the this-is-me feel­ing of iden­ti­ty no longer seems to obtain.

The Motivation for Being Photographed

In the pre­ced­ing sec­tion, I exam­ined the expe­ri­ence of peo­ple that belong to the scene of staged pho­tog­ra­phy asso­ci­at­ed with mod­el pho­tog­ra­phy because here cer­tain ten­den­cies are more obvi­ous and pos­sess an overt “avant-garde” influ­ence, for exam­ple, on fash­ion trends. Nonethe­less there are clear par­al­lels and over­laps between pro­fes­sion­al mod­els and groups of blog­gers, Insta­gram and Face­book stars and star­lets, and oth­er social media users that prac­tice hob­by mod­el­ling. The wish to earn mon­ey with their pic­tures, how­ev­er, does not have pri­or­i­ty for most hob­by mod­els. My data is based on sev­er­al years (2008 to the present) of obser­va­tion and par­tic­i­pant obser­va­tion in the scene of staged peo­ple pho­tog­ra­phy, main­ly in the Ger­man-speak­ing con­text (Ger­many, Aus­tria, and Switzer­land), in front of the cam­era as well as behind the cam­era. This expe­ri­ence gave me the oppor­tu­ni­ty to devel­op an emic per­spec­tive and to come up with suit­able ques­tions for semi-struc­tured inter­views. I con­duct­ed these inter­views with 40 hob­by mod­els in 2018. Thir­ty-eight of them were women, reflect­ing the fact that women are far more active as mod­els than men. To reach more mod­els and to offer more ways to inter­act with them, I also con­duct­ed online sur­veys in mod­el pho­tog­ra­phy groups on Face­book in 2018, offer­ing to receive answers anony­mous­ly via e-mail. This tri­an­gu­la­tion of meth­ods should help to com­pen­sate for each method’s lim­i­ta­tions.6

The approach under­ly­ing this paper is inter­dis­ci­pli­nary and relies on thick descrip­tion and semi­otics for its argu­ments. I am a cul­tur­al anthro­pol­o­gist, but ques­tions about iden­ti­ty that mat­ter to anthro­pol­o­gists have also been addressed by soci­ol­o­gy and psy­chol­o­gy. I there­fore do not want to lim­it my approach to one dis­ci­pline. For the hob­by mod­els par­tic­i­pat­ing in this study, the this-is-me feel­ing is of high­er rel­e­vance than for “ordi­nary” peo­ple look­ing at their pho­tographs. Mod­els reg­u­lar­ly invest a lot of time and mon­ey in pro­duc­ing and lat­er pre­sent­ing these pic­tures as “themselves”—pictures which are char­ac­ter­ized by thought­ful selec­tion, retouch­ing, dif­fer­ent cos­tumes, make-up, retouch­ing styles, and played-at sce­nar­ios. How do the self and the staged image of self relate to each oth­er? How do the “this” and the “me” inter­act to form the this-is-me?

First of all, peo­ple need an incen­tive to get pho­tographed that exceeds the pure doc­u­men­ta­tion of life or oth­er neces­si­ties that make it com­pul­so­ry to get pic­tures. They need an incen­tive that sees pho­tog­ra­phy and/or the result­ing pic­tures as pur­pose­ful in them­selves. A crit­i­cal exam­i­na­tion of our soci­ety that brings the scene of staged peo­ple pho­tog­ra­phy into view shows that the body is under­stood as mal­leable and close­ly con­nect­ed to social status:

Who­ev­er wants to lead a hap­py, ful­filled and social­ly accept­able life adopts a cor­re­spond­ing lifestyle that incor­po­rates trendy sports, which mould and train the body, as well as a cer­tain diet. Depend­ing on the spe­cif­ic group or sub­cul­ture, these demands are com­ple­ment­ed by cer­tain rules of behav­iour as well as cloth­ing, jew­el­ry, lan­guage, and ges­tures, but also body-relat­ed acces­sories such as tat­toos and pierc­ings. (Leim­bru­ber, trans­la­tion MTJ)7

As numer­ous cast­ing shows demon­strate, being a mod­el obvi­ous­ly con­sti­tutes a dream for many, con­nect­ed to fan­tasies of fame, sta­tus, glam­our, and mon­ey. The first “pre­sen­ta­tion ladies” in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry did not have a stel­lar rep­u­ta­tion (Wolak 44). Nowa­days, how­ev­er, being a “mod­el” is regard­ed as a desir­able job, which opens up many oppor­tu­ni­ties and car­ries social pres­tige (see Müller-Schnei­der 27; Evans; and David):

Beau­ty has great social pow­er. Appear­ance influ­ences the way a per­son is seen by oth­ers, and there­fore also how he him­self [sic] expe­ri­ences the many encoun­ters with oth­er peo­ple. Beau­ty is a tool to get recog­ni­tion and priv­i­leges. Appear­ance is impor­tant for our inter­ac­tion with peo­ple. It can open up life chances or close them. The pow­er of beau­ty lies in the fact that it can influ­ence and shape our lives. (Posch 229-30, trans­la­tion MTJ)8

In a sim­i­lar fash­ion, Annette Geiger talks about the “beau­ty turn” (11). Pho­tog­ra­phy and mod­el­ling, hob­by or oth­er­wise, are fur­ther bol­stered by the illu­sion of equal oppor­tu­ni­ty: “Ever since the intro­duc­tion of the bour­geois Hap­py End­ing” it is aston­ish­ing­ly easy “to imag­ine the red car­pet under­neath one’s own feet. It seems that one has just to grab the oppor­tu­ni­ty” (Schilling 226, trans­la­tion MTJ).9 This fan­ta­sy can be act­ed out in either staged mod­el pho­tog­ra­phy or on one’s own Insta­gram account. How­ev­er, in the lat­ter case, the dis­tinc­tion between mod­el and super­mod­el sug­gest­ed by Antho­ny Cur­tis Adler no longer applies: “The moment that a mod­el is more rec­og­niz­able than the prod­uct she adver­tis­es, she becomes a super­mod­el, who is no longer real­ly a mod­el sen­su stric­to but a cen­ter of grav­i­ty that draws things into her orbit” (Adler 169). In the case of hob­by mod­el­ling, it is not about adver­tis­ing prod­ucts, but rather adver­tis­ing one­self, and every mod­el would like to be seen as a “cen­tre of grav­i­ty” her­self. In addi­tion, it should be men­tioned that with­in the scene of staged peo­ple pho­tog­ra­phy, not only clas­si­cal beau­ty, but also spe­cial or extra­or­di­nary looks and styles are appreciated:

the ques­tion remains: when are we going to get tired of all this immac­u­late reg­u­lar­i­ty? Per­va­sive smooth­ness might lose its appeal not just in the retouched image, but also in every­day life, when Botox and cos­met­ic surgery can help ever larg­er num­bers of peo­ple to get an opti­mized “nor­mal face.” The beau­ti­ful­ly mor­phed pic­ture that every­one can put on his ID card or on his appli­ca­tion will not cre­ate any­thing but bore­dom… Even some mod­els shown in Vogue or sim­i­lar mag­a­zines no longer seem to sim­ply intend to match the image of child­like beau­ty, but are rather a grotesque exag­ger­a­tion of it, a “child­like mon­ster,” as it were, which attracts the gaze through its anom­aly. (Geiger 13, trans­la­tion MTJ)10

How­ev­er, provoca­tive pic­tures are quite rare. With­in the scene, there is hard­ly ever any crit­i­cism lev­eled at the look of the mod­el due to an unspo­ken code of con­duct.11

Characteristics of Hobby Models

The mod­els I observed and inter­viewed come from dif­fer­ent social class­es, but the major­i­ty could be regard­ed as mid­dle or upper mid­dle class. This might be due to two fac­tors. First­ly, mod­el­ling is an expen­sive hob­by. Poor peo­ple sim­ply can­not afford it. Sec­ond­ly, hob­by mod­el­ling also requires some orga­ni­za­tion­al tal­ent, which is more com­mon among bet­ter-edu­cat­ed peo­ple. Most of the mod­els are between 16 and 40 years old, with a major­i­ty between the ages of 20 and 30. They often can be char­ac­ter­ized by one or more of the fol­low­ing fea­tures, which are in many cas­es con­nect­ed to each oth­er (for more on the fol­low­ing, see Jer­ren­trup 12).

Preoccupation with One’s Own Body

In addi­tion to a model’s self-dec­la­ra­tions, there are vis­i­ble signs of a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with one’s own body, which range from heavy weight loss to extreme hair­cuts and hair colours to big tat­toos or even auto-aggres­sive behav­iour such as self-cut­ting (see Orbach 37 and Wim­mer-Puchinger et al. 42; on the spe­cif­ic sit­u­a­tion of women, see Wim­mer-Puchinger 4). Pho­tog­ra­phy is appar­ent­ly regard­ed as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to approve of the body, inso­far as pho­tog­ra­phy implies that the body is worth a pic­ture. Pos­i­tive feed­back while shoot­ing and “likes” on social media might increase this impact (for the incor­po­ra­tion of cor­po­re­al dis­plays of phys­i­cal attrac­tive­ness into social activist move­ments, see Pham).

How­ev­er, many mod­els seem to be aware of the ambiva­lences of beau­ty and mere cor­po­re­al­i­ty. “Beau­ty char­ac­ter­izes an incon­sis­ten­cy. On the one hand, every­one would like to have it, to enjoy it, and to feel the pow­er it has, on the oth­er hand, it seems to be some­thing which is only super­fi­cial and is regard­ed as a banal exter­nal­i­ty” (Wolak 17, trans­la­tion MTJ).12 Such assump­tions are reflect­ed in some sce­nar­ios staged for pho­tog­ra­phy, as well as in quotes, say­ings, and short inter­pre­ta­tive state­ments that accom­pa­ny the pic­tures. Stat­ed approval of one’s own body does not nec­es­sar­i­ly imply that one under­stands the body as “beau­ti­ful”. It can also include accept­ing its defi­cien­cies or inter­pret­ing them as unique pecu­liar­i­ties. As one mod­el I inter­viewed com­ment­ed, “Through mod­el­ling, I can final­ly accept my looks and feel valu­able and beau­ti­ful for the first time in my life” (Mod­el R., trans­la­tion MTJ).13 Anoth­er mod­el, who want­ed to be pho­tographed as a mer­maid, observed, “I can iden­ti­fy with Disney’s Arielle because I also always want­ed to have a dif­fer­ent body. This is what pho­tog­ra­phy enables me to do” (Mod­el H., trans­la­tion MTJ).14

Experience of Deficits

Some mod­els stress in infor­mal inter­views, as well as in com­ments on social media, that they expe­ri­ence deficits in their per­son­al life sto­ries, which for exam­ple result from prob­lems in their homes or with their rela­tion­ships. Many of these mod­els thus under­stand pho­tog­ra­phy to act out expe­ri­ences and inter­ests that, for per­son­al or his­tor­i­cal rea­sons, have been denied to them (see Gyr 362 for the yearn­ing for kitsch; see Venohr 47 for the yearn­ing for authen­tic­i­ty). The help pho­tog­ra­phy offers in this con­text is twofold: it makes yearn­ings and fears man­age­able by con­dens­ing them into pic­tures, and fur­ther sup­ple­ments the model’s first-hand expe­ri­ences with vic­ar­i­ous expe­ri­ences. “I miss romance in my life, this is why I like roman­tic top­ics in pho­tog­ra­phy. Life is so grey” (Mod­el N., trans­la­tion MTJ).15

Search for Identity

Many peo­ple active in the mod­el­ling scene are or were mem­bers of a sub­cul­ture. Sub­cul­tures rep­re­sent an “inter­fer­ence in the order­ly sequence which leads from real events and phe­nom­e­na to their rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the media”—“a kind of tem­po­rary block­age in the sys­tem of rep­re­sen­ta­tion” (Heb­di­ge 121). What starts as eman­ci­pa­tion, how­ev­er, lat­er gets inte­grat­ed into the main­stream, a process that re-appro­pri­ates the subculture’s signs and, in the process, rede­fines behav­iour­al norms (Mar­chart 114-15). Being part of a sub­cul­ture can be under­stood as a search for iden­ti­ty. Broder­sen sees this search for iden­ti­ty as typ­i­cal of the present age: “In a time in which tra­di­tion­al bound­aries such as class, ori­gin or reli­gion have lost their impor­tance and in which there are many oppor­tu­ni­ties for every indi­vid­ual to cre­ate his life and his look, youth cul­tures can offer a feel­ing of belong­ing” (Broder­sen 158, trans­la­tion MTJ). This might be over­stat­ing the facts, as social class­es still exist and often play an impor­tant role. Yet it illus­trates how class might not offer (enough) feel­ings of iden­ti­ty to the individual.

Sub­cul­tures usu­al­ly car­ry their own mean­ings and ideals of beau­ty. Not all sub­cul­tures, how­ev­er, require their mem­bers to adhere to these mean­ings and ide­al per­ma­nent­ly. The bound­aries defin­ing play­ful or “part-time” sub­cul­tures such as cos­play or LARP are flex­i­ble (see Geiger 22), where­as sub­cul­tures such as Goth­ics, Punks, and Loli­tas intend to be a more per­ma­nent coun­ter­point to the main­stream. As Geiger observes, it is a “very old cul­tur­al tech­nique to refuse all fash­ion trends to the point of mak­ing one­self ‘outrageous’—for exam­ple, by liv­ing in rags in a bar­rel or shock­ing all the well-adjust­ed and pseu­do-indi­vid­u­als with pierc­ings, tat­toos, and mohawks” (Geiger 22, trans­la­tion MTJ).16 This pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with out­ward appear­ance and its con­nec­tion to the inner self is often a fun­da­men­tal com­po­nent of sub­cul­tures. Nev­er­the­less, sub­cul­tures tend to devel­op fash­ion state­ments that are sim­i­lar to the main­stream or have a ten­den­cy to be absorbed into the main­stream. The model’s quest for indi­vid­u­al­i­ty and unique­ness is nev­er per­ma­nent­ly ful­filled and there­fore nev­er per­ma­nent­ly main­tained. “Who am I… I am not sure… I could be so much but am so lit­tle… always search­ing… nev­er find­ing… it is very flu­id… but pho­tog­ra­phy can fix it, at least for a tiny moment” (Mod­el F., trans­la­tion MTJ).17

Indulgence of Variety

Over a peri­od of time, a mod­el usu­al­ly adopts dif­fer­ent looks. Even if one of her ini­tial moti­va­tions was, for exam­ple, a yearn­ing for the roman­tic, she might also want to stage her­self wear­ing leather rags with hot pants and a skate­board. Often, these dif­fer­ent looks a mod­el adopts are only held togeth­er by her social media appear­ance as a whole (i.e., her pro­file) and have hard­ly any­thing in com­mon with each oth­er or her real life appear­ance, which is usu­al­ly much less inter­est­ing by com­par­i­son. One mod­el notes, “I have mod­elled as an elf, as an angel, as a dom­i­na­trix, as an avant-garde fash­ion mod­el, as a freak. It is nev­er bor­ing. I like look­ing dif­fer­ent in every pic­ture. I exper­i­ment” (Mod­el V., trans­la­tion MTJ).18 Anoth­er mod­el states, “Some­times I do not even rec­og­nize myself. I scroll down on Face­book think­ing ‘what a great pic, what a cool girl’—and then I notice, it was me” (Mod­el Z., trans­la­tion MTJ). 19 The sheer num­ber of pic­tures cir­cu­lat­ing on social media in which peo­ple present them­selves in var­i­ous staged pos­es sug­gests that peo­ple derive pos­i­tive expe­ri­ences from these pic­tures. Yet the obvi­ous advan­tages of such pictures—namely get­ting to know new peo­ple or acquir­ing a cir­cle of fans—are not suf­fi­cient to explain this phe­nom­e­non. Why do peo­ple want to mod­el in such dif­fer­ent ways and why do they feel like being one with these pic­tures, espe­cial­ly if the pic­tures them­selves bear very lit­tle resem­blance to their real appear­ances or life situations?

Distorted Concepts of Self

The most obvi­ous rea­son for feel­ing one with these pic­tures must result from a mis­per­cep­tion of self. Fre­quent, diverse, and heav­i­ly retouched pic­tures in the con­text of excit­ing cos­tumes and set­tings active­ly pro­duce a con­cept of self that diverges from real­i­ty. But when the this-is-me effect is achieved, this diver­gence is negat­ed, or at least over­looked. Nonethe­less hob­by mod­el­ling can become a con­duit for real­is­tic self-appraisals at the same time that it dis­torts self-image. As one mod­el observes, “I like myself much bet­ter [now] than before mod­el­ling. I know that I am not great and that I am not a top mod­el, but I don’t hate my looks any­more. I gained more self-con­fi­dence and learned to get along with my body” (Mod­el D., trans­la­tion MTJ).20

A Possible World

A sec­ond expla­na­tion, how­ev­er, mod­i­fies the pre­vi­ous one. The mod­els may believe that their pic­tures are an approximation—that they con­vey opti­mized, but pos­si­ble, ver­sions of them­selves. What they enact in front of the cam­era are tri­al runs of alter­nate iden­ti­ties. The this-is-me effect becomes a this-could-be-me effect. The mod­el under­stands the per­sons shown in her pic­tures as pos­si­ble ver­sions of her­self. Rebec­ca Cole­man describes this devel­op­ment in con­trast to Barthes’s the­o­ry of the ori­gin of pho­tog­ra­phy: “For Barthes, the desire is for pho­tog­ra­phy to ‘cap­ture’ a par­tic­u­lar way of being, a per­son­al­i­ty for exam­ple, and ren­der this as it (actu­al­ly) is. How­ev­er, for the girls [the sub­ject of research are young girls and their online port­fo­lios], the desire is for pho­tog­ra­phy not to cap­ture a per­son­al­i­ty as it is but rather a body as it might be” (Cole­man 110). This atti­tude is rein­forced by the mod­els’ own state­ments. As one mod­el observes, “The body, after all, is mal­leable mate­r­i­al” (Mod­el X., trans­la­tion MTJ).21 Anoth­er states, “I have just one life. This is not enough. I want to try out what all I could be. The way I look is just the base in this game” (Mod­el K., trans­la­tion MTJ).22 This is sim­i­lar to Coleman’s and Gilbert Shang’s asser­tions that on the inter­net peo­ple are show­ing ideals of the body and the self, rather than their authen­tic beings: “The dom­i­nant motif of pho­tog­ra­phy on Face­book is the pre­sen­ta­tion of the ide­al body/self. This ide­al body fol­lows, but some­times decon­structs a reper­toire of nor­mal­ized social body eti­quettes pop­u­lar­ized by main­stream and show­biz cul­tures” (Shang 242). What con­sti­tutes this ide­al, how­ev­er, is always chang­ing. My inter­views and obser­va­tions sug­gest that even with pic­tures shown on so-called social media, real com­mu­ni­ca­tion is not intend­ed. Instead, the model’s activ­i­ty is most­ly self-ref­er­en­tial. Thus intense feed­back is not nec­es­sar­i­ly want­ed or even very impor­tant for the this-is-me effect to be achieved. In front of a pic­ture-cen­tred back­drop, which char­ac­ter­izes today’s every­day cul­ture, one might need one’s own pic­ture to help struc­ture one’s life, to con­dense expe­ri­ences and emo­tions into two dimen­sions and, in so doing, make them man­age­able and eas­i­er to remem­ber: “A prod­uct of shoot­ings is often the cre­ation of mem­o­ries of sit­u­a­tions, which would not have exist­ed with­out pho­tog­ra­phy… and often there is no pic­ture match­ing what should be the real memory—the colours might be changed in the process of retouch­ing, the atmos­phere might be altered, the room might be replaced, the fig­ure and the make-up improved” (Jer­ren­trup 124, trans­la­tion MTJ). As such, the result­ing pic­tures are close to false mem­o­ries. Pro­files on social media become diaries of false mem­o­ries. “When I look at my pic­tures I see lit­tle sto­ries as if they were real” (Mod­el V., trans­la­tion MTJ).23 These fab­ri­cat­ed mem­o­ries are more direct­ed to one’s own self than oth­ers. A “like” is just min­i­mal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Even intro­duc­ing var­i­ous kinds of “likes” on Face­book does not allow for much evaluation—is it cour­tesy, is it a return ser­vice, is it lech­er­ous or enthu­si­as­tic or just some­thing one does out of bore­dom? Any medi­um in which this is the main type of com­mu­ni­ca­tion is not a social, but rather an aso­cial, medi­um. The user has cre­at­ed her pro­file as a means for self-affir­ma­tion, in which she her­self is the cen­tre and all com­mu­ni­ca­tion part­ners around her are mere­ly uplift­ed thumbs or sim­ple hearts. “Pic­tures for the chil­dren” (Bilder für die Kinder)24 is the title Mod­el B. chose for her mod­el port­fo­lio on Face­book even though she does not have any chil­dren yet. This has var­i­ous impli­ca­tions, not just that these pic­tures are very per­son­al to her, but also that by mod­el­ling, she cre­ates her “image,” the way she would like to be remembered.

Media Identity

The real­i­ty sur­round­ing the mod­el and her media “real­i­ty” might be kept sep­a­rate inso­far as she ignores the for­mer. This is not about Irv­ing Goffman’s front stage, but rather a par­al­lel world, which, sim­i­lar to many online games, takes place detached from the body (see Goff­man). Thomas Lack­n­er refers to the need for an imma­te­r­i­al, spir­i­tu­al real­i­ty, which since the Enlight­en­ment has lost its relevance:

Mod­ern sci­ence has increas­ing­ly dis­re­gard­ed the imma­te­r­i­al, “spir­i­tu­al” real­i­ty… and called it dep­re­cat­ing­ly a ques­tion of belief…. It is assumed that with the help of tech­nol­o­gy in the form of the com­put­er, which is a prod­uct of moder­ni­ty, spir­i­tu­al real­i­ty could be regained. Cyber­space, there­fore, is a vision of a new spir­i­tu­al, imma­te­r­i­al real­i­ty, with which the dis­com­fort and the soul­less­ness of the mate­r­i­al can be over­come.… One of the main visions of cyber­space ide­o­logues is the wish for incor­po­re­al­i­ty … the human body is con­sid­ered an unnec­es­sary bur­den, which needs to be over­come. (Lack­n­er 95-96, trans­la­tion MTJ)25

In the incor­po­re­al­i­ty of cyber­space, a kind of tran­scen­dence can be found that defies bod­i­ly imper­fec­tions and tran­sience. This par­al­lel world—be it in count­less video games or in mod­el photography—is built around a body, which is then over­come by replac­ing it with an image that can be eas­i­ly re-shaped and re-fash­ioned (see Entwistle). In the par­al­lel world, this mal­leabil­i­ty is stan­dard and estab­lish­es the per­son as a typ­i­cal and respectable part of this cyber­space. The mod­el sees her self as being in uni­ty with her pic­tures. This iden­ti­ty is achieved not by ignor­ing the immense effects of styling and retouch­ing, but by embrac­ing all of this because it is what con­firms her iden­ti­ty as a mod­el. This is me in this case means this is a part of my iden­ti­ty, this is me as a mod­el or this is my social media self. In this sense, the per­son pho­tographed shows sophis­ti­ca­tion in han­dling iden­ti­ty, being con­scious of the fact that iden­ti­ty (today) is a process, a “doing iden­ti­ty”: “‘Identity’—as the idea of a sub­ject iden­ti­cal with them­selves as well as sig­ni­fi­ca­tion of one’s belonging(s)—designated the hence­forth impos­si­ble moment of fix­ing or being fixed, which con­sti­tut­ed the per­ma­nent­ly pre­lim­i­nary prod­uct of an unfin­ish­able process of man­i­fold, con­tra­dic­to­ry as well as rule-gov­erned iden­ti­fi­ca­tions” (Bran­des 15, trans­la­tion MTJ). As one mod­el sug­gests, a cer­tain sat­is­fac­tion can be derived from hav­ing one’s iden­ti­ty un-fixed.“Many of my friends don’t know much about me as a mod­el. It is a world I keep separate—not because I am embar­rassed about it, but just because it is not rel­e­vant to my friends out­side the scene” (Mod­el B., trans­la­tion MTJ).26

As Zyg­munt Bau­man observes, “If the mod­ern ‘Prob­lem of Iden­ti­ty’ was main­ly con­struct­ing an iden­ti­ty and keep­ing it sta­ble, then the post­mod­ern ‘Prob­lem of Iden­ti­ty’ is main­ly the avoid­ance of any fix­a­tion and keep­ing options open” (Bau­man 133, trans­la­tion MTJ; see also Finkel­stein 3).27 Bauman’s assump­tion of an entire­ly flu­id iden­ti­ty is often crit­i­cized (see Antweil­er 24). A sta­ble self might be regard­ed as out­dat­ed; but it is still the basis on which most human com­mu­ni­ca­tion relies (see Shang 242). Nev­er­the­less an impor­tant, if not the most impor­tant, char­ac­ter­is­tic of iden­ti­ty for the hob­by mod­el lies in identity’s insta­bil­i­ty. Among pho­tog­ra­phers and mod­els, the term often used to describe and to char­ac­ter­ize this fea­ture pos­i­tive­ly is “muta­bil­i­ty.” Thus, the idea of iden­ti­ty seems to dis­solve on one lev­el: one iden­ti­fies today with this, tomor­row with that—what stays as a base is not the con­tent, but the form, the con­di­tion of con­stant change.

The Picture as a Symbol

Final­ly, one more option is pos­si­ble, which cor­re­lates iden­ti­ty on a more abstract lev­el: the this-is-me effect as refer­ring not so much to the exter­nal but to the inner world of dreams, desires, and fears. In this case, the rela­tion­ship of the pho­to­graph to the per­son being pho­tographed is not, as ini­tial­ly stat­ed, that of an icon or index (see Peirce 65), but a symbol—a pic­ture which stands in for motifs that the per­son being rep­re­sent­ed under­stands as rel­e­vant to her inner life. There­fore, it is not impor­tant whether there is visu­al con­gru­ence. The pic­ture is regard­ed as rel­a­tive­ly inde­pen­dent of the appear­ance of a spe­cif­ic per­son, as a cre­ative out­come that evolves around a spe­cif­ic top­ic or thought process impor­tant to the model’s inner world, rather than per­tain­ing to the person’s out­ward appear­ance. Barthes’ descrip­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy as “an art of the Per­son” (see Barthes 79), her iden­ti­ty, her civ­il sta­tus applies only part­ly in our case. Staged peo­ple pho­tog­ra­phy is not the art of the per­son, but art about the per­son. As one mod­el puts it, “These pic­tures mat­ter to me. With them, I want to express what is impor­tant to me. It might be eas­i­er than doing it with words. A pic­ture can tell more than a thou­sand words, and it is more fun to do it and works on a less tech­ni­cal, more emo­tion­al lev­el than words” (Mod­el S., trans­la­tion MTJ).28

This is me—is this an expres­sion of delu­sion or reflec­tion? The answer might vary a lot among indi­vid­u­als. Yet there are hints that more is at stake than a nar­cis­sis­tic belief in a dis­tortive self-image: even if the use of social media for cre­at­ing a con­cept of self is con­tro­ver­sial, almost all of these mod­els assert that mod­el­ling helps them to feel bet­ter in the long run, where­as pure nar­cis­sism or ego­cen­trism usu­al­ly results in neg­a­tive out­comes and leads to discomfort.

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Image Notes

All the pic­tures show the same woman, mod­el Vio­la Julia von Hoesslin. For years, Vio­la has been embody­ing very dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters or con­cepts in her numer­ous shoot­ings. There is no con­sis­ten­cy and no main top­ic regard­ing her work in front of the cam­era. She enjoys stag­ing her­self, or being staged, in many dif­fer­ent ways.

All pic­tures © Maja Tabea Jer­ren­trup / Jamari Lior.


  1. Die PHOTOGRAPHIE hat …, his­torisch gese­hen, als Kun­st der Per­son begonnen: ihrer Iden­tität, ihres zivilen Standes, dessen, was man, in jed­er Bedeu­tung des Wortes, das An-und-für-Sich des Kör­pers nen­nen kön­nte.”↩︎

  2. Da das Ich der Spiegel­er­fahrung auf einem Bild basiert, liegt der Iden­ti­fika­tion des Sub­jek­ts mit dem Selb­st­bild im Spiegel eine Ent­frem­dung zugrunde. Eben­so wie der Spiegel ver­wan­delt die Fotografie das Sub­jekt zu einem Bild.”↩︎

  3. Die zunehmende Beto­nung des Kör­pers wird häu­fig damit erk­lärt, dass durch die sich auflösenden gesellschaftlichen Gren­zen und das Ver­schwinden der klas­sis­chen sozialen Schicht­en mit der damit ver­bun­de­nen gesellschaftlichen Rol­len­verteilung die Notwendigkeit entste­he, sich durch bewusste indi­vidu­elle Stil­bil­dung zu posi­tion­ieren und zu dif­feren­zieren. Eine aktive Ver­mark­tung des Selb­st durch per­for­ma­tive Strate­gien der Selb­st­darstel­lung und -insze­nierung, bei denen der Kör­p­er eine zen­trale Rolle spielt, gewin­nt an Bedeu­tung.”↩︎

  4. Erklärte(s) Insze­nierungsziel… das zwei­di­men­sion­ale Bild.”↩︎

  5. Die Fotografie bildet nicht ein Ereig­nis ab, son­dern sie kreiert es mithin durch die pure Exis­tenz eines Bildes davon.”↩︎

  6. For an extend­ed dis­cus­sion of meth­ods and a detailed expla­na­tion of tri­an­gu­la­tion, see Jer­ren­trup 24-27.↩︎

  7. Wer ein glück­lich­es, erfülltes und gesellschaftlich­es akzep­tiertes Leben führen will, pflegt einen adäquat­en Lebensstil, zu dem etwa Trend­sportarten, die den Kör­p­er mod­el­lieren und trainieren, und eine entsprechende Ernährung gehören. Je nach Gruppe oder Sub­kul­tur wer­den diese Forderun­gen ergänzt mit Ver­hal­tensvor­gaben und Regeln für Klei­dung und Schmuck, Sprache und Gestik, aber auch mit kör­per­be­zo­ge­nen Acces­soires wie Tat­toos und Pierc­ing.”↩︎

  8. Schön­heit hat große soziale Macht. Das Ausse­hen bee­in­flusst die Art, wie ein Men­sch von anderen wahrgenom­men wird, und dadurch auch, wie er selb­st die zahllosen Kon­tak­te mit anderen Leuten erlebt. Schön­heit ist ein Werkzeug, um Anerken­nung und Priv­i­legien zu bekom­men. Das Ausse­hen ist für unsere Inter­ak­tion mit anderen Men­schen wichtig, es kann uns Leben­schan­cen eröff­nen oder ver­schließen. Die Macht der Schön­heit liegt darin, unser Leben zu bee­in­flussen und zu prä­gen.”↩︎

  9. Seit der Ein­führung des bürg­er­lichen Hap­py Ends“ fällt es erstaunlich leicht, „sich den roten Tep­pich unter den eige­nen Füßen vorzustellen. Es scheint, als müsse man nur zugreifen.”↩︎

  10. [D]ie Frage bleibt, wann wir uns an so viel makel­los­er Regelmäßigkeit satt gese­hen haben? Die all­ge­gen­wär­tige Glätte kön­nte sowohl als retouch­iertes Bild seinen Reiz ver­lieren wie auch im Leben, wenn Botox und Schön­heits-OP auch den bre­it­en Massen zum opti­mierten Nor­mal­gesicht ver­holfen haben. Das schön gemor­phte Bild, das jed­er von sich in den Ausweis oder in die Bewer­bung kleben kann, wird wohl nichts weit­er her­vor­rufen als Langeweile… Auch manch­es Mod­el in der Vogue o.ä. scheint nicht mehr nur das als schön emp­fun­dene normierte Kind­chen­schema darstellen zu wollen, son­dern eine maßlose Übertrei­bung des­sel­ben - ein ‚Kind­chen­mon­ster‘ gewis­ser­maßen, das ger­ade durch die Abwe­ichung die Blicke auf sich lenken wird.”↩︎

  11. Excep­tions are extreme­ly thin or fat mod­els, which are often an occa­sion for dis­cus­sion. In the case of extreme­ly big mod­els, there are usu­al­ly many pos­i­tive reac­tions, but also expres­sions of dis­gust. In the case of extreme­ly thin mod­els, it is often assumed that the pho­tog­ra­phy team prop­a­gates an unhealthy beau­ty ide­al.↩︎

  12. Schön­heit charak­ter­isiert eine Wider­sprüch­lichkeit. Ein­er­seits wollen alle sie besitzen, sie genießen und die Macht, die von ihr aus­ge­ht, spüren; ander­er­seits scheint sie nur etwas Ober­fläch­lich­es zu sein und gilt als banale Äußer­lichkeit.”↩︎

  13. Durch das Mod­eln kann ich mein Ausse­hen endlich akzep­tieren und füh­le ich mich zum ersten Mal in meinem Leben wertvoll und schön.”↩︎

  14. Ich kann mich mit Dis­neys Arielle iden­ti­fizieren, weil ich auch schon immer einen anderen Kör­p­er wollte und Fotografie ermöglicht mir das.”↩︎

  15. Ich ver­misse Roman­tik in meinem Leben, daher fotografiere ich gerne roman­tis­che The­men. Das Leben ist so grau.”↩︎

  16. Wie stünde es nun um das andere Extrem, jene eben­falls schon sehr alte Kul­turtech­nik, das ganze Mode-Treiben dahinge­hend zu ver­weigern, dass man sich absichtlich ‘unmöglich’ macht und – z.B. in Lumpen gehüllt in ein­er Tonne zu wohnen oder mit Pierc­ings, Tat­toos und Iroke­sen­schnit­ten all die Überangepassten und pseu­do-indi­vid­u­al­isierten Orig­i­nale tüchtig zu schock­ieren.”↩︎

  17. Wer bin ich… ich weiß es nicht… ich kön­nte so vieles sein, aber ich bin so wenig… immer auf der Suche… niemals angekom­men… es ist sehr flu­ide… aber Fotografie kann es fes­thal­ten, wenig­stens für einen winzi­gen Moment.”↩︎

  18. Ich habe als Elfe gemod­elt, als Engel, als Dom­i­na, als Avant­garde-Fash­ion-Mod­el, als Freak, es ist nie lang­weilig. Ich sehe auf jedem Foto anders aus. Ich exper­i­men­tiere.”↩︎

  19. Manch­mal erkenne ich mich selb­st nicht, ich scrolle auf Face­book runter und denke ‘was für ein mega Foto, was für ein cooles Mädel’—und dann merke ich, dass ich es bin.“↩︎

  20. Ich mag mich selb­st viel lieber als vor dem Mod­eln. Ich weiß, dass ich jet­zt nicht ger­ade großar­tig bin und kein Top­mod­el, aber ich has­se mein Ausse­hen nicht mehr. Ich habe mehr Selb­stver­trauen gewon­nen und gel­ernt, mit meinem Kör­p­er klarzukom­men.”↩︎

  21. Am Ende des Tages ist der Kör­p­er form­bares Aus­gangs­ma­te­r­i­al.”↩︎

  22. Ich habe nur ein Leben. Das ist nicht genug. Ich will aus­pro­bieren, was ich alles seien kön­nte. Wie ich ausse­he, ist nur die Basis in diesem Spiel.”↩︎

  23. Wenn ich mir meine Fotos anse­he, sehe ich kleine Geschicht­en, als wenn sie wahr wären.”↩︎

  25. Die mod­erne Wis­senschaft blendete die imma­terielle, ‚geistige Real­ität‘ … immer mehr aus und beze­ich­nete sie abw­er­tend als Frage des Glaubens… Man glaubt mit Hil­fe der Tech­nik in Form des Com­put­ers, also einem Pro­dukt der Mod­erne, wieder geistige Real­ität zu erlan­gen. Der Cyber­space ist dem­nach eine Vision ein­er neuen geisti­gen imma­teriellen Real­ität, mit der das Unbe­ha­gen und die See­len­losigkeit des Materiellen über­wun­den wer­den kann… Eine der Hauptvi­sio­nen der Cyber­space Ide­ologIn­nen ist der Wun­sch nach Kör­per­losigkeit… der men­schliche Kör­p­er gilt als unnötiger Bal­last, den es zu über­winden gilt.”↩︎

  26. Viele mein­er Fre­unde wis­sen nicht viel von mein­er Mod­elei. Das ist eine Welt, die ich getren­nt halte, nicht, weil ich mich dafür schäme, son­dern weil es für meine Fre­unde außer­halb der Mod­elfo­tografie nicht rel­e­vant ist.”↩︎

  27. Wenn das mod­erne ‘Prob­lem der Iden­tität’ haupt­säch­lich darin bestand, eine Iden­tität zu kon­stru­ieren und sie fest und sta­bil zu hal­ten, dann beste­ht das post­mod­erne ‘Prob­lem der Iden­tität’ haupt­säch­lich darin, die Fes­tle­gung zu ver­mei­den und sich die Optio­nen offen­zuhal­ten.”↩︎

  28. Diese Fotos bedeuten etwas für mich. Mit ihnen kann ich aus­drück­en, was mir wichtig ist. Es ist vielle­icht leichter als mit Worten. Ein Bild kann mehr als tausend Worte sagen, und man hat mehr Spaß daran und es funk­tion­iert weniger tech­nisch, mehr emo­tion­al als Worte.”↩︎