Photographs help us to create and maintain our identities in many ways. They place us in space, in time, and in our own memories. Today’s informal photography – the ubiquitous “selfie” – is often created spontaneously or playfully. But we still use those spontaneous images to help us understand who we are. They help us to fix our own identities, even – or especially when, as so often today, our identities are fluid, or hybrid, or experimental.
A hundred years ago, scientists were fascinated by the same problem: how can the photograph can help to fix identities? In my research I have explored the history of biological anthropology, particularly in its German branches, to help understand how photography was used to investigate the scientific definition of elements of “racial” or ethnic identity. My work has focused on how anthropological scientists like Eugen Fischer – pictured right – sought to decide what visible traits of “race” were thought to “dominate” in people of mixed ancestry. Fischer’s work had many problematical outcomes, and he himself became active in Nazis’ administrative system that adjudicated racial ancestry. So as we use the “selfie” to help define ourselves today, we should bear in mind that the use of the photograph for the definition of “selves” has a long a complex history – and we can celebrate our ability to make and enjoy images of our “selves” freely and openly.
If you want to dig a little deeper, you can read my article:
Amidon, K. S., “Intersexes and Mixed Races: Visuality, Narrative, and ‘Bastard’ Identity in Early Twentieth-Century Germany.” In: Deborah Ascher Barnstone and Thomas O. Haakenson, eds. Representations of German Identity (Oxford, UK and Bern: Peter Lang, 2013): 103-27.