Identity, not just the word itself, but its connotations and emotions it evokes within a person is difficult to define. In the American Heritage Dictionary, identity is defined as: “A set of characteristics by which a person is recognized.” Those of us that can look deeper know that definition is incomplete. Identity and all it entails runs much deeper, it is the sum of our parts, our total being, and only an individual can accurately construct their identity.
It doesn’t work if another person constructs our own identity, even if they are say, looking at a photograph. A photograph can certainly provide insight into a person, whether it is staged or not, but even with ten photographs one could not correctly create a person’s identity. Take for example, a gloomy and depressed teenage girl. In one instant she can put on a happy smile for a photograph, hiding whatever secrets haunt her. Looking at that picture in a yearbook, you might assume she was a happy, popular girl, who had enjoyed a stellar school year. Nevertheless, in this case you would be quite mistaken. Another instance to prove my point would be a family picture. On the day chosen, with everyone dressed in their best in front of a beautiful landscape the photograph captures the perfect family moment. Though this photo exudes bliss and happiness, in reality the family could be in the midst of a crisis, and one would never know. As Robert Atwan tells us, when we look at a photograph we sometimes forget that it is not the person in front of us, but a still, unmoving, un-reacting portrait of the person. As lifelike as a photograph may be, it still is only a picture. It is a glance at a moment in time, not a full representation of the subject. Even powerful photographs that evoke strong emotions are still only a peek of the person, they cannot read between the lines.
Photographs can also be staged, yet authentic at the same time. In Bamberger’s photographs, he has people standing in front of their homes, wherever that may be, and it is obvious he has placed them. Bamberger used artificial lighting, makeup, and wardrobe, yet the expressions on these people’s faces tell us that they aren’t just posing for a picture. They are happy, grateful to have a home, wherever it might be. In a sense, the people have staged themselves.
The italicized home movie in Judith Ortiz Cofer’s, “Silent Dancing” expands on her words and enhances the story. At one point the movie focuses on the cousin, who has lived in America for most of her life. She is sitting on the couch squeezed into a tight cocktail dress, smoking a cigarette, copious amounts of makeup covering her face. She puts off a sensuous, sophisticated and mature persona, fooling those around her. In reality, she is having an affair with a married teacher at her school and tries to give herself an abortion.
We as people, hide things we do not want others to know, bad habits, dark secrets, emotions we feel, thoughts in our head, and we have every right to. But with these things hidden, there is no way to construct an accurate identity outside of ourselves. No other person can do it, not even looking through our possessions. The clothes we wear, the car we drive and the house we live in are all material. Not only do the possessions hide much about how we really live, they do not portray that which is inside of us. Thus, a person can be defined by his or her possessions, but only to a certain extent.
Personal journals, diaries, artwork, anything created by a person can also tell the audience about that individual. However, even if an artist has put her heart and soul into a work, there are still holes left leaving us to guess what she is feeling. Looking at a poem or painting, we still do not know everything about the artist, it is an incomplete portrait that only the artist can finish.
We often view ourselves differently than outsiders do, and human beings have a tendency to come down harder on themselves, so in that respect, a person’s self constructed identity may become a bit skewed. When reviewing something created by ourself, individuals are critical and self-conscious of their work. We can’t always see our talents and abilities, and the grass always seems to be greener on the other side. That is to say, sometimes it can appear as though everyone else is better than we are, that a person can never match up. Conversely, we also know our own passions, secrets and deep thoughts. No person can look into our eyes and see our soul, only an individual knows who they truly are. Subsequently, though our own self perception and view of identity may be distorted, it is still more precise than observation of another.
In summation, although we might not trust ourselves to construct an accurate identity, an individual is the only one who can truly know themselves. No one else can get into our heads, our hearts, our souls, and know what we are thinking and feeling. Even if a person has shared an experience, memory, or listened to our descriptions, (in which we may have left things out,) in the end, it is impossible for them to tell us who we are. Just as no one can tell us how to live our lives or what decisions we should make, they cannot tell us what we already know or are searching for. No one else can see the absolute truth of a person, other than that individual. No one can know the secrets, hopes, dreams, morals, talents of another person. That is something every person needs to find out, and know for themselves.
“Silent Dancing”, Judith Ortiz Cofer , Robert Atwan