Mind Identities and Self: A Photo Response

This article is a response to the course “Mind, Identities and Self”, instructed by Dr. Steven Parish

I chose the medium of photographs to present a response for two reasons. First, I am interested in ethnographies using visual medium of expression. Second, I believe text when supplemented with images and vice versa, presents an interesting and a more holistic understanding of the concepts involved.

What is Self?

What is self? The question is of great importance and has been pervasive through space and time. The answer itself has been evolving and in all probability would be doing so for a long time to come. Jerrold Seigal, in “The Idea of Self” made an attempt to define the characteristic attributes of the self. Seigal breaks down the self into three dimensions: the bodily self, the social self, and the reflective self. In Siegal’s view any consistent theory of self should incorporate these three dimensions in its discussions. Anthropologist Alfred Irving Hallowell, in his book “Culture and Experience”, suggests that self-awareness is a socio-cultural product. Similar to the three dimensions of Siegal, culture provides basic orientations – self-orientation, object-orientation, spatio-temporal orientation, motivational-orientation and normative orientation – for the self which gives it its particular structure.

Plaisir Solitaire (The pleasure of Solitude), Rene Maltete

In this photo by Rene Maltete, titled “Plaisir Solitaire” one can experience the three dimensions suggested by  Seigal – The man reflecting over his game of chess. Amusingly enough Maltete has been able to portray the reflections of the game, in the reflection of the mirror.

Mind Body Dualism

Throughout recorded history, a common theme for the discussion of ‘the self’ has been to distinguish between ‘the valued’ and the ‘the superfluous’. This pattern of distinction has manifested itself separating several other properties describing the self. Several philosophers have used this pattern to draw separation between what is essential and what is expendable. Plato gave importance to reason over emotion and, reality over appearance – reality and reason being more valued than appearance and emotion. Descartes suggested a dichotomy between the mind and the body – again the mind being valued more that the transient body.

Man without head. Rene Maltete.

In this photo, photographer Rene Maltete, has been humorously able to capture a person severing the body from the head. Although, the mind itself is considered ethereal in nature, reason and rationality are commonly associated with the head. Desire and emotions being more associated to the body.

The Search for Authenticity

An ‘authentic’ experience is a value that the self seeks to derive from its existence. In the book “Culture and Authenticity”, Charles Lindholm explores the importance of authenticity on the experience of who we are. To quote Seven Parish, “he guides  us through a wide swath of contemporary life, showing us how much that appears wildly unrelated – country music, the mystique of the primitive in art, skydiving , the slow food movement, the tango as danced in Argentina – is united by the value of authenticity”. The search of authenticity and ultimately the search for self manifest itself in multitude of expressions. “Musicians aren’t the only ones driven to excess in order to prove their authenticity…, nor are collectors of primitive art…, Adventurous, spiritually motivated tourists also want to get off the beaten track and venture deep into dangerous territory…and gain a heightened sense of who they really are” (Chapter 3)

Grand Teton and the Snake River, Ansel Adams

This famous photo of the Grand Teton by Ansel Adams captures an expression of what authenticity seekers would want to experience – pristine, untouched, non commercial. A statement of what is really real.

Culture and Semiotic Self

The self’s relationship with culture has been explored by several anthropologists and philosophers. One handle on self by culture is through the relation of semiotics. Peirce, in his article, “What is a sign?” delineates a typology emphasizing different ways in which the sign refers to its objects. He defines three categories: Icon, Index and Symbol.  Icon establishes a relation with its object by the quality of its own, Index establishes a real connection to its object and a Symbol develops a relationship by interpretation. Basso, in his book “Wisdom Sits in Places”, presents an excellent ethnography of the American Indians living in Cibecue, highlighting the importance of semiotics in the role of personhood. Cibecue Indians have developed a strong semiotic relationship with their surroundings, with their places names providing them with strong indexes and symbols on the way of life.

Guerrillero Heroico – Alberto Korda’s

Photographs have been a strong means of establishing a symbolic relationship with culture. This photo of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara by Alberto Korda has become a symbol of independence and defiance. Initially in the context of war and authority, this image is now used to represent an outside thinker, at whatever level, whether it is anti-war, pro-green or anti-globalisation.

Divinity and Lived Experience

Religion plays a significant role in defining the concepts of a person. The impact of religion is not limited through cultural means but goes beyond in defining the everyday lives of people.  The impact of religion on the lived experience is brought about in the book, “Divinity and Experience” by Godfrey Lienhardt. He presents and analysis of religion of the Southern Sudan’s Dinka people and relates it to their experiences of life and death.

Kumbh Mela Festival, Haridwar, India, Steve McCurry

The Kumbh Mela has been called the world’s largest act of faith and the greatest show on earth. Millions of pilgrims, sadhus and saints, politicians, and tourists arrive on foot, in private jets and helicopters, by taxi, horses, cars and bikes to the largest gathering on the planet.

Steve McCurry, famous for his photo of the Afghan Girl, beautifully captures the effect of religion on the lived experience of the boy. Dressed as Lord Shiva, he waits for pilgrims to offer ‘Him’ respect by offering him some money.

Gender and Personhood

The self concept of ‘the self’ is an ever evolving process guided by various events in a life time. Of importance is the dependence of this evolution on gender in conjunction with the aging process. In most societies as a person matures, he or she is expected to marry a person of the opposite sex, either chosen by the society (parents) or themselves. Marriage represents a tacit agreement for the two people marrying to spend their rest of the lives together in pain or pleasure. Often, the bride leaves her house and comes to stay with the family of the groom, giving males a higher place in the hierarchy of social power. Marriage also represents a change in the concept of personhood for both the male and female involved, more so for the female owing to the significant change in her surroundings and immediate company. Sarah Lamb, in her book “White Saris and Sweet Mangoes: Aging, Gender and the Body in North India” discusses the relationship of aging and gender on notions of self. She presents ethnography of aging population in rural Bengal.

Marriage, Nikhil Rasiwasia

In this photo by Nikhil Rasiwasia, one can see the subtle gesture of the groom supporting the bride with a soft comfort of his hands on her shoulder – signifying taking up her responsibility for rest of her life.

Emotions and Self.

Emotions are an integral part of the existence of self. In historical discussions about the self, emotion has been contrasted with reason. Thus in the pattern of ‘valuable’ vs ‘superfluous’, emotions have fallen into the category of ‘superfluous’. Quoting Nussbaum, they have often been thought as, “unthinking energies that simply push the person around without being hooked up to the ways in which she [a person] perceives or thinks about the world”. Nussbaum in, “Upheavals in Thought”, argues for emotions being – intentional, that is they are directed towards certain objects in the world, and, intelligent, that they are primitive judgments of facts.

Jardin des Plantes, Paris (Couples Embracing; One with Child) – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Carteri Bresson, one of the most influential photojournalist is famous for capturing moments. In this image he has frozen the moment of two couples kissing, a quintessential gesture for the emotion of Love.

Social Abandonment

Social inequalities are one of the ramifications of contemporary societies and social structure. Social inequalities results in depersonalization of certain individuals. The presence of these socially abandoned individuals is not experienced by others. Social inequalities are further magnified by the inefficiencies of the public health and welfare system.

Beggar on Street, Steve McCurry

Steve McCurry captures social abandonment on streets. Beggars commonly found in public places requesting for money and spare change, are in many cases abandoned from the society they reside in. They become almost invisible in the daily lives, often only seen as a nuisance.


Martha Nussbaum in “Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions”, defines compassion as a painful emotion in response to someone else’s misfortune. She outlines three different cognitive faculties required for experience of compassion. First, a belief that misfortune is of significance and is not trivial. Second, the misfortune should not have been caused by the person who experiences it. And, third a eudemonistic judgment that the sufferer is of significance to what bring goodness and happiness in my life.

Mother Teresa at her refuge of the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta during prayer. Raghu Rai

When it comes to compassion, one personality entirely captures the essence – Mother Teresa. For over 45 years she administered care and compassion to the poor, sick and orphaned. In this photo by Raghi Rai, she is seen in her prayers.

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