Since the 1960s, and particularly since the advent of conceptual art, photography has played a varied role in the fine arts. Photoconceptualism, for instance, uses the photograph as a document of artistic ideas and practice rather than as something that emphasizes the virtuoso craft of photography. It draws on the shoot-from-the-hip style of certain street photography, aiming for a non-art, ‘non-authored’ look; the ideas and acts that the photograph casually represents are more significant than the quality of the photograph itself.
Photoconceptualism can be used to disrupt the surface of everyday life, revealing its undercurrents. Gillian Wearing’s Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1990s), is an example of this. Standing in a busy area of South London, Wearing stopped passers-by and asked them to write down what was on their mind on white sheets of cards. With their permission, she then photographed them holding their words. Wearing has written that this collaboration ‘interrupts the logic of photo-documentary and snapshot photography by the subjects’ clear collusion and engineering of their own representation.’ A broad cross-section of people participated, so the series offered a social and historical document. It referred to the economic decline in Britain in the early 1990s, one individual holding up a sheet saying, ‘Will Britain get through this recession?’ Most of the signs revealed intimate thoughts or personal convictions, though. A tattooed man held up a sign,’ I have been certified as mildly insane’, while a smartly dressed man with an ostensibly self-possessed expression had a sheet saying, ‘I’m desperate’, and a policeman held up, ‘Help’. These photographs form part of Wearing’s broader interest in the interface of public image and personal identity, and demonstrate how it is through artistic strategies and interventions, rather than through the artistry of photography, that the depths of ordinary existence can be explored.