Peeling the Onion of our Diminishing Identity

Christopher Gaze Photograph & scan — Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

I didn’t write that your picture was not of me.

I said that it wasn’t me.

Email from George Bowering

Just a few years ago I photographed George Bowering, Canada’s first Poet Laureate, wearing my mother’s red shawl. In his latest book, a lovely book of essays called Writing and Reading, Bowering has dedicated in one of the essays, Look at That to refuting in a epistemological way that the picture is not him. It is an interesting essay that I will at a later date argue (pleasantly) with the man, Canada’s Great Contrarian.

But that essay has set me to thinking (one of Bowering’s talents as our intellectual gadfly) and I have for a few weeks been spending time re-reading Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida to see if I can figure about my identity and that of others.

To further add to what now seems to be an obsessive concern, is the idea that I have lost contact with friends either because of death or simply their elimination of a land line or not being on any social media.

I would say that if you cannot be reached or found, you are dead. If you fell in the forest and I was not there to see or hear you fall, then you never did fall. And that, of course, is absurd.

Sometime in the early 70s in one of my high school classes (I was the teacher) I told my students of an experiment that I thought could be done at a much later date when some sort of super computer was built.

The idea was to position any of them in a neutral studio with a neutral background and to have a camera, on a tripod, locked at a position. Then their father, mother, intimate friend, a teacher, the postman, the plumber, a cousin, a boyfriend or girlfriend, etc, would each snap a picture.

I told the class that each photograph was a combination of what the person taking the picture saw in you and that you would be showing what you wanted that person to see in you. The idea is that these different photographs with some degree of skill, or if the computer were properly programmed, would be identified as to who took each one. Then if all those photographs would be fed into the computer and one button were pressed to “combine and merge” a portrait would come out that would represent a more universal portrait showing more diverse aspects of the person photographed.

A few years ago I came up with the idea of a project that I never began. This was to place Bard on the Beach’s Artistic Director Christopher Gaze in my neutral studio with my camera locked in one position and I would tell Gaze, and he would instantly transform himself into each one of those persons without any kind of props or costume.

But last night this whole idea of each one of us being a layer of different personalities much like the different layers of an onion brought me to another aspect that troubled me a tad.

If just as every “snapshot/portrait” of us as perceived by our friends, relatives and strangers represents a part of who we are, when one of those persons dies or disappears then we are diminished by that loss and we become thinner in substance, like the inner part of that onion.

I was thinking of my friend journalist, writer SeanRossiter whom I would have consulted after the crash of the Snowbirds’s Tutor in Kamloops. B.C. Rossiter would have known when the last one of these jet trainers was built and if metal fatigue could have played a role. It is this loss of communication that makes me think that if I had been a good man before, as years progress I become a lesser one until I will just fade away as the thickness of my self becomes the size of a quantum.

Originally published at



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Into Bunny Watson. I am a Vancouver-based magazine photographer/writer. I have a popular daily blog which can be found at: