A few months ago, I was part of a panel discussing the importance of the images and how they are used in psychology, as part of that panel this is the paper I wrote about Summa I and how was made…
Working with Images as a Language for Self Reflection…
The origins of the idea of“Summa I” as a book came to me when I was working as photojournalist. In those days I developed this theory: in order to assess which is the best selling news story I needed to identify among all the available news which one represented a deadly sin more genuinely. Furthermore, I believed that when any given news story represented more purely a particular deadly sin two things would happen:
1) A very long coverage of that particular news story would follow.
2) The coverage would develop the news from different angles using different sins.
If we take 11 of September as an example to make the analysis of this news story from the framework of different sins, this act of violence and its consequences are linked first to wrath, then the attack from East to the West is covered as a consequence of Envy, the price of petrol is covered by many through Greed, the overwhelming demonstration of power from Western nations was read as an act of Pride and so on…
The clearest we can see a deadly sin in a news story the more of the other deadly sins will be used to make the coverage, and as a consequence the coverage will last a longer period of time. Sins seem to fit really well with the old media motto “There is no good news like bad news.”
What I found most appealing in this theory was its universality, I believe that feelings are a common knowledge to the human race and deadly sins are a core set of human feelings where we always find ourselves universally depicted.
In those years I didn’t feel artistic at all, my work as photojournalist was not exactly what I wanted to do, actually I was quite confused on where I was heading, I didn’t have enough money, ideas were scarce, and in a sentence I was feeling like an “artist” without anything to say. Its no surprise that at that time in my life I developed a particular interest in theology and religion, Christianity to be exact, and it took me a few years to realize what I wanted to do. Like many artists that I admire, I realized I wanted to engage with theology and religion through my photography, or at least definitively try to give my own interpretation of those big subjects.
During this time I took inspiration from the Summa Tehologae of Saint Thomas Aquinas, I learnt that one of the main intentions of Aquinas was to write a definitive, complete summary of theological subjects where he argued truths and developed these as far as he could. I found this structure fascinating, however to begin with, this idea made me ask myself what would be the subjects to a visual Summary, and secondly it raised the main question about what I considered to be a complete summary of theological subjects, as even today I do not have answers to this, so I decided to start doing at least one at the time…
Investigating on Aquinas, I learnt that at the time he was writing his Summa, he was rediscovering the great Greek thinker Aristotle and fascinated by his work, he merged it within the traditions of his time and developed a particular way to present the problem and argue it and within this line, one part of his work outlined a theory of Sin and Virtue which fits with his whole theology.
However Aquinas perspective of Sin and Virtue theory does not run as opposites as I wanted, for him Virtues are a Godly treat while Sins are only human, so I went for the same inspiration of Aquinas, Aristotle’s Ethics, as I wanted for my Summa not a theological approach, I want to portray a symbolic and human perspective of spiritual matters and for that Aristotle’s ethical principle of mean state, which refers to the balanced state between two extremes, felt more adequate to the idea.
At this point, I had at least one very popular subject, two extremes to play with, (Deadly Sins and Heavenly Virtues), and lots of creative challenges in terms of expressing them with images.
As a photographer, I wanted to challenge the viewer to reflect about these subjects from their own perspective as well as to express my own ideas; however this presented a few difficulties. My experience talking about values, religion and ethics in today’s society has mostly brought about distrust and skepticism. It is not difficult to see that if I am an agnostic, a Jew, a Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or a Christian, the way I perceive values differ and yet more often than not, many values would be very similar to one another.
Now I feel it is important to share a very personal point of view about religion which is that when I see differences between religions I only see differences of form, when I see similarities among religions I see humans experiencing what it is to be human and different ways to live our spirituality.
I realized that one big problem for me was to reconcile my intentions as a photographer with the susceptibilities of a vast audience and found that images and art (rather than words) are a much better platform to talk about spiritual topics with an audience from differing religious traditions, even though the imagery and iconography behind my artistic work is Christian.
The advantage of images is the way they engage with our process of thinking, it’s a process that triggers emotions before words, emotions that comes from the viewer without prior intellectual explanations. When we mix the language of images with a particular message without prior intellectual explanations, it is paramount that the reader brings into the book his/her own view in order for the proposal of the book to be understood, thus I’m asking for an effort from the reader.
When I put all these elements together I came to the following formula.
A popular known subject (Deadly Sins)
A moral opposite to create a Dramatic tension (The opposite Heavenly Virtues)
A no-text approach or a wordless kind of thought. (as little as possible to minimize prejudicial cultural “contamination”)
= Equals reflection about the subject matter.
The Overall structure
The formula presented a few problems about how to treat the images, and one of the things I wanted to stress was that epistemologically the Deadly Sins carry a doomed connotation, Sin in this context refers to the actions from which, if performed persistently, lead us into the worse death of them all, the death of our soul.
The objective of “Summa I” is to provoke the reader to reach their own moral frontier concept, and this cannot be represented in a traditional portrait form, a nice beautiful image was not strong enough to achieve the desired feeling. A distorted image was more in synch to the idea of opposites and dramatic tension I was trying to achieve.
As distorted as the doomed connotation deadly sins have, to the point that the image has to represent the change in us to the point of not even looking like ourselves. However this might be too gruesome to generate something visually appealing. One of the challenges was to keep something visually attractive without losing the oddness of a lost soul feeling. In a sentence, I wanted to generate the same odd attraction we feel when we see people with a physical dissability which makes us feel drawn to look at them, at the same time that we feel avoidance, thus I knew I wanted to create distorted human faces. After all a Deadly Sin as a negative moral concept should not have all niceties.
Once this odd looking feel was achieved, finding a balanced nice looking feel for the virtues would be easier and at this point I realized that the same model should be representing the two extremes.
As I said at the beginning, I found that the whole idea of Deadly sins to be universal, it is possible to understand feelings of envy, pride, anger etc. and being understood by any culture in any language. Visually racial variety would represent this idea perfectly.
In the process we realized that when we put the same style of make up to people from different ethnic backgrounds, the ethnical visual clichés came to our eyes more easily.
In the selection of models I also tried not to pick people by their obvious physical features; for example, choose fat people to do a Sin like Gluttony or weak looking people to do Sloth, (probably the only obvious selection I did in that line of thinking was that I chose my boss to perform Sloth). I didn’t want the book to be obvious, and I do not believe obvious appearances necessarily show the problem we associate with it.
Another idea was to put as much information as possible about the subject matter for readers from different backgrounds (psychologists, art historians, photographers, designers etc.) to have at least one piece of the puzzle to help them reveal what “Summa I” is about, I chose to work with symbols and specific colors. Throughout History, artists have used icons and images that represent many concepts and ideas, and often the intention was to illustrate stories and ideas. In the past those symbols were recognized and people knew their meaning and the symbols associated with the deadly sins or virtues were not an exception. In order to complement the portraits and represent visually the fourteen subjects I searched for the common symbols of sins and Virtues and found they were represented in different ways, using animals and colors for the sins, and symbols of different sorts.
What is ironic today, is not many people can recognize symbols and while the levels of literacy have increased, the capacity (and need) for people to “read” symbols decreased creating a sort of visual illiteracy.
Put together, the idea for the portraits was to create and give that overwhelming feeling of reaching our own limits for good or bad. Making us feel that the sins and virtues occur in the same person and they can lead us to extreme places.
From this point everything lead to Team Work, contributions and unexpected surprises.
So I have 7 deadly sins
1) Sloth / Pig / Cyan.
2) Gluttony / Hedgehog / Orange.
3) Envy / Snake / Green.
4) Lust / Rabbit, Cow / Blue.
5) Wrath / Lion / Red.
6) Greed / Frog / Yellow.
7) Pride / Peacock / Violet.
I have my opposite virtues
1) Diligence / Dolphin / Yellow
2) Temperance / Flowing water between two jars / Violet
3) Charity / Fire from a Vase / Magenta
4) Chastity / A Dove / Salmon
5) Patience / Buffalo in a shield / Cyan
6) Generosity / Eagle spreading its wings / Blue
7) Humility / Two feet with wings / Green
Mixing all together.
In this process, Silvia and Pablo (Designer and Make Up Artist) had the freedom to develop these ideas in their own way.
As photographer I decided the approach to lights. I had 7 lighting designs and I did them all in all pictures, and we only select the ones where the theme is better represented.
Before that Pablo and I worked closely together to find the right make up design. The main focus was to find how to be as extreme as we could with our deformations and still make it attractive to the eye. We decided to do facial deformations and colors for the sins, neutral colors and calm expressions for the virtues.
We did four previous sessions, the first one resulted in what I through were very “bland” result, and the images were not communicating the surreal look I was looking for and were not coming with the distortions I wanted in the Sins portraits, so I said to Pablo “Close your eyes and exaggerate this image 1000 times… can you imagine it? Yes? Ok now I want you to exaggerate that one 10000 times more”; it was funny to see the panic entering his face.
Then we worked all the ideas at once and Pablo did magnificent interpretations of what features in a face needed to be distorted to represent each sin or Virtue.
With Silvia we worked in a different way, the most important thing was that she took the responsibility of the designs and the edition of the book. Her designs also played to keep people guessing what Virtue or Sin each one represented, and she put together a vast amount of information, while keeping it clear and beautiful.
The most important feature that we agreed was that at first glance and for the highly literate/illiterate image market we are working for, all these images should raise eyebrows and curiosity. We wanted to keep the mystery, to catch the eye and reveal the theme of the book only at the end, where you find the key for each sin and virtue in order for people to understand what the book is all about.
We wanted people to read the rules of the game only after playing the game at least once without knowing them.
We hoped that maybe someone might recognize or remember the codes within before reaching the end; we also hoped that some would play with the book going back and forth trying to recognize which one is which. Maybe others could use it as oracle, believing that the picture they feel is most attractive shows the weak/strong side of their personality. Ultimately we hoped that maybe someone would truly look at these pictures and reflect about the sins and virtues within him/herself, the dangers and the certainties of knowing one self in order to achieve that Aristotelian mean state, which leaves us at peace with ourselves.
© Mariano Gutierrez Alarcon. 16 May 2009.