Encountering Ourselves Through Photography: A Visual, Ethnomethodological Inquiry into Identity


Sonja Embree

Defense Date


Graduation Date

Fall 1-1-2004


Campus Only

Submission Type


Degree Name



Clinical Psychology


McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts

Committee Chair

Russell A. Walsh

Committee Member

Barbara Duarte Esgalhado

Committee Member

Douglas Harper

Committee Member

Suzanne Barnard


existential phenomenology, identity, photography, psychology, qualitative method, visual culture


The gradual increase in visual representation throughout history has resulted in western culture's tendency toward ocularcentrism, wherein vision is privileged in our encounters in the world. Although studies in the field of psychology that focus on the visual range widely in scope, few of them examine the implications of our own photographs in the construction of identity. This qualitative study explored the experience of looking at photographs of ourselves in order to delineate the visual dimension of identity; that part of us--whether conscious or unconscious--that recognizes, makes sense of and organizes who we understand ourselves to be as a subject through images of ourselves.

The research genre of ethnomethodology was used, which seeks to uncover the meaning conferred upon objects and events, such meaning being essential to the ongoing construction of social reality. Data for this study included interviews with four participants as well as photographs they provided. The participants were asked a variety of questions about the nature of their experience of looking at their own image. Analysis of the data was completed by using the techniques of conversation analysis and indexicality, with additional reference to photographic symbol systems.

The results demonstrate that the visual is a structural dimension of our mode of engagement in the world. This visual dimension is dialectical in nature in that not only are we continually aware of our visible presence in the world, our very manner of engagement with it emerges out of this awareness. Moreover, this visual dimension is far-reaching and multi-faceted: from the most basic ontological level to the aesthetic; from unconscious thought processes to social and cultural practices; from desire and joy to pain and loss; from our relationships with others to our relationship with our own self. Photographs of ourselves thus are a valuable tool for exploring identity; indeed, in a vision-saturated world, where seeing is knowing, our photos allow us a glimpse at how we see and understand ourselves as well as how others do in a way that did not exist previous to the camera's invention in 1839.

Implications of the results for the theory and practice of psychology are discussed, as are possibilities for further research.





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