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The importance of identity, representation in photography

Faculty Associate Granville Carroll on creating an authentic, safe space for Black artists

Abstract photograph of streaks of light and the silhouette of a mountain range at night with stars in the sky.

Image copyright Granville Carroll, Primordial Light, 2020

February 11, 2022

Representation is a powerful tool that can be used to bring positive social change to our world. With the evolution of technology, more people are discovering artists who are sharing how social movements can be made through art, identity and representation.

At Arizona State University, one faculty member is using his expertise to share how his thought-provoking work is bringing positive social change, one photo at a time. 

Granville Carroll, faculty associate at ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts teaches a speciality course through ASU Online’s digital photography program, Identity and Representation in Photography. Carroll’s collectives are a literal and metaphoric representation of life through his eyes, introducing people to the concepts of Afrofuturism and identity. 

ASU News spoke with Carroll about the importance of representation in photography and creating an authentic, safe space for Black artists.

Question: Tell us about the course you teach and the importance of representation in the academic and photography worlds.

Answer: The course I will be teaching is ART 394 Special Topics: Identity and Representation in Photography. I’ve designed this class to explore photographic vision and how the medium has been used to construct identities. Students will be shown a wide range of artists that explore the depths and complexities of representation and identity. Students will understand the power they have while photographing. Being an image-maker is about critically analyzing and engaging with the world. Additionally, students will learn how to critically engage with themselves in their own creative practices.

Representation is a powerful tool that has been used to negatively impact communities. It is important to teach it so that students do not fall into the same pitfalls that history shows us. I want students to understand how they can use this tool for positive change. Representation isn’t just rooted in our social identity. It is how we see the world and internalize it. The photographic medium is indexical. The photograph or image is the physical manifestation of an individual experiencing the indexical world.

Digital technology allows for us to share these images and reach much larger audiences. Our voices have more impact than ever before. If we can get people to understand how their representations of reality affect change, then perhaps we can begin to shape a new paradigm. Our individual visions add to the collective human experience. To understand representation in photography is to understand how you are interconnected to the thing in which you photograph. It is to accept the responsibility for how you depict a particular subject. Understanding the deep impact images have in our society is the reason for teaching representation in any capacity. It holds people accountable for their actions, words and perceptions. 

Q: What will this course teach students about representation? Why is that important?

A: This course will introduce students to a wide range of themes associated with representation. These themes include photographic vision: abstraction versus representation; reclaiming representation: portraiture and self-portraiture; Blackness and Afrofuturism; personal/familial cosmologies and origin stories; and landscape and identity. 

The overarching theme here is transformation. We will collectively view how representation in photography has had negative impacts on individuals and communities. We will look at how artists use their practice to address these painful truths. We will observe how artists reclaim spaces of representation. Students will engage with how artists shift the narrative to encompass the abundance of perspectives and potentials beyond the status quo. It is easy to become overwhelmed with the histories connected to how we view ourselves and communities. Introducing students to the way contemporary and historical artists respond to this will empower them to create change. In addition, it’s important for students to understand that their voices are impactful and can either damage or heal individuals and communities beyond them. It’s important for students to take accountability, to critically analyze, and to form empathy for themselves and others. 

Q: Why is it important to highlight your photography collectives for Black History Month?

A: Part of my work deals with expanding ideas of Blackness encompassing its spatial, temporal and spiritual depths. Black history is triumphant. It is intellectual. It is creative. It is imaginative. It is so much more than what is taught in schools. My creative practice is a reminder to see the ways in which Blackness extends beyond a racial boundary. This is completed with considerations toward a continuous redefinition of its physical presentations and manifestations. It expands beyond the month of February. It is not bound to time or space. As we collectively reflect on Black history, let us be reminded of the many voices that have and are actively shaping our narratives. 

Q: Since creating the collectives, how has the meaning remained relevant? How has your perspective on them changed or evolved?

A: The relevancy of the meaning is tied to the viewer. My intended meaning may live or die depending on when and how it is viewed. I create space that allows the viewer to engage with the work, to project themselves into it. At the same time, there is specificity in the conceptual response to image-making. It is a balance between the representational and abstract. By examining the complexities of the human experience and the depths of human thought through my artwork, I activate the imagination in others so that they too can experience the impossible. This is transformative. My way of working creates a continual flow and dialogue that energizes the work beyond the confines of time.

With that said, my perspective on my work is constantly evolving. As I experience more life, I learn more about myself and others. My interests shift. My mind formulates new thought patterns and ideas. Currently, I am beginning to see how my work is in conversation with themes of death and the afterlife. I had not considered it as a conceptual approach, but recent events have led me to ponder this aspect more. I speak about spirituality, origins stories and Blackness in terms of life, but have given little conscious thought to death until now. I am in the process of understanding the spectrums that exist in our culture beyond duality. 

Q: Since you released this work, have you seen others try to share a similar message of redefining Blackness through art and photography?

A: I draw from a rich history of practitioners who strived to shift perspectives in similar and unique ways. I am another voice adding to the collective. There are so many artists transforming pain into healing through their work. I believe that we are in a time where understanding the impact of generational trauma is important. I’m witnessing more people taking steps to create healthier legacies for themselves and their communities. There is a boldness in making work that reflects the inner workings of one’s mind. It brings me joy to see others working in similar conceptual ways.

Q: You use literal representation and metaphorical symbolism for your collective redefining Blackness through beauty and healing. What was the response you received to your work? What was the inspiration behind this? 

A: The inspiration behind my work draws from my observations of pain. Everywhere I look, I see violence, displacement, fear and trauma. Blackness is constantly placed in spaces of detriment. We see Black people dying at the hands of violence. The fight to be seen as human is ever-present. The burden of healing is placed on the Black community as we reflect on American history and contemporary life. Blackness as a tonality is conceptualized through inferiority and fear. So, the sensorial experience of Blackness is often associated with a negative emotion. I have always viewed Blackness as a unique and evolving entity. Instead of viewing it from a lens of despair and negativity, I shifted my gaze to observe its beauty, its complexity and how Blackness is the catalyst for healing.

Sharing these visions of healing is meant to shift our communities to see Blackness in a similar light. I want to shift our collective sensorial experience of it. The work is serving its purpose. The response has been very positive and supportive. People share how the work has helped them address their perceptions about identity. I’ve heard how my work has helped others deal with death or stagnation. The work is actively shaping the way people see Blackness and themselves in more expansive ways.

Q: Why is it important to authentically showcase Black artists in the academic and art worlds? 

A: Our humanity deserves the space for authenticity. Black artists are working in many different frameworks. The work shouldn’t be seen from just a racial perspective. Our experiences are tied to our Blackness, but to reduce the creative potential of our practices to a single point is a disservice to us and the viewer. It is important to showcase the complexities and nuances that are embedded in Black artists’ work and identity. It is important that we are seen as human, allowing for a deeper understanding and connection to our practices. It is important to see Black artists for who we are, not what we are. 

There needs to be thought and action given to creating safe spaces for Black people to share themselves. We have been abused, lied to and misrepresented since the birth of this nation. We are exhausted. It is time to engage with our practices, to understand our individual history and how it relates to our representations of the world. Blackness is not a monolith to be unearthed and examined; it does not exist. We are expansive people with hopes, dreams and desires that are unique to ourselves. To show Blackness in spaces of authenticity is to show that you connect to the humanity of the Black community.

Q: What is the one thing you want people to take away from your work?

A: I want people to question their reality and selfhood. I want people to ask what it means to be a sovereign being existing beyond the potentials of the physical world.

Q: How can people support BIPOCBlack, Indigenous and people of color artists year-round, not only on awareness days/months?

A: I can’t speak for the entire community of BIPOC people. Support comes in many forms. Individual people and communities have different needs. It is necessary to engage and interact with these communities to find out what they want and what healing looks like to them. Talk to BIPOC artists and listen to their specific and unique requests. Support begins with understanding and compassion. See their humanity and act accordingly to help address their needs. People can use whatever skills or resources they have to support. This requires a deep level of honest self-reflection to truly understand oneself in relation to another. 

People can also support BIPOC artists and people by doing the internal work to address their prejudices. Our culture is rooted in the colonial gaze. It is necessary to deconstruct this way of thinking and seeing. Reading a book or listening to a podcast isn’t enough. Have the tough conversations with yourself and with loved ones about race and the inequities and atrocities tied to the United States. Support begins by addressing the deep-rooted belief systems that promote the mistreatment and perception of BIPOC communities. Everything starts from within and is reflected outwardly, so let’s start there and work ourselves up.

Q: What types of assignments will learners complete in your courses?

A: Students will complete written and creative assignments. Students will be required to keep a journal to reflect on the material they learn in class. This will be self-directed. I will encourage students to use this journal to document their thoughts, emotions, questions and research related to the content in the course. 

Each week, students will create a small body of work that addresses a particular theme for the given week. For example, the first assignment will challenge the way students see the world through the photographic medium. They will be required to take images of several subjects in a literal and abstract way. This way, they can see how the camera’s vision is different from human vision, and how we can control the way a subject is experienced by the viewer. It is important that students engage with the photographic medium and have the chance to put into practice the theories and ideas presented through lectures, readings and artists. 

Q: Is there a culminating project at the end of the course?

A: Yes, there is a final project for the course. This project is self-defined, with points of guidance to help the student clarify their ideas. This will manifest itself in either an academic research essay about a particular movement, theme or artist related to identity and representation. Students will also have the chance to create a larger body of work that reflects their own interest related to the course content. They will also be required to include a written artist statement to explain their concepts, research methods and choices made in their creative practice. Their final project is open-ended and designed to give autonomy to the student while requiring them to critically analyze the materials they have learned.

Q: What do you hope students take away from the course?

A: I hope that students understand the impact that representation in photography has on our society. I also want the students to understand how they are implicated in the creation of certain narratives through their own photographic visions. Photography is intrinsically connected to power. I hope that the students understand how they can use this power to create meaningful images that create positive paradigm shifts. 

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