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“The self is not physical, it is symbolic. It is ‘in’ the body but it is rarely completely integrated with the body.”

Ernest Becker – The Birth and Death of Meaning

For a while now I have wanted to write about how portraits that are often deployed in commercial photography campaigns are used in the formation of identity. I want to focus on a Manpower campaign that was run a few years ago. Each advertisement (two of which you can see here, as photographed in Helsinki, Finland) consisted of a photographic portrait which focused on the face as the index for the message, assisted by a slogan “The Age of [Name] has begun” or something similar. The portraits focused on the eyes with features further back quickly falling out of focus. The eyes in each image were adjusted to create impact and stand out from the rest of the image.

Without getting deeply into semiotics or other traditional methods of reading advertising images as espoused by great writers such as Roland Barthes and Judith Williamson, I want to discuss how these images function concerning the formation of the identity of the corporate employee. Starting with the overall picture, we can see in the ones I have documented here it is a portrait of a man, as these are the ones I encountered on the street. A quick search online reveals numerous different sexes and races depicted in the advertising campaign. Rather than focus on what makes these different I wish to look at how the images function in the same way to create a self-identity. The campaign has been created to act as a mirror as reinforced by the subtext that accompanies the advertisements; “It’s your time to shine.” Therefore, if we analyse the image as a mirror, we can talk about what the image reveals to us. The cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote of the mirror image of the self as showing “only your external aspects, it stops at your face, but the face is not what one feels himself [or herself] to be.” So rather than the images acting as a document of physical features of the person in the photograph, it acts as a message infused with the symbolism of self-identity.

We know self-identity is a social construction as we are not born with it, but it is built from our surroundings. The Manpower images attempt to borrow from social constructions inherent in capitalism, one that links self-esteem with having a job. According to Becker “[e]veryone runs an inner-newsreel even if it does not record the same symbolic events.” That inner-newsreel is linked to our self-esteem and helps maintain it through a constant exchange of mental images. Part of maintaining our identities involves a need to be of ‘primary value’, what Becker refers to as “a heroic contributor to world-life”. The text that anchors these images leans heavily on the idea of what Becker calls a ‘culture hero’, (“The Age of [Name] has begun”) focusing squarely on individual self-esteem. What is a ‘culture-hero’? Becker states that these “have to have available to them some kind of heroic system in which to realize their ambitions, and this symbolic system is what we call ‘culture.’” Naturally not everyone’s self-esteem is based on landing a corporate job, different people will draw their self-esteem from doing different things, however, such is the hegemony of the capitalist system in the western world many will seek to serve the corporation.

The Manpower campaign functions as an example of a ‘culture-hero’ in terms of feeding self-esteem in relation to the ‘heroic system’ within capitalism, where a job equals positive self-esteem. The images act as mirrors to convince the viewer that they too can be “a heroic contributor to world-life”. Through a process of mirroring the campaign aims to construct a symbolic self, based on ideals inherent in capitalism and assumes that we all aspire to serve the corporation.

References:

Becker, Ernest. The Birth and Death of Meaning: An interdisciplinary perspective on the problem of man. (New York, The Free Press, 1971)