As I was reading through the book “Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran”, I found myself contemplating the common theme of identity and how socially fluid this construct can be. Author Azadeh Moaveni eloquently discusses the intricacies of identity and how fluid the definitions can be. Azadeh talks about how she grew up in Iran but because of the revolution her family was forced to flee to the United States. Consumed with the hope of returning to Iran, Azadeh and her family never completely identified themselves as American. Caught between the world of her heritage and her current world, Azadeh had to consistently make choices about her identity.
It was not until she returned to Iran that she realized how much she was truly a product of both cultures. Ultimately, she finds that her identity is far from one dimensional, but rather a conglomeration of past, present, and all of the individual choices that continually influence the outcome of her definition of self. Everyday we are defined by ourselves and by others. We cannot choose our past, our culture that we are surrounded by, or our family but we can choose how we define ourselves to the outside world.
From 2006 to 2008 I worked on a project called “The 100 People of Green Bay.” The aim was to study the community of Green Bay, Wisconsin in terms of demographics and image. The project was ultimately meant to illustrate a community pie chart of characteristics that comprise the current collective identity of the city. The idea of the project was two part; the first was to determine, by looking at current demographics, what the basic composition in terms of race, economic status, access to technology, gender, and age of Green Bay, Wisconsin residents was. The second part was to go out into the community to interview and photograph people of Green Bay. I was in charge of the latter task. Over the course of the two years that I spent interviewing and photographing community members, I became increasingly interested in how differently one question was consistently interpreted – the question of identity. I found that people identified themselves by race, relationship to others, gender, ethnic background, religious affiliations, positions held, careers worked, personality traits, and so much more. I found that people’s interpretation of what identity was, was one of the most fluid aspects of the questionnaire.
Similar to my “100 People of Green Bay” project, the Immigration Museum in Australia is exploring the fluidity of identity.
The museum sent a photographer out into the streets to photograph people and to simply ask them their identity and what it means to them to belong. Just as the outcomes of my interviews varied, so did the responses gathered by the Immigration Museum. People’s answers varied from “My identity is Melbournian” to “knitter extraordinaire”. This photographic exploration of the community was mounted to support their exhibit entitled, Identity: yours, mine, ours. The exhibit “explores how our cultural heritage, languages, beliefs, and family connections influence our self-perceptions and our perceptions of other people.” Along with the photographic survey, the exhibit is accompanied by an extensive website of blogs, quotes and personal stories to help illustrate how complex and fluid identity can be. And so I turn the question out to you: how do you define identity and what is your’s?
Moaveni, Azadeh. Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran. New York: PublicAffairs, 2005.