• josutherstphotography

Sustainable Prospects – Considering Others – Gillian Wearing

For more than 20 years, Gillian Wearing has been concerned with producing work that investigates and challenges our understanding of the public personas we project everyday and the private personas we keep hidden.

Figure 1. Wearing. Self-Portrait at Three Years Old. 2004

The particular area of Wearing’s work that I am interested involved the wearing of masks to provide anonymity for the sitter. These images look at how we play a role once we are hidden behind the mask and how this impacts on the way others perceive us and how we present ourselves once our real selves are concealed and hidden away.

Her work resonates with the sociological thoughts of Erving Goffman (PREVIOUS BLOG POST). In the ‘Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’, Goffman compares our every day social interactions to a theatrical performance. His idea is that the persona we present every day to others is like that which we would present to an audience in a theatre when playing a role, and our private personas are like the backstage roles. Backstage we are no longer playing a role and we can be ourselves. (Goffman 2007). Wearing builds on this, exploiting the discrepancy we experiences between the inner self that we keep private and the public, outer façade that we present to others through our masks.

Figure 2. Wearing. Me as Mapplethorpe. 2009

There is a disturbing aspect to her work. Wearing has constructed lifelike masks of different people that she then wears. The mask area around the eyes has been cut away, so that her eyes look back at the viewer. Each face the viewer looks at is different, but the eyes are familiar in each one. I find this psychologically challenging. It is one thing to place a model in a mask and photograph them, but it is different when the masks look exactly like another person. I feel that Wearing is hiding behind another’s face and I find that quite disturbing.

However, this seems an odd response for me. After all, most people we meet are peering out at us from behind a mask. But we accept the façade of the mask. After all, it is easier for us. We have been conditioned not see the masks, but to accept that what we see is the truthful version of the person.

Figure 3. Wearing. Me as Cahun holding a mask of my face. 2012

Figure 4. Wearing. Self-portrait as my brother Richard Wearing

Figure 5. Wearing. Me As Weegee. 2013

So why does Wearing’s work affect me so much?  Why do I accept what I see everyday and not challenge it as a mask?

I guess it is because I know that I wear a mask and that others around me do too. For me, behind my mask you will find fear and confusion. I have a fear of being judged or of having my weaknesses exposed for all to see. I do not want to deal with any rejection that dropping my mask could lead to.

I have been brought up to accept people for who they are and not to judge people by their appearances. Exposing people who are not ready by refusing to accept their masks is going to end up with someone getting hurt. Maybe that is what I am afraid of?

Wearing is deliberately challenging our acceptance of appearance without seeing behind the mask. She causes the viewer to question the truthfulness of the photograph.

Her work challenges the hypothesis put forward from Roland Barthes. In Camera Lucida (2006: 87) Barthes argues that ‘Photography never lies: or rather, it can lie as to the meaning of the thing, being by nature tendentious, never as to its existence.’ The images that Wearing produces of her wearing the masks leads us to question exactly what we are viewing. What is the truth and who is behind the mask?

In each image too, Wearing is commenting that we are all connected in someway. We all share the same fears and insecurities. We are all human and feel the need to behave in a particular way; we need to conform to feel accepted and part of society.


Barthes, R., 2006. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New Ed Edition. Vintage Books

Goffman, E. (2007). The presentation of self in everyday life. London [u.a.]: Penguin Books.


Figure 1: Guggenheim. (2017). Gillian Wearing: Trauma and the Uncanny. [online] Available at: https://www.guggenheim.org/arts-curriculum/topic/gillian-wearing [Accessed 1 Nov. 2017].

Figure 2: Royalacademy.org.uk. (2017). Behind the mask: Gillian Wearing RA | Blog | Royal Academy of Arts. [online] Available at: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/gillian-wearing-vincent-award [Accessed 1 Nov. 2017].

Figure 3: Searle, A. (2017). A ghost in kiss curls: how Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun share a mask. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/jan/08/gillian-wearing-claude-cahun-mask-national-portrait-gallery [Accessed 1 Nov. 2017].

Figure 4: Searle, A. (2017). A ghost in kiss curls: how Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun share a mask. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/jan/08/gillian-wearing-claude-cahun-mask-national-portrait-gallery [Accessed 1 Nov. 2017].

Figure 5: Tanyabonakdargallery.com. (2017). Gillian Wearing – Artists – Tanya Bonakdar Gallery. [online] Available at: http://www.tanyabonakdargallery.com/artists/gillian-wearing/series-photography-and-video [Accessed 1 Nov. 2017].


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