These photographs, are among Gillian Wearing's first works and established her reputation in contemporary art. She approached strangers in a busy area of South London, asked them to write down what they were thinking at that moment on a piece of cardboard, and (with their permission) took their picture as they held their signs. The project yielded not only a mixed bag of handwriting but a manifold range of statements and questions, from "Will Britain get through this recession?" to "I have been certified as mildly insane." Some were humorous, others tragic; some banal, others introspective; some vague, others quite frank. In one of the most arresting and well-known images in the series, one passerby, a dapper young man with a calm face and professional attire, grips a sign that reads "I'm desperate."
Wearing explained that the tacit collaboration between photographer and subject in this work "interrupts the logic of photo-documentary and snapshot photography by the subject's clear collusion and engineering of their own representation" (quoted in Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say 1992-1993, London, 1997). In Wearing's hands, masking often becomes an unlikely vehicle for confession, and her work is a thoughtfully compelling consideration of how humans see, represent, and conceal themselves, of how outward signs do (or do not) reflect inner thoughts and feelings, of the complexity of contemporary identity.