Final Project: Liminality in Lifts

Photo Number 1

Photo Number 1

Photo number 2

Photo number 2

Photo number 3

Photo number 3

Photo number 4

Photo number 4


Photo number 5

Transitions, or changes of conditions, are experienced more than once throughout a person’s lifetime, from birth, to betrothal, to death. A phase where one is somewhere in between the past and the future with possibilities seeming endless, the time and space during which transitions occur are circumstances which, once reflected upon, seem almost like a point of fluidity, or an area “wavering between two worlds” where neither the place nor one’s own self felt entirely complete (Westerveld, 2010). In an attempt to explore the essence of the purgatorial, transitional state, a photo series depicting the more physical, fundamental portrayal of the sociological meaning behind the liminality of transitions, all within the locality of simple lift rides, was created; combining interpretations of solitude, oddity and lost identities of the lift as a “non-place,” a space identified by Marc Auge as one that cannot be defined as relational, historical, or regarding to identity or character (2008).

The word liminal, derived from the latin word limen and meaning threshold, encompasses the concept of transitions and the in-between in its entirety, where liminality is defined as “a middle ground, a space and time where transformations take place,” as well as “a transitional state filled with ambiguities and contradictions” (Westerveld, 2010). Where a limit is a definite end point, a threshold is but a mid point that links two phases of one’s journey (Westerveld, 2010). The contradictions and paradoxes faced during the liminal phase were addressed by Arnold Van Gennep, who first coined the term liminal in his sociological work Rites de Passage in 1909, and were characterised as the three phases of the rites of passage: Separation, Transition, and Incorporation (Turner, 1967).


During the phase of Separation, the route of detachment from one’s social structure or set of common cultural conditions is taken, where one is stripped of his usual determinants and roles in the everyday constricts of society (Turner, 1967). Photo number one attempts to portray the concept behind this phase through a sense of ambiguity and solitude in the omission of the subject of the photograph’s face, and therefore obscuring his identity from the viewer. The anonymity of the person standing relays a feeling of eeriness and distortion to the photograph, where the mystery behind the obscured face is only partially revealed through the reflection in the mirror. Just as how during primitive rituals did persons in the separation phase lose their identities and become “withdrawn from their structural positions” (Turner, 1967), so does one entering the vicinity of a non-place, where “the space of non-place creates neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude, and similitude”(Auge, 2008). In this case, the only act of similarity portrayed in the photograph is between the subject and his own reflection, with the unknown man’s stance evoking a sense of confrontation and acquaintance with a whole new self. The impending movement of the closing of the lift doors in the photograph, and the knowledge of the imminent displacement of the lift from one “realm” to another “adds the particular experience of a form of solitude,” where one is met with a limited landscape to be contemplated which “cannot be avoided” (Auge, 2008). The emptiness of the lift photographed, highlighted by the composition of the anonymous man standing in the corner with a space appearing infinite beside him reflects on Auge’s idea of a world “surrendered to solitary individuality,” and to the temporary, fleeting moment of a transitional space (2008).

IMG_4464_finalFleeting moments are addressed in the second period of Van Gennep’s Rites of Passage phases, Transition, or “the intervening liminal period” (Turner, 1967), where the “passenger” passes through between a realm familiar to his own, and another that holds little to no familiarity to neither his past nor his present states, but is a state of in-between on its own (Van Gennep, 1909). In photo number two, an attempt to translate the flux of the liminal phase was shown through fluid movement creating a sense of how transitional beings in liminal spaces are “neither here nor there,” but are a floating image of two personas (Turner, 1967). In the period of transition, a polyphony in which the virtually infinite interlacing of thoughts, actions and recollections would meet on the threshold of the space is a possibility met with every step taken inside the realm of the in-between, or in this case, with every slide of the lift door (Auge, 2008). As one enters the lift, he or she enters a time and place that seems almost disconnected from the realities before and after the brief journey. In that windowless, cubic room, one is faced with nothing but the transitional image of oneself in his or her own thoughts and reflection, momentarily leaving status, duties, and tendencies of conformity in the societal reality outside the confined non-place. With photograph two’s incorporation of a distorted moving body and blurred closing doors, a feel of transience and urgency is conveyed, relating to how “non-places are there to be passed through” (Auge, 2008).

IMG_4447_finalIn the third and final Incorporation period of the three phases, the passage is completed and the individual is in a structured environment where he or she is expected to behave within the confines of certain ethical norms and social standards once more. Whereas this concept stands alone within the theme of primitive tribal rituals, as discussed in Van Gennep’s writings (1909), or even in similarity to the social transitions of pregnancy, birth, puberty, or marriage, this phase presents a paradox in relation to the social interactions existing within a lift, as shown in photograph number three portraying the structural building blocks of culture within the confines of the lift “just when we pass out of and before we re-enter the structural realm” (Turner, 1967).On the one hand, As “social transformations mark both a beginning and an end” (Zukin, 1991) the shattering of solitude within the three walls and sliding doors of the transitional space, leading to reconstructing social relations within split seconds implies “flux and transition, offensive and defensive postures,” and a non-stop transformation between “business as usual and something completely different” between individuals forced to break each other’s areas of personal space (Soja, 1989). In the photograph, the contrast of darkly dressed faceless individuals and their counterpart dressed in light colours and assuming a defensive, self-conscious stance portrays the different roles taken as space becomes occupied and environmental hierarchy is resumed.

On the other hand, however, the confines of the non-place still hold within them a distance between the individuals greater than the physical one perceived by the naked eye. Within this space, these individuals may have physical realities, but not social ones (Turner, 1967). It is this realisation that paradoxically exposes the polar sides of the incorporation phase within this particular non-place. As thresholds and transitional phases combine and intersect, “the face and voice of solitude [becomes] more baffling” by the fact that it echoes that of many others (Auge, 2008). To convey this notion, the theme of anonymity portrayed in photo number one continues in photo number three as well, with the image only including the arms and shoulders of the subjects portrayed. The photograph also conveys a sense of claustrophobia and awkward positions, attempting to portray the broken personal space through contrasting colours, a mid-shot angle, and a focus on the discomfort of the person in beige, all intensified with the help of the harsh neon lighting of the lift.

IMG_4509_finalAnonymity is not only portrayed through the individuals photographed, but also through the institutional spaces portrayed in the set. According to Sharon Zukin, “urban spaces [carry] a potential that hesitates between conformity and utopia” (1991). In a world ruled by supermodernity, to be born in a clinic and to die in a hospital is a commonality, where transit points and temporary places exist under inhumane conditions masked behind polished facades (Auge, 2008). In photograph number four, the evident similarity between the vast, opened lift, and surgical environments serves as an attempt to attract the onlooker’s attention towards an alternate reality of non-places as spaces where procedures of change and evolution occur, and not just as places of transportation from one place to the other. The glaring shades of white in the photograph, contrasted with the obscure black markings and symmetrical panels appearing infinitely reflective of each other, and combined with the lack of any trace of human presence conveys a distorted sense of existence in which the only way time or place can be fleetingly quantified is to be within the confines of the area, volume, and distance of the non-place itself (Auge, 2008).

DSC_0228_finalA grounding characteristic of non-places is that they are empty spaces, not social spaces. In exploring their liminality, we explore the concept of space that was once treated as the fixed, the dead, and the immobile (Soja, 1989). The evolution and transformation of space to being both grounding, confining, and enveloping, as well as a threshold to movement and change is explored through photo number five, where the symbolic journey of the passage of rites is substantiated through a physical, institutional one. The contrast of the uninterrupted black of the walls with the wood of the floor leading only to the lift doors in the photograph puts the viewer in the first person point of view of this solitary position, with harsh lighting and immersive surroundings simulating the feeling of the onlooker standing within the confining walls of the corridor. The lighting and shadows in the photograph add to the sense of no escape first evoked by the elongated pathway, with the partial illumination of the lift doors appearing as a subtle hint towards the one and only way out of the solitude and discomfort of the unnatural black walls. This concept links back to Arnold Van Gennep’s second phase, the liminal, or transitional stage in the three phases of the rites of passage, where the only way one could escape the in-betweenness of the transition is to pass through the liminal period to re-enter a societal environment, and be reunited with structural and cultural basis once more in the final phase of incorporation (Van Gennep, 1909).

A journey, regardless of its time or place, affects its passenger in some form or the other, where the person emerging at the final destination of the journey is somewhat altered from the initial being who underwent the experience of the voyage from the start. This journey may be a physical one, where one leaves the vicinity of a location and crosses the threshold into the territory of another, or it may cross over into the realm of internal journeys where one experiences transition only sensed within the confines of his or her own mind and emotions. As Arnold Van Gennep explained this concept in his writings, “changes of condition do not occur without disturbing the life of society and the individual, and it is the function of rites of passage to reduce their harmful effect” (1909). Through the use of a non-place, the lift, as the main subject of focus, with its liminal and transitional space as well as its overbearing sense of solitude, confinement, and distorting discomfort within its transitional spatiality, this sociological concept was explored and captured through the series of photographs presented, in an attempt to display the theoretical and ideological notions of the three phases of Van Gennep’s rites of passage in a simplistic, visual representation. Unearthing the meanings and symbols behind these images allows the viewer to explore the liminality of the journeys they themselves had experienced throughout their lives, and therefore reflect on the transitional phases of their experiences so far.


Augé, M. (2008) Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. 2nd ed. London: Verso.

Soja, E.W. (1989) Postmodern Geographies, The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. London: Verso.

Turner, V. (1967) Betwixt & Between: the liminal period in rites of passage. In: Mahdi, L.C. (1994) Betwixt and Between: Patterns of Masculine and Feminine Initiation. 5th ed. Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company.

Van Gennep, A. (1909) The Rites of Passage. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.  Westerveld, J. (2010) Liminality in Contemporary Art [online]. BA, Gerrit Rietveld Academie. Available from: [Accessed 13 April 2015].

Zukin, S. (1991) Landscapes of Power: From Detroit to Disney World. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, Ltd.