Teachers' resource: Exploring Image & Identity through posters and photographs

Students in the V&A Prints and Drawings Study Room

Students in the V&A Prints and Drawings Study Room

This resource contains information and images from the Photography collection and from an exhibition about Bollywood film posters that relate to issues of image and identity.

The resource links with the National Curriculum in a number of areas, in particular:

Art & Design
Unit 7A, Self-image

Exploring personal identity. Creating images that reflect the students' ideas of themselves, working from observation, memory and imagination

Unit 9A, Life Events
  • Exploring ideas and feelings about an event in students' own lives as a starting point for image making
  • Analysing paintings, prints, photographs and digital images, including examples of photojournalism, to learn how visual qualities can be manipulated to evoke strong reactions or to represent ideas, beliefs and values
  • Connecting 19th-century art and contemporary visual culture
Citizenship Unit 3, Challenging Racism and Discrimination
  • Exploring the origins and ethnic and cultural diversity of people in the UK
Unit 4, Britain - A Diverse Society?
  • Considering identities and in particular different national, cultural, religious, regional and ethnic identities and the communities with which they are associated
  • Respecting diversity in our society
  • Reflecting on personal identities and students' own experiences
Maud Sulter, 'Terpsichore', 1992. Museum no. E.1795-1991, © Maud Sulter

Maud Sulter, 'Terpsichore', 1992. Museum no. E.1795-1991, © Maud Sulter


Chila Kumari Burman, 'This Is Not Me', 1992. Museum no. E.2070-1997

Chila Kumari Burman, 'This Is Not Me', 1992. Museum no. E.2070-1997

Teaching image and identity through photography

Young people of secondary school age and above are constantly exploring their own identity and image - trying to work out how they feel about themselves and what message they might wish to convey to others. Relationships with peers, parents/carers, teachers and others are constantly reviewed and changed in the teenage years.

The concept of image and identity is one that can capture the imaginations of young people and inspire their creativity. Many of the key issues addressed explicitly or implicitly will stir up important questions and strong feelings.

There may be other factors - such as sexuality, education, social issues, etc. Young people will think about themselves in relation to their families and the people they live with or spend time with. There may be sensitive and unresolved issues for those who live away from birth parents or from their home country. This project will give an opportunity to explore some of these major issues and emotions through creative channels.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines an image as:

'A representation of the external form of an object…the character or reputation of a person or thing as generally perceived'. Identity is defined as: 'The quality or condition of being a specified person or thing'.

Our individual identity is unique. It combines our genetic being, our cultural, religious and linguistic background, our interests and abilities. It is affected by where and how we live, the country of origin of our parents and grandparents, and what we do with our lives.

Young people develop their self-image through seeing how others relate to them and through visual clues. These might range from photos (usually taken by other people) to reflections in a mirror. All this combines with how they feel about themselves and how they interact with the world.

A photograph is an image of an individual or a scene at a particular time or place, controlled by the photographer. It is a representation of that event or person and is influenced by what the photographer wants us to see. It is restricted by the photographic technology available at the time.

The photographer may wish to introduce aspects of his or her own culture, or views and values that will influence the finished product. Those who view the photos also bring their own knowledge, experience and beliefs, and these will influence their perception of the image.

Two of the photographers whose work is included in this resource - Maud Sulter and Chila Burman - explore the issue of cultural diversity.

Balkrishna Arts 'Devdas' India 2002 Oil on canvas Museum no. IS.113-2002

Balkrishna Arts 'Devdas' India 2002 Oil on canvas Museum no. IS.113-2002

Activities related to photography

As young people begin looking at their own identity and how they might wish to be represented, it is important to establish a supportive framework in which they can work. These are sensitive issues, and this project can awaken delicate feelings and concerns. It is important to discuss this at the start and to establish 'ground rules' about how the information will be discussed and respected, and how individuals in the group will support each other.

The project gives young people an opportunity to evolve skills in interpreting images and also to develop their visual literacy through creating photographic self-portraits.

Whichever activities are chosen, students should be encouraged to write about the thinking behind their self-portraits - what inspired them, the choices they made about composition, pose, lighting, props, etc, and how they feel about their photographs, as sitter, photographer and viewer. This could be used to support the images in a display or PowerPoint presentation, or on a website.

Students could also think about how their photographs could be framed or displayed (e.g. alongside images or objects that inspired them, or with music that creates a particular atmosphere or reflects their culture or personality) and what impact this could have on the messages they convey.

The following activities are designed to be carried out in the classroom:

Activity 1
Look at the range of images reproduced in this resource and brainstorm words to describe each image. Compare and contrast the images and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each.

  • Ask the students to choose their favourite image and to explain why they like it. What does this say about their identity?
  • Discuss the different types of images in the resource. Why was each made (i.e. what was the purpose of the photographs or posters)?
  • Debate which image most successfully conveys the personality or identity of the sitter. How is this achieved?
  • Do any of the images suggest anything about attitudes to minority ethnic communities at the time, or the status of these communities?
  • Which image tells us most about society at the time?
  • Which photographer/artist would the students most like to meet? Why? What would they ask them?

Activity 2
Ask students to bring in a selection of photographs of themselves from the past. Ask them to look at these images and to investigate the messages they are giving.

  • What can they recall about each photograph?
  • Where is it set?
  • Are there other people in the photograph? If so, who, and why are they there?
  • What are they wearing?
  • What are they doing?
  • What are the emotions of the sitters? Do they look relaxed? Uncomfortable? Happy? Sad? Angry?
  • What message is this photograph giving us about them?
  • Where is the lighting coming from?
  • How does this contribute to the mood of the photo?
  • Is it a close-up or longer distance? Why?

As students feel more confident discussing different images, they may be able to express how they feel as an observer and deal with more complex ideas.

  • How do they feel as the observer of the photo?
  • Why has the photo been taken?
  • Who was intended to see the photo?
  • What does it tell us about the social and cultural background of the people represented?

Do they think that the photographs present an accurate reflection of them at the time and of how they were feeling? Which one is most successful in achieving this and why?

Activity 3
Ask students to collect a range of images (e.g. from magazines) that say something about themselves as individuals (i.e. their personality, interests, background, appearance, etc). Use these as the basis for a large personal 'feelings board' montage, perhaps with the addition of words, colours and textures. Using this as a starting point, the students can then plan and take a self-portrait that reflects their identity. Where should they be? What should they wear? What should they be doing? What kind of props should they use? What kind of background and lighting should be used?

Activity 4
Encourage students to bring in objects that are significant to their identity and use these to stimulate discussion. Where do they share interests with others, e.g. music, sport, TV programmes? Which aspects don't they share with others, e.g. languages, beliefs, birthplace?

Ask students to choose the most significant object and to take a self-portrait with the object. How can they reflect the significance of the object in the photograph?

Activity 5
Discuss the idea of multiple identities - we are all defined by a number of factors. How would the young people describe themselves, e.g. black African student, Scottish musician, etc? How has their identity changed over the years? How might it change in the future? Could one photograph sum up their identity?

Activity 6
Ask students to design and make a backdrop for a self-portrait that would reflect their personality, interests and aspirations. Should their backdrop represent an exterior or interior scene? What time of day or year should it represent? What kind of colours should it contain? Should it contain particular objects that may have symbolic meaning? How should they be lit? How will they ensure that the objects draw the eye to their image and do not dominate the photograph?

Activity 7
Ask students to choose one of the posters in this resource and use it as inspiration for a self-portrait. They should show themselves in a different historical period or in a different social or cultural context.

Activity 8
Discuss the comparative strengths and weaknesses of photography and painting as a medium for self-portraits. Ask students to take a photograph of themselves and then to reproduce this as a painting. Can they emphasise aspects of their identity or personality, or convey how they were feeling in the painting more easily than in the photograph?

Indian film hoarding Balkrishna Arts India 2002 Oil on canvas Museum no. IS.112-2002

Indian film hoarding Balkrishna Arts India 2002 Oil on canvas Museum no. IS.112-2002

Bollywood film posters

In India, hand-painted canvas hoardings are still used to advertise films, even though paper posters are also prevalent. Balkrishna Arts, which painted the examples in this resource, are one of the many well established companies that still paint hoardings in the traditional manner. Based in Mumbai (Bombay), it produces 400 to 500 hoardings per year for local film distributors.

The working processes and techniques have been passed through generations of the same family. A grid of vertical and horizontal lines with a scale is drawn over an image and each section is then enlarged onto the hoarding canvas.

The hoardings demonstrate the rich and colourful theatrical imagery of the popular film industry in India. There are parallels with some of the Victorian photographs. Both can give rise to a fantasy image - showing bravery, courage, wealth, romance, etc.

Images of posters and photographs to print

The images
The images below are portrait photographs and hoardings for Bollywood films with strong images of people. They have been selected from the V&A's collection to reflect both cultural diversity and a broad timespan. Click on the images to view a larger version and to read more about the image and the photographer / artist.

Camille Silvy, photograph of Master HGE Gladstone, 1862. Museum no. E980-1992

Camille Silvy, photograph of Master HGE Gladstone, 1862. Museum no. E980-1992Photography began in the 19th century and, as technology developed, portrait photography quickly became a popular art form. People who could afford to have their photograph taken were keen to do so.

Portrait photography in the nineteenth century and today

19th century portraits
One of the first types of portrait to become popular was the 'carte-de-visite'. The work of Camille Silvy is an excellent example of this format. Cartes-de-visite were small images on cards, like 'calling cards', hence the name. As the technology was only just developing at the time, it took a while to 'capture' the image and the sitters remained in pose for a long time - often looking quite uncomfortable and not smiling! As a result the photographs were generally quite formal.

Studios kept a range of backdrops and props that would be used during the photo session. The backdrops were sometimes a collaboration between theatre scene designers and photographers - which often created a theatrical or romanticised feel. At the studios a 'set' was arranged. This would include one of a selection of backdrops combined with several props in the foreground. Clients would generally chose a backdrop to convey a particular message, e.g. a painted library behind the sitter would give a scholarly, well-read impression; swords and armour would be seen as symbols of courage and chivalry, or could show that the sitter came from a military family. Sets were sometimes arranged with classical columns, urns and furniture and these would be used for several days before the set was changed again.

The same sets would be used time and time again. Proof of this can be seen in the 'day books' that Silvy kept as a visual record. In them, he stuck a copy of all the photos taken on a particular day. These books give a lot of information about who the sitters were, when the picture was taken and how the photographs were arranged. Many of Camille Silvy's photographs reveal the surroundings of the studio, with the views continuing beyond the backdrop. The photograph would have to be cut down so any extraneous objects or background would be removed. The trimmed photographs would be mounted on card.

Clothes and fashion were an important part of photographic portraits. Tartan became fashionable because Queen Victoria was keen on Scotland. Many of the children in the Camille Silvy pictures are wearing tartan. Later in the 19th century studio shots often featured new-fangled objects such as bicycles. Only wealthy families or royalty could afford to have a specially commissioned backdrop. The images of Camille Silvy are good examples of these 'set pieces' and provide opportunities to discuss the image and its historical and cultural messages. For example, what are the messages or illusions that both the photographer and the sitter wish to convey?

Portrait photography today
Nowadays, many people are familiar with images such the school portrait photograph, informal snapshots, photo-booth images and formal photographs at events such as weddings. Photograph albums are full of pictures that demonstrate the importance of recording families and friends and capture a representation of individuals at an event or a moment in time.

We can reflect on these and recognise events from our own past. Children rarely have opportunities to take photographs of themselves - often images that exist have been controlled by other people. Photo albums are frequently edited to include only the happiest or prettiest images.

The school photo session produces hundreds of similar poses - colour photos showing head and shoulders, slightly at an angle, with a simple background like a pale blue sky. The photographer encourages children to smile and look directly at the camera. This is often the child's first encounter with a professional photographer, one who is in control of the whole process and has a clear idea about what the final image should look like.

Camille Silvy (1834-1910), photograph of Master HGE Gladstone, 1862. Museum no. E980-1992

Camille Silvy (1834-1910), photograph of Master HGE Gladstone, 1862. Museum no. E980-1992

Questions about the Posters and Photographs

The following questions could be used to stimulate discussion about the images contained in this resource:

Camille Silvy (1834-1910)
Photograph of Master HGE Gladstone
1862
Museum no. E980-1992

  • Why do you think the sitter is wearing a kilt?
  • Why do you think he is leaning against a plinth? What kind of impression does this create?
  • Why do you think the caged birds have been included?
  • What kind of mood does the backdrop create? Why?
  • What is the photograph trying to say about the sitter's social background or aspirations?
Chila Kumari Burman, 'This Is Not Me', 1992. Museum no. E.2070-1997

Chila Kumari Burman, 'This Is Not Me', 1992. Museum no. E.2070-1997

Chila Kumari Burman (1957- )
'This Is Not Me'
England
1992
Colour laser print
Museum no. E.2070-1997

  • Which clues are present in the photograph to suggest the sitter’s social or cultural background?
  • What do you think the photographer is trying to say about the nature of identity and the relationship between a person’s image and identity?
  • Do you think the photographer might be trying to say something about the limitations of photography as a medium for portraiture?
  • How do you think the sitter feels about this image of herself?
Balkrishna Arts, 'Cinema India– The Art of Bollywood', India, 2002. Museum no. IS.115-2000

Balkrishna Arts, 'Cinema India– The Art of Bollywood', India, 2002. Museum no. IS.115-2000

Balkrishna Arts
'Cinema India– The Art of Bollywood'
India
2002
Oil on canvas
Museum no. IS.115-2000

  • Which person dominates the painting? Why is this?
  • How has colour been used to suggest emotions or drama?
  • What different film genres do the images represent?
  • What kind of person or people (e.g. sex, age, interest) is the painting trying to appeal to?
  • What is the range of emotions represented in the painting?
Comtesse de Croix-Mesnil, portrait of two Mahometan women, 1893. Museum no. PH.3783-1904

Comtesse de Croix-Mesnil, portrait of two Mahometan women, 1893. Museum no. PH.3783-1904

Comtesse de Croix-Mesnil
Portrait of two Mahometan women
1893
Photograph
Museum no. PH.3783-1904

  • What is happening in the photograph?
  • What kinds of clues are given about the identity of the women?
  • Which of the two women dominates the photograph? Why is this?
  • How important is the background to the photograph?
  • What kind of building is represented in the background?
Balkrishna Arts, 'Devdas', 2002. Museum no. IS.113-2002

Balkrishna Arts, 'Devdas', 2002. Museum no. IS.113-2002

Balkrishna Arts
'Devdas'
India
2002
Oil on canvas
Museum no. IS.113-2002

  • Why do you think the artist has chosen an orange/red background?
  • What do you think is the relationship between the three people in the painting? Why do you think the man is in the middle?
  • What significance do you think the bottle has to the story?
  • What kinds of emotions are reflected in the painting?
  • Which of the faces do you think you will remember most clearly? Why is this?
Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79), photograph of Prince Alàmayou, 1868. Museum no. 24-1939

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79), photograph of Prince Alàmayou, 1868. Museum no. 24-1939

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79)
Photograph of  Prince Alàmayou
England
1868
Albumen print
Museum no. 24-1939

  • The sitter is looking away from the camera. What effect does this have on how the viewer might relate to the sitter?
  • What do the clothing and props in the photograph tell us about the identity of the sitter?
  • Discuss with students how they think the sitter is feeling. What might he be thinking about?
  • Discuss the composition of the photograph. How does the photographer ensure that the viewer’s eye is drawn to the object being held by the prince?
  • How would students describe the mood of the photograph? How has the photographer created this mood?
Maud Sulter (1960- ), 'Terpsichore', 1992. Museum no. E.1795-1991, © Maud Sulter

Maud Sulter (1960- ), 'Terpsichore', 1992. Museum no. E.1795-1991, © Maud Sulter

Maud Sulter (1960- )
'Terpsichore'
England
1992
Dye destruction print in gilt frame
Museum no. E.1795-1991
© Maud Sulter

  • Why do you think the photographer has chosen to put the sitter in a historical dress and wig? Why do you think the photographer has chosen a plain, black background?
  • The image suggests that the sitter was doing something before the photograph was taken. How does the photographer achieve this? What do you think the sitter might have been doing?
  • How does the photographer achieve such a strong relationship between sitter and viewer?
  • Why do you think the photographer has chosen this kind of frame? Might a different frame change the way viewers respond to the image?
  • What do you think the photographer is trying to say through this photograph?
Balkrishna Arts, 'Pakeezah', Film hoarding, 2002. Museum no. IS.114-2002

Balkrishna Arts, 'Pakeezah', Film hoarding, 2002. Museum no. IS.114-2002

Balkrishna Arts
'Pakeezah'
Film hoarding
India
2002
Oil on canvas
Museum no. IS.114-2002

  • What clues does the artist give about the identity of the woman in the story?
  • What kind of film would you expect this to be?
  • What do you think the woman might be looking at or thinking about?
  • What might be the significance of the figure in the background?
  • How would you describe the woman’s expression? What kind of emotions might she be feeling? How do her features suggest these emotions?

Further Information 

You may like to ask your students to refer to the following resources on the V&A website to find out further information about the images included in this resource and about photography in general:

A portrait of Francis Williams, an 18th century scholar
Hear poet Benjamin Zephaniah talking about the portrait.

In Focus: Exploring Photography
This microsite has background information about photographic processes, tours through photographs (including some by Maud Sulter) and personal stories form contemporary photographers.

Cinema India - The Art of Bollywood
Watch a video showing a Bollywood film hoarding being painted (you will find a link to both low and high resolution films in the fourth paragraph on this site).

This teachers' resource is part of the Image and Identity project funded by the Department for Education and Skills, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and Resource as part of the Strategic Commissioning Initiative.

The portrait of Francis Williams

Poet Benjamin Zephaniah talking about the portrait of Francis Williams, 18th-century scholar

Francis Williams (about 1700-about 1770) was a mathematician and poet. He was born to a free couple, John and Dorothy Williams, who within ten years of being given their freedom had amassed significant property and wealth through Jamaica's sugar industry. When his father died in 1723, Francis inherited a substantial fortune, including land, trading interests and slaves, but he preferred to live off his inheritance than attempt to increase it. He is a notable example of a rich, free black man who wrote Latin verse and enjoyed a European lifestyle.

This portrait presents Francis as a scholar in a study, surrounded by objects of education and learning associated with European scholarship. However, an open window shows him to be in the location of Spanish Town, Jamaica.

Download: mp3 | ogg View transcript

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