Art and Science
On Voice: Expressing a Point of View
In portraiture, the voice of the researcher is everywhere: in the assumptions, preoccupations, and framework she brings to the inquiry; in the questions she asks; in the data she gathers; in the choice of stories she tells; in the language, cadence, and rhythm of her narrative. Voice is the research instrument, echoing the self (or the “soul” as Oscar Wilde would put it) of the portraitist—her eyes, her ears, her insights, her style, her aesthetic. Voice is omnipresent and seems to confirm Wilde’s claim that portraits reflect more about the artist than about the subject.
But it is also true that the portraitist’s work is deeply empirical, grounded in systematically controlled data, skeptical questioning (of self and actors), and rigorous examination of biases—always open to discontinuing evidence. From this vantage point, the portraitist’s stance is vigilantly counterintuitive, working against the grain of formerly held presuppositions, always alert and responsive to surprise.
The portraitist’s voice, then, is everywhere—overarching and undergirding the text, framing the piece, naming the metaphors, and echoing through the central themes. But her voice is also a premeditated one, restrained, disciplined, and carefully controlled. Her voice never overshadows the actors’ voices (though it sometimes is heard in duet, in harmony and counterpoint). The actors sing the solo lines, the portraitist supporting their efforts at articulation, insight, and expressiveness.
The portraitist inevitably renders a self-portrait that reveals her soul but she also produces a selfless, systematic examination of the actors’ images, experiences, and perspectives. This balance—between documenting the authentic portrait of others and drawing one’s elf into the lines of the piece, between self-possession and disciplined other regard, between the intuitive and the counterintuitive—is the difficult, complex, nuanced work of the portraitist. In many respects, it is because the self of the portraitist is so present in her work, because she is the instrument of inquiry and the lens of description, interpretation, analysis, and narrative, that it is crucial that her voice be monitored, subdued, and restrained (though never silenced). The voice of the portraitist is poignant with paradox: it is everywhere and it is judiciously placed; it is central and it is peripheral.
This paradoxical paradigm contrasts greatly with the traditions and rituals of quantitative and experimental approaches to research—where the voice of the investigator is nowhere evident, where the first person is rarely (if ever) used, and where the structure of the research design and text are predetermined and codified. Every attempt is made to disguise or mask the person of the investigator, designing an inquiry that will diminish (if not eliminate) personal perspective and bias. One of the ways the study is judged to be successful is if it can be replicated, if the experimental conditions, designs, methods, and findings can be reproduced, and if the investigators are interchangeable. The study must not be contaminated by the researcher’s personality or idiosyncratic perspective. In this research tradition, then, personal view and judgment are considered distortions of an objective process. Voice is irrelevant. By design, it is neutralized out of existence.
In the various forms of qualitative research, investigators have struggled with giving definition to the notion of voice, seeking a way to represent both its omnipresence and restraint, wanting to take full advantage of the insights of personal vision (that is, the self as research instrument) without caving in to personal prejudice (that is, research as self-expression). Voice in portraiture encompasses the three orientations of epistemology, ideology, and method, but includes others as well, reflecting the portraitist’s explicit interest in authorship, interpretation, relationship, aesthetics, and narrative. There are six ways in which the portraitist might use voice in developing the text, with recognition that the boundaries between these orientations are highly permeable and overlapping: voice as witness; voice as interpretation; voice as preoccupation; voice as autobiography; listening for voice; and voice in conversation. This examination of voice is purposefully sequenced to reveal the increasing presence and visibility of voice in the text, moving from the most restrained form of voice as witness, vigilantly listening and observing, to voice in dialogue, creating the story with the actors.