Check Your Bias at the Door

October 16, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

As with previous projects for my course, I’ve chosen a challenging subject for this year.  I’ve regularly been asked why I don’t choose something easier or less emotionally taxing and, in all honesty, I do not have an answer.  Perhaps I just look for things that make me somehow uncomfortable.  It’s fair to say that my work last year, a video slideshow called Modern Monsters that explored cyber-trolling in the context of Norse mythology, really took it out of me.   Not only were the images themselves challenging, owing to the extensive use of self-portraiture in constructed tableaux, but the research for the project was emotionally draining.  Stories of cyberbully that ranged from teenagers to charity organisations revealed the darker side of 24/7 communication and social media.  In some cases, the activity was declared to be ‘banter’, with the perpetrators attacking what they see as an oversensitive society.  In others, though, blatant racism, homophobia, body shaming, and humiliation led to tragic circumstances where people fell victim to suicide and, in some cases, murder.  During that time, I was considering how our use of technology encourages this behaviour where there appears to be little or no consequence, but it was while I was talking to a friend last week that I started to think about it in the context of this year’s project.  During our conversation, he said that he was increasingly concerned about the polarisation of world views, with people either firmly for or against something happening or being discussed, and little room for balanced debate.  I too share this concern, as I observe that such polarisation encourages extremism in the form of media outlets that stoke prejudices, in whichever direction, to the point where people take to their socials and so on.  The sheer volume of this kind of traffic for me deprives us of many, more constructive, debates. 

I don’t want to dwell on these specific points here, though, because we all see the effects of them in our daily interactions with the internet.  Instead, I want to highlight the layer beneath the establishment of a viewpoint, known as unconscious bias.   According to The Royal Society, unconscious bias is “…when we make judgments or decisions on the basis of our prior experience, our own personal deep-seated thought patterns, assumptions or interpretations, and we are not aware that we are doing it”.  It is a thought process that is within all of us, is informed by the way we are brought up as children and shaped in our continued development as adults.  What we are exposed to in terms of teaching, literature, television etc, builds that ‘prior experience’ as we get older.  Unconscious bias can put us into a kind of automatic pilot mode for everything from a trivial day to day assumption to the longer-term political perspective, and it is this idea of its being so commonplace that we are unaware of doing it, that bothers me about my project.  

At this point, I should probably say what the project is intended to be about.  For the past two years, I have had the great pleasure of photographing Malvern’s Pride event, held in our main park in the centre of town in July.  In being their official photographer, I’ve met and gotten to know many people from the LGBTQ+ community who are involved with organising the event, from which I’ve in turn learned about their lives and struggles with sexual, gender and identity in what feels like an increasingly intolerant world.  We’ve talked about the origins of Pride, starting with the Stonewall riots of 1969, through Section 28, and on to the present day with the continuing need to keep making both a celebration of, and a protest for, equality and respect.  Pride is very still very much seen as a way of making this happen.  My photo project idea was to explore these people’s stories and the importance of maintaining Pride from their perspective; or at least this is what the original intention was.   The evolution of the idea has been largely caused by the relationships built between us, the growing respect I have for them, and my recognition of my own unconscious bias.  What do I mean by this?  Well, the first time I really became aware of it was when I was pulled up in conversation for using the phrase ‘LGBTQ+ community’.  I had been liberally using it as a way to describe them as a group, both in terms of the interviewees for my project and within the wider population.  However, every person I’ve interviewed has pointed out that they are not part of a community as defined by this term, and that this categorisation was largely created by straight people to be able to describe a group that were different to them.  I was quite surprised by this, but when I thought about it, I’ve rarely heard a gay man or lesbian woman describe themselves in community terms beyond “We gays” or “Us lesbians”, and certainly not in a singular group.  The point was reinforced when I was asked whether I would know someone’s sexuality or gender if I saw them in the street.  Did I identify signs of these small aspects of a person’s life by visual cues or stereotypes?  This was pretty uncomfortable to answer at first, because like everyone I get drawn into LGBTQ+ stereotypes; that man’s clothing is flamboyant, that woman looks masculine, that person sounds camp…etc…etc.  These stereotypes, which I have grown up with for the past 50 years, create an unconscious bias in me that could lead to further assumptions about a person before even getting to know them.  It’s not a huge leap from that to being somehow judgemental and, more seriously, extreme.  I’m happy to say that neither of these is the case with me.  What keeps my assumptions in check, as far as I am concerned, is not only my strong belief in equality, but also my continual learning from the people who are kindly taking part in my project.  The work is transforming into a piece more about representing the person, not the stereotype, and challenging the viewer to recognise where their own unconscious bias might be at play.  Herein lies the real problem.  As I said, I feel very strongly about equality, the right for people to live their lives and to respect them for doing so.  I despise right-wing politics and the organisations and movements that follow them, people who seek to prevent other people from being themselves, who label those who are sensitive to being respectful with ridiculous terms like ‘woke’, which if you think about it, is another simplistic categorisation of people and attitudes ‘that are not like us’.   My concern is that my strength of feeling on these subjects, and in particular how I feel about the chastisement of LGBTQ+ people, is in itself an unconscious bias.  This could easily, if unchecked, influence the story that I am looking to tell in my project.  As part of the research for this section of my course, we were directed to a TED talk by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who talked about the dangers of telling a ‘single story’.  She grew up a veracious reader of novels written by Western authors who were almost entirely white, and while she loved what she was reading, her concept of all literature was shaped by their cultural anchors and not her own.  It wasn’t until she was older that she became aware of black Nigerian literature that spoke more to her culture and help undo that bias.  While it might appear a relatively harmless example on the surface, she talks about how stories that focus on one idea or point of view, can unintentionally make it difficult to see the wider story behind the subject; to almost discount other ideas even when presented with alternative ideas of equal weight.  The most dangerous course of the single story is to further create its own stereotype that could potentially do more harm to the subject than good, even if the original intention was entirely honourable.   In the context of my project, my own unconscious bias from strength of feeling, could make the story a rallying cry for the protection of LGBTQ+ rights, which I naturally see as basic human rights.  It could only focus on the pressure put on the people and call for Pride to return to its origins of protest, which itself can be traced back to Stonewall in 1969.  However, doing so would in a way overshadow the main point about treating people of all genders, sexualities and identities equally simply because it is a relatively small part of who they are.   In embracing my bias, I could totally miss the important story.  Now, I am not saying that wanting to make a statement about something using photography is wrong, of course.  Some of the greatest photographers and photojournalists in history have created work aligned with their own narratives, which is entirely valid.  Artists are supposed to create meaning, and that comes most naturally from our own life experiences, biases and all.  

 What do you see when you first look at the picture?  Is an unconscious bias directing how you read it? Let me know!

What I’m saying here is that if we take a moment to ask ourselves why we have a particular view or demand a particular action about something, or where we might be able to trace a prejudice or stereotype back to, we might recognise the work of unconscious bias, lurking behind the scenes.   Some of these biases can be challenged by broadening our learning, while others are not so easy.  For example, I went to shoot a couple of my portrait subjects recently and they asked me why I’d taken my shoes off when I entered their house.  I explained that it’s something I cannot instinctively control, being a product of the way I was raised. I recognise that unconscious behaviour easily enough, but despite being able to, and even if I have permission to keep my shoes on, I just cannot override it.  It’s a trivial example, that I’m not particularly unhappy about, because I was raised a polite boy. 

To conclude then, I am thinking carefully about where I want to take the project, despite making already photographs for it.  Whatever direction I take it in, I want to achieve a balanced narrative that respectfully and faithfully represents my subjects, while highlighting what they see as the challenges in their lives, however controversial or trivial they might appear to others.  I’ve talked about representation before and, in this case, it’s central to making a piece of work that they, and I, are happy with.  I just need to check my bias at the door beforehand, along with my shoes. 

For Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's excellent TED talk click here

For my series from last year, Modern Monsters, click here


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