Finding Identity Through Photographing Parents


This essay discusses the exploration of identity through photographing parents, what is learnt through doing so both from the photographer and subject’s point of view, and how the spectator brings insight to the identity of the subject and relationship to the photographer, it also explores the performativity in the work to construct an identity and who and what gains from exposing the privacy
of the parent and child relationship.


Identity in ones self is formed from many attributes, the social environment and class in which we are raised, culture and religion, but also the biology and traits that our parents pass down. Our parents are our first point of influence, they are typically our first teachers and guidance, as we are raised we want validation, love and nurturing. As adults, we understand the humanism of our parents; the myth of invulnerability is broken. It is as an adult that we can explore our own identity and compare ourselves through our parents. This essay discusses the exploration of identity through photographing parents, what is learnt through doing so both from the photographer and subject’s point of view, and how the spectator brings insight to the identity of the subject and relationship to the photographer, it also explores the performativity in the work to construct an identity and who and what gains from exposing the privacy of the parent and child relationship.

According to Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida, photography can be considered from three points of view. The first is of course the photographer’s own point of view as the Operator, the second entitled He who is photographed, or the target, talks about the feeling of being photographed and looking at pictures of himself, the third point of view turns to the perspective of The Spectator, whether that be critic, amateur, historian or fellow photographer. “The Operator is the photographer, the spectator is ourselves and the person or thing photographed is the target” (Barthes,1980.p.9)

These notions of point of view are comparable to the perceptions of identity within photography, that the photographer sees an identity within their work whether that is on the subjects or through themselves. That the subject, although susceptible to narcissism, will view his or her own identity within an image, Barthes speaks of a photograph of his deceased mother. “For what I have lost is not a figure (the Mother), but a being; and not a being, but a quality (a Soul): not the indispensable, but the irreplaceable. (Barthes.1980.p75) The photographers in this essay are photographing their own family, and for them, a connection to the images as family, the identities in these images are reflections on both the parents and themselves they are looking at the present through the reflections of the past, now as the adult child. Each of these points of view, the operator, the target and the spectator more often than not conflict and disagree to a point where true identity is only opinion, however these concepts can help to inform and enlighten each other, giving way to a better understanding in ones self as the subject and in turn the photographers own identity.

Looking at the work from photographer Larry Sultan and his series Pictures from home a series that explores both of his parents, although focusing more on his father, the images are accompanied with archival material, stills from family home videos, this series implicates an exploration of Sultans own identity through his parents, contrasting this with photographer Leigh Ladare’s images of his mother from his series Pretend You’re Actually Alive with letters and tearsheets of his mothers past and present life, this series is an intense intimate exploration of his mothers identity and reaction to the archetype of her age, a series with intense eroticism and undertones of incest, it questions the long established demeanour towards the mother figure.

Chapter 1 : The Archive

Archival family images record the private; they provide information about a place, or group of people. The traditional family activity of capturing and recording those moments to remember, a child’s first steps or first day of education, engagements and wedding parties, family holidays in the sun, Christmas, Easter or Halloween, usually it was a father or grandparent enthusiastic with technology capturing all of it. The archival imagery manifests itself in family photo albums, long roughly cut together family videos that span across years of childhood moments. They are a remembrance of daily life at its best, the ideal family and joyful occasions, an almost fantasy, life, as it should be remembered not necessarily as it was.

Home videos and snapshots serve as a record, the connection to our happy memories and family events constituting our own personal and private archive. Larry Sultan and his series Pictures From Home features a selection of untitled home movie stills as archival material that represent the past, the memory, the family ritual as mentioned by Sultan in his statement. “We all performed rituals. These images constitute an icon of a family.” (Sultan.1990) Having a personal relationship to these images as archival material, they portray the cultural myth, Sultans stills are a description of his past, the relationship with his parents and an insight into his childhood, the footage jumping through a hula-hoop as a child (Fig.2), his father by the rocks stood in the sea (Fig.1), these stills are a representation of family happiness with the connotations of the family identity.

As sultan explains these “images look like everybody else’s past” (Sultan.1990), most if not all families will have photo albums and home videos of our youth, but it is from these images and videos that we build on the identity of our families. Archival family material creates a fictitious identity of the subjects involved; they are selected moments, preferred and curated almost into a fiction excerpt of family life, these moments could be considered to be what is most wanted from families, and the identity portrayed is the desired and necessary to look back with fondness.

“One night, instead of renting a videotape, we pulled out a box of home movies that none of us had seen in years. Sitting in the living room, we watched thirty years of folktales – epic celebrations of the family. They were remarkable, more like a record of hopes and fantasies than of actual events.” (Sultan.1994.p41)

The archive when revisited for Larry Sultan acted as fantasy, and the associations to family identity became separate, there are many, from one decade to the next the archive has acted as a story, one where you see the ending result of the ‘now’ family and the many changes in family identity, Sultan even explains, “It was as if my parents had projected their dreams onto film emulsion. I was in my mid-thirties and longing for the intimacy, security, and comfort that I associated with home. But whose home? Which version of the family?” (Sultan.1994.p41) these albums detail extent accounts of family history; they are a construct of the real, moments and places, the many existences of one family that freeze the passing of time.

Our archives are not limited to family photos and videos, but rather our youth in general. Paper cut-outs from magazines and newspapers, letters sent from distant family, heirlooms and mementos, these objects in our lives are just as important, they represent a time or place and we hold them dear to us for perhaps we can look back briefly at the good old days.

What though, can the archival martial we collect tell us about identity and what does it represent along side considered imagery. Leigh Ladare’s project Pretend You’re Actually Alive a series of photographs, mainly of his mother, Tina Peterson, is accompanied with other items such as letters, fragments of texts, films, archived material that are both family snapshots and magazine tearsheets.

“I’ve had dancing scholarships ever since I was thirteen. To be a good dancer, you must really give yourself to it. The thrilling, ethereal effects of a performance are very difficult to achieve. But to me, there are so many other important things – nature, friends, reading, painting. I design my own clothes and breed St. Bernard dogs too. Without all this I would feel incomplete.” (Fig.3)

Titled Mom’s Profile in 17 Magazine, 1966 (Fig.3) this recorded tear sheet shows a youthful women in beautiful clothes, hair and make-up done perfect, complimented by a relaxed pose and slight smile, suggestive to someone content and happy, a confident pose, empowered by her good looks. Tina was a child ballet prodigy and with this image we are subjected to a piece of text that represents why this image is so important to both the series and when exploring identity. Ladare’s work explores his mothers desire for relationships and has spoken about her need to deny her ageing becoming a stripper at the age of fifty, this tear sheet works as a time capsule a reflection on the past and youth of his mother, it represents the old and contrasts this with the now. As an archive it informs the identity of his mother the child ballet prodigy as youthful and successful woman and reflectively, the stripper, rebelling expectations about how she should behave both as a daughter and a mother, a representation of how she is still empowered by her good looks.

“Sparkling red-haired, long-stemmed classic beauty, w/grace, elegance, empathy & intelligence, seeks cultured man of means who’s redolent, poetic & knows how to care for roses.”(Fig4)

Personal ads that Tina placed in newspapers (Fig.4) the exotic dancer, the elegant dancer a self descriptive and informative archive that represent the internal feelings and self Identity she has given herself, describing herself as Red Rose and Wild Ginger, each advert informs us of her own desire to be seen.

These self -descriptive statements (Fig.4) are void of any age information; they connect to her youth and describe a woman of any age or situation. On returning home, Ladare was met by his mother naked at the front door, this acted as an announcement of what she was up to in her life at that point, working as a stripper and dating through personal ads. (Fig.4) Ladare notes of an almost reversed sex-strike in which this archival material begins to explain, her own self-identity and the connections to her youth and her father’s expectations.

“She was performing a sort of strike on the expectations placed on her and how she should behave, and his sort of propriety that came from the normative values of the culture around her, in a suburb outside of Seattle at the time, and also from my grandfather who expected her to behave as a daughter and a mother.” (Ladare.2013.p117)

Chapter 2 : The performance

As much as the family album and home videos are a performance so too are the images made from the photographer, the situational elements of a photograph give information about both inner and outsider identity, these elements of outfit, hairstyle, pose and expression, each component is to practice a rhetoric of reality and how to best present themselves, these performances are an insight to the visual self-description from within the subject but also the performance made from the photographer as director and in this case, the photographers are the children, returning now as adults to photograph and observe their parents.

In this image, Larry Sultan photographs his father, a man dressed in his suit, sat on the edge of his bed, no expression on his face distant from his surroundings looking off into the distance with no connection to the lens, this images at first suggests a man who is unhappy and according to Sultan’s father “All dressed up and no where to go, depressed. ‘That’s not me’.” (Sultan.1994.p41) (Fig.5) The identity in this image is lost on his father, the elements of his own self-identity are changed through Larry Sultan’s method of photographing, it is in this image that we get a clear understanding of how a photographer as director to a subject and image can greatly change the story that is being told and in turn the identity becomes a performance to the camera. In a conversation with Larry Sultan and his Father Irvin they discuss the identity in this image and who is really being photographed. “That’s not me sitting on the bed that’s you sitting on the bed. That’s a self-portrait’. And I thought that was right.” (Sultan.1994.p41)

In this case Sultan may have projected his self-image onto his father, or rather creating a performance in the image giving insight to the identity of his father from his own perspective. Within this image the choices made to dress his father in a suit, no expression and not to smile has created a false identity from his fathers perspective, however, this perspective is susceptible to narcissism, that his father although seeing a man depressed, not himself, there becomes a resistance to objectification, that we do not like our own self-image or the image of which is placed on us by others (the photographer). Sultan’s series of his parents is not only a performance directed from Sultan but also one that he takes part in, the directions given to his parents no longer maintains the distance of a photographer but rather becomes a series of images in which he involves his own perception directly, Sultan states that he is no longer photographing his parents as ‘these’ but rather ‘us’ (BBC Sultan)

“When I began to photograph, I though of this work as a portrait of my father. In many ways, I still do. I can remember the peculiar feeling I had looking at the first pictures that I made of him. I was recreating him and, like a parent with an infant, I had the power to observe him knowing that I would not be observed myself.”(Sultan.1994.p41)

When we begin to start analysing other images of his father from this series you begin to see the performativity aspect from Sultan’s point of view, the relationship to his wife, the man of leisure and the business man and contrasts this with a man now in retirement. The photographs become a representation not only of their identity but also of Sultan’s perception and in turn, Sultan’s very own identity as director to the images. The relationship between his parents Sultan has chosen to show, is a very honest approach, as if representing his own memories from his child hood, capturing moments of both affection and distance between the two such as Argument in Hallway (Fig.6) and Close up (Fig.7) there is an element of history between these images, as if Sultan has encompassed a memory and reflecting this to give a sense of identity on his parents. Sultan is conducting an inquiry that becomes an autobiographical series, the images are not literal but allusive and the story told from these images can agree and disagree each other, confirming their reality and identity but with contradictions of the self-identity for the subjects.

The performances of his parents staged by Sultan are a product of his inquest and the realisation that he is not only learning about his parents but questioning himself, Sultan has created a paradox within his own work concerning the identity of his parents, an ambiguous answer to the truth that time changes all and through this Sultan has projected his own identity and perception of his parents reconstructing the identities of his past with the present.

Feeding off and encouraging his mothers narcissistic need for recognition Leigh Ladare captures the exhibitionism and performances that coexist within Tina (his mother) exploring the many roles that play a part in her life, the mother, the child ballet dancer, the stripper and porn actress having sex with younger lovers, and the ageing woman still empowered by her body aware of the passing time. This project challenges many questions of normality, but the balance and dynamic between photographer and subject is in constant shift with ever challenging assumptions, and the roles that are played undermine our shared values regarding motherhood and self-identity.

Ladare’s mother (Fig.8), spread legs with red heels, an image that echoes one you might see from a pornographic series, an incredibly open image, his mother has bared all for the lens and the performance she acts out given our knowledge that Ladare is in fact her son creates a un-comfort outside of the image. Ladare is understanding of the photograph and how they are read, playing with the idea of how we look at women through pornography and making us question female objectification and the male gaze and how these roles are fully aware of the erotic and implied incest.

“It has become clear to me that as subjects we are formed not simply through identity but at the levels of desire and motivation, and that we are often shaped by many contradictory influences.”(Ladare.2013.p114)

Ladare’s interest in these moments of identity crisis where the very idea of self-identity is thrown into an unmanageable experience, Tina’s performance is an acumen for the viewer, a description of her self, and the dance between photographers insight and her own creates a very real picture of her own battles of self awareness and acceptance. Tina’s performance of sexuality serve many functions, challenging the conformist and morals around her, Ladare is subjected to his mothers authorisation of circumstances and placing him as a central role in her performance.

The contrast of performances in this series give understanding to the very idea that as a subject you perform as you want to be seen, how best to explain your self-identity through an image, we go back to the mother figure (Fig.9) the performance in this image reflect vulnerability yet maintain a sense of strength, the wrist brace as a metaphor for structure and support, the strong positioning of Tina’s pose and the calmness within the image suggestive of serenity, the elements and performance within this image convey durability and demonstrate a single side of her identity.

As opposition to the mother role we are subjected to extreme performances of intimate activities, sex with young lovers and exposing portraits of Tina, acting from an inner sense of self and the confrontation to the archetype of her age, expressive characters, the porn star, the stripper, these images convey the extremities of her own mind, they subject the viewer to an authority, simultaneously empowering herself. Tina’s performances in these acute images are intensely descriptive, they present a vociferation of confession and definition, they are the characterization of her present self-identity and with this series there is a very clear need for acceptance, these performances are not just a gateway into the identity of his mother but understanding regarding acknowledgement, an extreme cycle of wanting to show your true self but needing approval, this concept of approval further explains the inner existences and background, justifying her expressive performances and demand for ratification.

The performativity from Ladare’s mother has in many way commanded the identity of her self, Tina has taken control, managing a domineering role within the series, allowing for complete performance un-altered by the view and perception of her son as photographer, the series takes a voyeuristic approach Ladare has become engulfed in the performance even becoming a part of the drama. The narcissistic elements of this series construct and inform directly, Tina’s authorship, extreme openness and self-certainty enforce the identities in this series as her own and performed by herself, contrasting narcissistic aspects that convey a truth over the photographers own perspectives, the choice of clothes or in many cases the choice to bare all, the display of natural, intimate and dramatized events throughout, and the many characters they embody such as the dancer, the mother and the connection to her youth are the fundamental identities in which Tina as performer represents her own self-identity.

Chapter 3 : Reflection

With images of family comes reflection, the literal term would be to look back at these images with nostalgia, reflecting on the past, a still moment in which we see a time gone by, however, images allow us to contemplate, observe our past and give a rumination of the decades. We can see how we once were and how we have changed, photographs are information and so a truth is presented in the images, as we are not just looking at archival imagery the photographers own truth is placed upon the subject, as is the subject and their perspective and that of the spectator who, in terms of photographing the family, can be an unrelated and disconnected reflection toward the image.

Larry Sultan refers to his work as portrait of his father, although photographing both of his parents Sultan has spoken a great deal about his image Dad on Bed 1984 (Fig.5). As referred to earlier in this essay his own father has stated, “It is not me sitting on that bed its you” (I. Sultan.1994.p41) pointing out how he is not an unhappy, emotionless, depressed man who wears his suit around the house, sitting on his bed looking off into the distance as if to interpret a lost soul, but rather, this demonstrates the photographers own reflection onto the subject and in turn the identity of the photographer over the subject.

The statements made by Sultans father are a reflection on the work made. A clarification that his father does not see himself but rather a stranger, an unfamiliar face who, although may be himself in the physical sense, is not reflective of the real identity of his father. This series becomes a paradox of self-identity for the subject whilst simultaneously an inquest and reflection for the photographer, Sultan is exploring his own sense of self, reflecting on his parents. “Photographing my father became a way of confronting my confusion about what it is to be a man in this culture.” (Sultan.1994.p41)

This perspective informs us as the viewer, that the identity is blurred, that there is more within these images that voice a different opinion from the subject themselves and that the person in the photographs, although a real person, we know that they are Sultans parents, yet, we also understand that this project is about Sultan as subject within the images through his choices in direction, we understand that this series becomes less about the parents but more about the past and the reflective nature to the present.

Another example of this is the image Dad at Whiteboard 1984 (Fig.10) unlike the image of his father on the bed (Fig.5), this shot shows his father stood next his white board with the words Successful, Listen, communicate and empathy all underlined, exaggerating these chosen words, they are a message within the image giving us more information about the thoughts and ethos of his father, although it is not the words that read the loudest in this image, his father, in his suit again, is uncomfortable, there is not a reaction of ease within this image and in juxtaposing to his father on the bed, there is a clear sense of discomfort and it is that suggestive nature to this image that reflects and enforces the statements made by his father, not recognising himself in the image.

Recognition and identity are themes that vastly change with the circumstances that Sultan has created in these images, when looking at the series as a whole there are clear images that represent a more truthful identity, one that his father appears to be more relaxed and complacent, indications connecting to his discomforts such as wearing the suit are the images were his father is topless. Portraits such as Dad on Sofa 1984(Fig.11) and Dad, Pool Portrait 1987(Fig.12) are suggestive of a more real identity, they are more relaxed and give a different sense of identity from his father, they create moments of ease and create the characteristic that seem to be more comfortable, and although creating these juxtapositions within his work, the father depressed on the bed in his suit (Fig.5-10), or the father relaxed, happy and at ease, Sultan states “These are my parents. Form that simple fact, everything follows” (Sultan.1994.p41) photographing his parents in ways that he sees them, reflecting and learning about himself, but also capturing moments of reality a truthful side this work is created not for the subjects but for Sultan as an adult, observing his parents and for remembrance of their identity.

“I realize that beyond the rolls of film and the few good pictures, the demands of my project and my confusion about its’ meaning, is the wish to take photography literally. To stop time. I want my parents to live forever”. (Sultan.1994.41)

Ladare has created a series in which his own mother is doubled as subject and object, the authoritative nature of his mother commanding her own identity be shown through the series. Ladare takes a voyeuristic approach, distancing himself from his mother, creating a metaphor that both begins to explain his and his mother’s identity and gives way to an intense and descriptive relationship of mother and son.

As this series creates connections to the past, with tearsheets and newspaper adds (Fig.3) it removes itself form family history and focuses directly on his mother. The attachment of past documentation creates a prior reference of identity, what his mother was and is now. The project becomes profound, powerful and the relationships between mother and son are intensified with undertones of erotic incest and fierce moments of the intimate, Ladare is placed directly into the subject’s performance, becoming an element within the series (Fig.13). This image shows Ladare and his mother playing to the camera, like teenagers or lovers they make out and provide insight of the pair and their willingness to work together. The series is a collaborative experience for both, but the identity is driven from the subject.

As much as this series is about reflection it is about a message, Tina creating the identity that she wants to be perceived as, acting out the many thoughts and realities of her life, Ladare interprets his mothers performance “She was actively stigmatizing herself as an indirect means of stigmatizing and disempowering her father.” (Ladare.2013.p117) this connection to her father and family further explain the reason in which Tina has positioned her own son so centrally “because of my specific relationship as her son, with its associated taboo, she was employing me as a kind of weapon.” (Ladare.2013.p117)

Ladare’s images of his mother question and create debate over the archetype of family values and the relationship between mother and son, but with this Ladare has created a series of images that for his mother, become a means of visual and descriptive identity, the series is for her, it explores her life changes and reactions to aging whilst simultaneously an informative and reflective inquest for Ladare in his life.


Through these two series of images we see a very different perspective on identity and how it is represented and explored through photographing parents. Sultan and his series of images photographing his parents Pictures from home represented an inquest for his own life, exploring what It meant to be a father in this era and ultimately a reaction to the fear of losing his parents, it was a catalyst of memories and reflection on his childhood now as an adult. Ladare returning to be home to faced with his mother, naked at the front door, this series Pretend You’re Actually Alive is a reaction from his mother and her personal reflection of the past, a visual description of who she is now, going against the archetype of her age.

Both photographers find themselves involved in the work they created, photographing their parents was a means of exploring and observing, the links between the two projects are similar yet represented from two juxtaposing positions. Sultan has found himself representing his own identity and the identity perspective from himself onto his father, we gather insight of Sultans parents and the childhood represented through both archival images and the portraits, considered performances and staged shots mean that we are submitted to Sultans very own mind-set. Ladare took a more literal approach become voyeuristic photographing some of his mothers most intimate moments, and using his mothers performance to exaggerate her own battles with identity, in some cases directly involving himself in the images showing complete collaboration as in contrast to Sultan it was Ladare’s mother being the authority to her own performance to the camera and as a result being the authority of her perceived identity.

The exploration of identity falls back on to Barthes statement of the three perspectives of photography, the operator or photographer, the subject or target and the spectator, when connecting this to identity and through the study of these two series of images we see three main areas of identity components. The archive, images and pieces of remembrance such as tearsheets and letters that represent a literal past, they are a record and a statement to the history of our identity, they represent what we once where and record people and places in time, however they are manipulated, family snapshots and videos are representative of two things, what we want to see and what we want to be seen as, they are fictitious in their story telling, the ideal family scenarios and happy memories. The photographer as the operator and in this first instance the director, representing and disclosing what they see, their perspectives and representing their own idea of the subjects identity onto the subject themselves, and in turn the photographer places their own identity into the images, it becomes a reflection of themselves as they direct and construct the image, however, when the photographer takes a voyeuristic approach, allowing the subject to take charge and authorise their own identity, we enter into the performance. The performance is seen through both archival and portrait images, it is a representation of how the subject wants to be seen, where the spectator to an image is thrown into authority by the subject, a demand to be seen as such.

Photography offering a visual description of identity through exposure offer gain for both explorative inquests and vociferation for the crisis of identity, Sultan’s series of images represents the first, an exploration of identity, to find more about ones self and to record, whereas Ladare’s series is the exclamation of his mothers reaction to personal identity as an aging woman.

Photography has created a means to observe our parents, as they once observed us, as adults returning to examine and pay attention to the humanism of our parents, we can explore the identities, and personalities of who created us, and for that reason explore ourselves.


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List of Figures:

  • Fig.1: Untitled Home Movie Still/ 1984 – 1992, [Online] Available from:
  • Fig.2: Untitled Home Movie Still/ 1984 – 1992, [Online] Available from:
  • Fig.3: Mom’s Profile in 17 Magazine, 1966, [Online] Available from:
  • Fig.4: Personals Collage, 2008, [Online] Available from:
  • Fig.5: Dad on bed / 1984, [Online] Available from:
  • Fig.6 Argument in Hallway / 1986, [Online] Available from:
  • Fig.7: Close Up /1992, [Online] Available from:
  • Fig.8: Mom Spread with Red Heels, 2003 [Online] Available from:
  • Fig.9: Mom with Wrist Brace, 2008 [Online] Available from:
  • Fig.10 Dad at Whiteboard / 1984, [Online]
  • Fig.11: Me and Mom in Photobooth, 2008 [Online] Available from:
  • Fig.12: Dad on Sofa / 1984, [Online] Available from:
  • Fig.13: Dad, Pool Portrait / 1987, [Online] Available from:
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