I attend the Thames Valley sub-group of the OCA and homework provided by Sharon Boothroyd for the April meeting was various readings on semiotics. In March I had been asked to take photos of the staff in an international airline’s procurement department for use on an internal website. During that shoot I became aware that each individual seemed to be struggling with how to present themselves on a web site, so I decided to formalise the process by offering a range of representations in their images. I was influenced by both the semiotics readings and by two books, one was “The Burden of Representation” by John Tagg, and the other “Photography, Key Concepts” by David Bate. I was intrigued by why people choose a particular image and what that said about them, or what the people perceived that that said about them. I had an understanding, not entirely correct, that gender played a bigger part than it did, and after taking the photos I then further analysed them by placing them within the organisational chart, and even then I had to look deeper to make sense of the results. Even then, and with some conclusions that were less based on logic than with my own analysis of this office’s politics and people’s self image.
To begin, I asked everyone individually to think about what face they wanted to present to the rest of the organisation, and I think they also took into account how they wanted to be seen, or perhaps how they thought they were perceived, within their own department. First, they were asked to show me their professional, serious side, whether that was smiling, serious, or however they thought they should express themselves in that context. This produced this type of unsmiling, almost worried images-
I had run through a few test shots and made a few light-hearted remarks before taking the photos so my subjects were at ease and not camera-shy at this point. For the next pose I asked them to show a warm, friendly, helpful side so as to make the department feel welcoming, and they were compliant with this too such that I had two shots showing both their serious and friendly sides.
Next I asked them in private to select which image they wanted to be used, and everyone apart from Luke B. preferred the friendly photos, so I then modified their chosen images in two ways. The first was a subtle tidy-up that minimised wrinkles and blemishes, and the second was a more “Vogue” approach where some of their features were adjusted, such that a female neck was lengthened very slightly, a double chin was flattened a little, or a protruding jaw was reduced. The subjects were then privately asked to chose from one of three images, either the original, or the subtly modified version, or the Vogue version, and it was surprising to see the choices. I analysed the decisions against the organisational chart, and made my own unspoken assumptions as to why each person had choosen as they did. It was necessary to go beyond the four org chart levels of “Head”, “Manager”, “Senior”, and “Junior” to include length of service and “permanent”, “probationary” and “contractor” categories.
The chart has four official levels which I modified to look like this-
At the “junior” level are Jeremy and Luke B. Jeremy is permanently smiling and so chose his friendly unmodified image, while Luke surprising stayed with his serious unmodified image. Luke is better qualified than most of the department and may have picked the serious image as shown above because he wants to be seen as more professional than may be the case if he’s smiling. I suspect he may have made a poor choice judging by my final conclusions.
The next level contains two “senior” people who have not completed their six month probationary period, and as such do not have the benefits and privileges that comes with the confirmed status. Simon S. choose the subtly friendly modified image, while Faye initially picked the original unmodified friendly image, but changed her mind when the photos were shown to rest of the department. I think this was because she saw that her “betters” felt comfortable to choose a modified pose and this enabled Faye to choose the image that showed her in a more culturally sanctioned female representation, as per my original prejudice. Simon’s choice may have been made to make him appear a little cleaner (?) than in the original but the differences were subtle so any choice may have been sub-conscious.
The next level, “senior”, shows those permanent staff who have been employed for more than six months, although Luke H. has only been there for nine months, and had his probationary period extended by two months for very minor infringements of the “punctuality & attendance” criteria where he left the office ten minutes early on one occasion because he had completed his work for the day. It seems peculiar that the company would dwell on such old fashioned concepts, particularly when Luke travels extensively as part of his work and rarely works less than forty hours per week and sometimes works for much longer periods, but this is part of their overall culture and has incidentally caused me to resign within the probationary period. (I leave at the end of May.) Luke displayed interesting choices in that he initially asked me to go beyond the “Vogue” manipulation and into Bollywood poster territory, but when the choices were made public I believe his line manager ordered him to change the image and he fell into line with a serious, unmodifed image as shown above.
The other three “seniors” choose gender-based images (my understanding) such that Pete and Simon went for the friendly warts and all male look, while Jo choose the subtly modified friendly image.
The next sub-level contains Faiza, who is both probationary and on a contract. Faiza didn’t like any of the images, and provided her own lo-res image that she claimed was taken by a professional photographer. Before publication of the web site her image was replaced by the Head of department with my subtly modified friendly version, no doubt for conformity of presentation, but it is interesting that Faiza being the most removed from group acceptance refused the offer of photographic inclusion within the department which I feel would have helped her relationships which sometimes can appear strained.
At the manager level sit Matt and Dom, and Loraine and Heidi, and this level proved the most varied and surprising. Matt, a long-time respected employee again went with the male paradigm of friendly original, whilst Dom choose the smoothed version, which may be his subconscious wish for acceptance. Dom is in an “acting” position and will return to the “senior” ranks in a few months time when the permanent head of department returns from maternity leave.
Loraine, who is also long-term choose the “Vogue” version, thanked me for taking off twelve pounds and nominated me as her official photographer. I was flattered and delighted by this because she is the first subject who has ever liked that treatment in the few years that I’ve used this technique. I believe that this illustrates that Loraine is confident and comfortable in her position and is happy to be seen in her best light, even if it is somewhat unrealistic. This is the pose adopted by celebrity everywhere and unrelentingly represented in press and publicity and intended for self promotion, so perhaps Loraine fully understands the meaning of such representation and is using it to best effect? I’ve included the original here for comparison..
Heidi was unusual and deserved further examination for her choice, which was only made when the web site deadline had passed and one was chosen for her. She seemed to agonise over her choice, and eventually settled on the warts and all version which is not flattering, even when she’d seen the choices made by the other females which were all modified to some degree. One possible reason, which granted could be complete nonsense, is that I believe Heidi does not feel entitled to her “senior” status, it being based on her previous nomination as “acting” which became permanent when the incumbent did not return. Certainly she asks many basic questions of her colleagues on a regular basis that would seem to indicate her unsuitability for the position, but her choice of such a raw image was very surprising when compared with even a modest “touch-up”. Again, the chosen image and the smoothed version are both shown..
And finally Jon, our acting head of department. This surprised me, but only today after many weeks of reflection which was aided by work-shopping this assignment with members of the OCA Thames Valley sub-group have I concluded why he chose as he did. Jon exudes authority, is skilled in his knowledge of both process and politics. If anyone stands out as a natural leader and the rightful head it is Jon. He may step down from this position when the previous head returns from maternity leave but his future successful career is assured, perhaps with this company, but I hope that it will be within a much larger and more enlightened organisation.
So Jon chose the Vogue image, and it is not especially subtle because Jon has a prominent jaw and the chosen image shows it reduced. On publication there were several people who asked if I’d picked the right shot, and I had to confirm that yes indeed, this was Jon’s choice. Original and Vogue are both shown-
It is my conclusion and insight that Jon, like Loraine, fully understands the purpose of representation and the value it brings in self-promotion. They may not be able to articulate this understanding but I think that at least at a subconscious level their confidence and understanding is there. Luke B. also understands but perhaps to a lesser degree, or maybe he lacks confidence because to approve the Vogue images does need confidence.
Perhaps I can use that understanding to my my own advantage at some point? Certainly I received several useful suggestions at the Thames Valley meeting, such as to interview each participant and try to understand why they choose as they did, and perhaps share my analysis for their further feedback. I think this may also be a useful starting point for future studies, perhaps even using these materials in an exhibition. Of the five assignments in this course, this one has been far and away the most intriguing and thought provoking of all.