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  • Writer's pictureJo Sutherst

Sustainable Prospects – Why?


“Sit behind the mask, where you control your world . . . well the party’s over, so now take off your face”

– (Eric Clapton – Behind the Mask Lyrics | SongMeanings 2017)

During a recent conversation with my tutor, I was challenged to consider why my practice has developed the way it has. In particular, my use of a mask on a nude male model was questioned (see Figure 1 for an example image).


Figure 1: Sutherst. Untitled. 2017

Every time I have been asked why I felt I needed to put a mask on a nude figure, I would answer with ‘because it’s fun’ or ‘why not?’.  Before the conversation, I had never really given it more thought.

My tutor would not accept either of these answers and kept pushing. At the time of the conversation, I kept resisting looking deeper for meaning. However, that night, when I was alone with my thoughts, I continued to dwell and over analyse my aesthetic and styling choices.

Subconsciously, I have been compelled to place a mask on my models.  It does not make sense why I feel I need to hide their face when they are naked. Surely they are already revealing everything about themselves.

So my reasons are deeper. I found myself considering why I was using masks in my images.

After much soul-searching and quite emotional thought, I have begun to understand my motivations for the use of masks.

I appear to most people to be the most confident and outgoing person in a room.  I am a teacher and am able to stand in front of teenagers every day and guide them in their learning in a motivated and enthusiastic manner. Yet behind this front, I am a different person.

Every day when I get up, I convince myself to go out and face the world.  Inside, I tell myself I would rather stay at home, working on my MA work or just spending time with my husband, cats, and horse.

For many years now, I have put on my confident mask before I leave the house. I have done this for so many years now, that I forget it is all a front.  I forget my insecurities whilst I am out of the house.  The thoughts and doubts I have when I am alone, do not enter my head. But who am I behind the mask?  My tutor’s persistent questioning has allowed me to start to understand who I am.

As part of the Face-to-Face event in Amsterdam, we were required to present an image from our practice that represented what we do. I had four images to chose from. One of these images was the one in figure 1.  My friends helped me choose the image to show – they all said this one. This meant that as part of the explanation, I would need to reveal more about myself than I have done before (even to myself).  I didn’t know all the people in the room, so this was an unlikely location to reveal deep personal thoughts (and not one I would have willingly chosen in the past). What I revealed in this session has gone on to inform the direction of my project work this module.

Like other people, I am afraid of being seen for who I think I truly am.  In fact, I am afraid of seeing myself for who I am. In order to prevent my true inner self from being seen and exposed to the world, I wear a metaphorical mask over my authentic and real personality. This is the part of me I keep hidden and private.

But why do I do this? I guess it is fear that keeps me wearing the mask.  But fear of what exactly? I hide my true identity behind the mask so that I am not judged on who I really am. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like myself, just that I want to be judged in a different way. People around me look at the mask I wear and they understand it.  They understand who I am wanting to be, with my actual self safely concealed beneath the mask. I change my masks so habitually that I no longer notice I am doing it. This has been going on for years.  My masks reflect who I think I should be and who others want me to be.

My mask protects me and enables me to interact effectively and fully with others.  I wear different masks in different situations to be the person I want to be when I am there.  My mask offers me a place of safety and security.  Behind it, my insecurity and anxieties remain hidden.

My mask for school is one of authority, confidence, nurturing and calmness.  This is who I am expected to be at school, even if inside am not feeling any of those things. When I leave school I take off that mask to reveal a mask underneath that portrays me as efficient, helpful and confident. Beneath this is another mask and another and another.

So exactly who is underneath all this?  I am not sure I know entirely, but at least now (thanks to my tutor), I am beginning to understand. The authentic self I have identified so far is someone who hides behind a happy, positive persona. I am performing all of the time. I am able to pretend I have it all together and that everything is perfect. I am desperate to be liked by everyone so also hide behind a people pleaser mask. I guess I fear that is I put my own needs first that I may end up alone.

So, in the meeting in Amsterdam, I began to reveal myself and my motivations for my work.  I have Addison’s Disease.  I have to take steroid medication to stay alive. The medication affects me in lots of ways. Ways I don’t like.  I have gained weight, cannot control my body temperature, and get tired really easy.  I do not cope well with stressful situations, often over-reacting to the little things. I have no control over it. Factor in some of the other symptoms like brain fog, easy bruising, dizziness, low blood pressure, heartburn and a difficulty in fighting infections and maybe you will begin to understand why I dislike the disease. Ask me how I am and I will answer that I am fine.  I look well, so people do not understand that I am generally not ok.

Other things I revealed in Amsterdam include that I am desperate to be liked and to be useful. I tend to organise things and try to help everyone to facilitate them liking me. Like many other people, I also don’t like how I look. I dislike the effect of the steroid drugs on my body.

When we are born, we are naked and exposed. We absorb everything other people tell us. We internalise these comments and reactions to our actions.  We measure ourselves against these reactions. I have certainly done this all my life.  As I have got older, I have kept these things hidden from everyone. I never wanted others to know what I was thinking. As the oldest child and grandchild, I became the person everyone wanted me to be.  I did not want to fail at school; I felt the pressure of being the one who would do well and go to university.  

As I got older, I always wanted to protect my mum in particular, from how I was feeling.  Things were tough at times when I was growing up and I wanted to be the strong one for her, after all, she had enough to deal with (or at least it seemed that way to me at the time). I was the good child, never in trouble at school or home. Always trying to please everyone else. I am still that person.

All of these experiences have shaped me and created the masks that I wear. I keep my feelings to myself, but my Addison’s Disease can make it very difficult to do that at times, and cracks appear in my mask.  At these points, I try to keep out of the way of others.  I can’t deal with how I feel, so I try to avoid talking about it.

My mind never stops working.  I overthink and worry about everything. When I was a teenager, I was afraid that everyone would think I was weak or a problem child.  I did not want to be considered lazy or a failure at anything.  I needed desperately to hide these aspects.  So, I over-compensated.  I read a lot and studied hard. I accumulated information. I hid behind the mask for fear of being found out or exposed. Over the years, I have added layers, colours, and accessories to my mask. The mask has grown in credibility and weight.  It has become heavy to wear; it is now a burden that is holding me back.

So, whilst this whole experience and analysis have been very emotional and traumatic at times, I am very grateful to my tutor for causing me to consider these things.  I hadn’t looked at why I included masks and extreme stying in images before, constantly making weak excuses for the work.  I had forgotten that I was wearing a mask every day.

This post may be waffly and I will undoubtedly have missed bits out, but it is where I am at the moment.  I am planning to use my photography to try and discover more about myself and the masks that others wear. Sounds corny even as I type this, but it is a journey I am just embarking on. I am nervous but excited at the same time. Thank you Paul for helping me start out on the journey 🙂


Eric Clapton – Behind the Mask Lyrics | SongMeanings. 2017. SongMeanings [online]. Available at: [accessed 15 October 2017].

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