by Graham Edwards.

While I was visiting a member in a care home I noticed that above each resident’s door was a photograph of the person who lived in that room.  These photos were not recently taken, they were 30, 40 or 50 years old, and showed the resident in their “prime”.  My first reaction was to smile at these photos, then as I drove away later I wondered whether a photograph which seems to say “this is who I was” undermines the intrinsic value, as a human being and a child of God, in “who I am now”.    However, I have come to appreciate these photographs as part of a significant reflection on identity.

Our sense of identity does not simply “exist” in a simple and easily accessible format.  The sense of self we carry is complicated and multi-layered.  Steph Lawler (2008) argues for an understanding of identity as something to be “done rather than owned”(p. 121).  In her understanding forming a sense of self is an ongoing process in which the experiences of life are integrated into the way we perform our identity to, and with others.  This understanding is also seen in the work of Judith Butler (2004) and Erving Goffman (1990) who accept that identity is performed, but they importantly challenge any perceived distinction between ‘being’ and ‘acting’, arguing that the two cannot be separated.  Lawler characterises their position as one which accepts that “there is no other way to be than to act” (p. 121).   What others see of us therefore, is dependent on the context in which they see it, yet that “performance” is not all that we are, it is not the sum of our identity, rather it a piece of a much bigger jigsaw.   In 1995 Pope John Paul II (p. 12) argued that human beings are “called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of [their] earthly existence”.  That “fullness” is not limited to a phase in our lives in which we have particular abilities or capacities, but in God is given throughout our existence, and is an essential part of our identity.

How then do we begin to hold all this together and find a way to understand who we are, and for Christians who we are in God?  In the late 1970s Louis Zurcher (pp. 175 -222) suggested four “modes” in which a sense of self is formed: Physical, where the self is understood solely as a physical entity.   Social, here a sense of self is grasped through a variety of roles and functions. Reflective, in this mode the self is appreciated though reflection on personality traits and predilections.   Finally, Oceanic, where the self may be understood through abstract or transcendent ideas and a mystical or spiritual awareness, the notion of the self here is ‘bigger’ than a physical or social role.   I understand Zurcher’s oceanic mode as providing a framework in which his other modes can be appreciated.   In my experience the life of faith or the “fullness of life” John Paul II describes, gives this same kind of coherence the way my identity is formed.  My “self”, is always held within my sense of being a child of God, however life changes for me and whether I am young or old.

The photographs above resident’s doors in the care home don’t deny the reality of who the residents are, but recognise something of the complexity of our human existence.  Those photographs remind me that who I was is who I am, they are not separate things but part of a much greater whole where all that I am – my beginning and my end is held in God.

Butler, J. (2004). Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso.

Goffman, E. (1990). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin.

Lawler, S. (2008). Identity. Cambridge: Polity.

Pope John Paul II. (1995). Evangelium Vitae. Boston: Pauline Books.

Zurcher, L. A. (1977). The Mutable Self. London: Sage Publications.

8 thoughts on “Photographs”

  1. Apropos of nothing in particular, your description of the photos and the capturing of a moment of who we were/are but not all of it reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s description of a cat seen through the eyes of the character, Death (who is rather fond of cats, probably something about their having nine lives) – Pratchett describes it as looking carrot-shaped, because Death, being unaffected by time, sees the cat as a tiny kitten and a as a fat, old tom, and as everything in between – the whole of the cat’s physical identity, all seen at once. I have often found that image helpful when trying to picture what it might be like to be seen by God from an eternal point of view.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Is the point of the photos that people with various forms of dementia might recognise themselves and their own room better in a picture from years ago?


    1. interestingly the photos were quite small, and so I don’t think they were for the residents… I think as some have suggested below they are for “us” – the staff, visitors, family – as a reminder that not everything we are is visible now…


  3. Just to say that my elderly mother does not now recognise herself in recent photographs but can in past ones. I rather like the idea of becoming younger in my mind’s eye as I age.


  4. This sense of ‘who I was is who I am’ for the person with dementia, extends into how people see themselves in relationships as well. Thus, the mis-identification across generations – confusing daughter for sister or mother, or some similar mistake – while understandly upsetting for the recipient of the comment, needs to be understood as a positive holding onto the individual’s identity. You are known, but not properly identified, rather than unknown.


  5. I wonder if the photographs also serve to remind the care home staff that the residents have not always been old and frail, but have been people like them.


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