Look at Yourself

© Nancy de Flon
© Nancy de Flon
© Ingunn Nesset
© Ingunn Nesset
© Helen Chen
© Helen Chen
© Mike Mills
© Mike Mills
© Jennifer Clark
© Jennifer Clark

To make self-portraits is an excellent exercise for any photographer – but maybe also one of the most challenging to do. I am not talking about easy and casual selfies – which most everybody takes these days. But to try to portrait yourself with honesty, trying to capture the true self and revealing your deepest emotions – that take both surmounting and courage.

In my eWorkshop «Finding Your Photographic Voice», making self-portraits is one of the assignments I give my students – and maybe for many one of the hardest. Nevertheless – and often despite some reluctance initially – I always find that the students come up with both creative and revealing images. Just look at the ones showcased here, taken by participants of my latest round of the eWorkshop. Aren’t they just that; honest, revealing and creative? It’s always interesting to see how everybody comes up with different solutions, even those who initially hate the thought of taking self-portrait.

I have taken self-portrait myself – and know how excruciating exposed (literally and of course more importantly; in a figurative sense of the word) one feels in the process. For me it’s always important not to ask of anybody else what I won’t do myself. With that in mind – and even though I have previously made self-portraits – I have started a new project. Over the next year the plan is to make one self-portrait a week. I know some weeks I won’t find the time, but hopefully by the end of the year, I will at least have some 30-35 images. Maybe something for you to try as well?

89 thoughts on “Look at Yourself

  1. What an inspiring project, Otto. I find self-portraits really challenging – not just photographically, because of all the elements involved, like lighting, focusing, composition, etc… which are somehow easier to do when you’re photographing someone else and can play around with settings as you go – but also because of the level of self-consciousness and all the resistances that awaken when I see a photo of myself. The images above are all so beautiful and courageous. Well done to your participants!

    1. You touch upon the essence of self-portraits, because yes, they do invoke self-consciousness and resistance, but exactly for that reason it’s a great exercise. It’s simply a different way to get to know yourself.

  2. I could not agree more this assignment can be one of the hardest not from actually doing it only but also just resistent to do as you stated… These photos are exceptional! Each photographer has put a lot of thinking about to put oneself into the picture. I really love the last one!

  3. Nice self-portraits. Some interesting images have resulted. I will try this as a starting approach for a self-portrait painting. It might lead to new styles.

  4. Great post, Otto. You made such good points, and I particularly like the photos you included. And yet…. will I… ? 🙂

    1. The thing is, self-portraits don’t have to be close-ups. Whatever works. X-ray is actually a good idea – but maybe hard to accomplish as a self-portrait, except if you work in a hospital or clinic.

  5. Real selfportraits require an effort from the photographer. How do I feel? How I woulld like the others see me? How much am I ready to be open?
    Hmmm, not easy bit for sure a good exercise which your students have been able to develop in an interesting way.

  6. Those are all very nice. This would be super hard for me, I can’t even take a selfie with my phone camera. Might be an exercise I should try though, just for the challenge of it all.

  7. These self-portraits are very fine and personal. I must admit that this discipline is also transboundary for me. But that’s exactly why I have to take this challenge up soon !. I look forward to seeing your self-portraits – when do you start to show them here ?!

    1. If you take up on the challenge I wish you good luck! As for when I will show pictures from my own self-portrait project, I believe it won’t before the end of it. Still some time in other words. 🙂

  8. I admire people who can take photos of themselves like that. Since I do only landscapes mostly, I haven’t a clue how to photograph a human being and it’s not something I’m interested in trying although I love looking at others’ doing so. 🙂

  9. You’re so right….this was the hardest assignment of all in your e-course. In this time of rampant selfies, I just do not like photos of myself, and am always content to slip into being the photographer at gatherings so as to avoid people taking pictures of me. Even after the e-course homework 🙂

  10. There are some wonderful self-portraits here, Otto. I did a self-portrait challenge with a group a couple of years ago. I was unimpressed with my own, but loved the creativity and vulnerability I saw in some of the others’. It would be good to try again, I think.

  11. “…portrait yourself with honesty, trying to capture the true self and revealing your deepest emotions…” That’s very well put, Otto. And the pictures above are good examples for this, I especially like the ones from Helen and Mike. I think it’s a good exercise to understand not only the technical but also the emotional side of portraiture, especially for those you don’t have any models at hand or maybe just don’t feel ready to shoot others yet.

    I actually did a lot of experiments with self-portraiture in the very beginning of my photographic explorations 3 years ago. Before I picked up a camera myself, I really hated to be photographed as I always felt awkward and never knew how to look properly. It all changed on a moody day when I got a remote control for my camera, originally intended for long exposure shots, and just taught I jump in front of the lens for some test shots. I was totally surprised by the first results and got hooked a bit so did a lot of stuff back then in 2011, including one big picture collage made of 24 individual pictures of me wearing all of dresses which I basically shot in about 2 hours. I’ve taken a lot less pictures in 2012/13 but they became a bit more creative (I hope) and also closer in different ways. For me, it was often also just trying to find out how I want to be seen by others. Interestingly, I have not taken any self-portrait this year, except 2 smartphone shots for Facebook, so maybe it’s time to get in front of the lens again, if only to show my new haircut 🙂

    I wish you all the best with your big project and am curious what will come out of it at the end.

    1. Thanks for sharing you experience with taking self-portrait. It was interesting to learn how you suddenly caught yourself after having hated to be photographed. And I think your approach is something anyone can pick up upon. Lots of good ideas. Thanks, Viola.

  12. Bellissime le foto che hai scelto, complimenti agli autori degli scatti!!
    Io difficilmente fotografo le persone, proprio non mi riesce, non so perché, però poco alla volta ci sto provando. Autoritratto mio, noooooo, si rompe la macchina fotografica ahahahha.
    Però il tuo progetto è veramente molto molto bello!!
    Un grande saluto, Pat

  13. I have only done a very, very few self-portraits (photographed or painted) over the years. However, I did do one out of necessity in order to get juried in to a very special show. I took a selfie before the word even became popular…the resulting painting can be seen here–http://allifarkas.com/9415.html–if you’re curious. It’s near the bottom of the page, so just scroll down a bit!

    1. Quite an interesting self-portrait. Has a very honest and expressive feeling. And I really like the graphic quality you have formed the portrait with. Thanks for the comment – and the link.

  14. Alas, I’ve reached an age where this older woman keeps popping up instead of the younger version I still feel lives inside. 😉 It’s pretty difficult to take, much less reveal, self-portraits. Perhaps I’ll have to make the effort since you’ve presented the challenge.

  15. It’s an excellent assignment Otto and one I will now endeavour to do myself. I’m a bit mystefied by the obsession of the ‘selfie’ to be honest. I think part of the problem with the world today is an obsession with self over and above giving thought to the needs of others. The world used to be a much more courteous place. One only has to take a short journey on the road to see perhaps the worst examples of the selfishness that abounds with so little courtesy shown to other road users. Grumpy old man grumble aside Otto 😉 I will give this a go.. 🙂

    1. I don’t know about grumpy, but I think you are right in much of your assessment. The world – at least the richer part of it – has indeed become more self-absorbed. And yes, selfies probably are an expression of that, although sometimes I just think it’s casual playfulness.

  16. One of the beauties of being behind the lens is being behind the lens. I’ve never enjoyed being the subject, so your suggestion to use oneself as the focus is a tough one for me to consider. But I do like a challenge. As always your posts are thought provoking. Each portrait that you posted has its own flare and personal touch.

  17. Hey Otto, it’s really cool to see these! Everyone in the group managed to come up with some excellent work in this genre — while I, of course, succeeded in hiding my face behind the camera! 🙂 Thank you for a very interesting course and for the final portfolio you put together for each of us.

    1. I am glad you enjoyed the show – and not the work both you and the rest of the team did. As for hiding behind the camera: It’s just a much a personal expression as anything else, isn’t it? 🙂

  18. What a great series of self-portraits, Otto. Creative and revealing. I like this challenge because I think I need to be challenged to do something like this. I shun the camera when it comes to being the focus of its attention, and sometimes I wonder about my grandchildren (or great-grandchildren) and how they will know me if they have no way to picture me other than through my voice or images. One a week? I will give it a try. Thank you for the challenge. 🙂

  19. This is such a great idea, and the results are revealing and also very diverse… It would be a great assignment for all photographers to undertake, as it would create a whole new way to look at a shot and perhaps redefine the way someone thinks about portraits.

  20. I keep seeing this photo on facebook and WordPress with the spring blossoms in the background and know I need to update the photo-very timely proposition. You are not kidding it is hard. sounds like a good project , though…

  21. here’s my most infamous self portrait http://elaineremains.wordpress.com/2008/11/14/premenstrual-tension/

    thanks for coming to visit my blog tonight, i was proud of my SPECTACULARLY baaaad picture, and you get me, you really get me lol *sally field voice*

    i used to model a bit when i was young, so taking self portraits wasn’t all that hard for me then, but now as i age, and don’t think i make such a good portrait, i haven’t taken many selfs…. plus when i was in school for photography we were always desperate for subjects and taking pics of ourselves was a matter of …. fact lol

  22. These are interesting portraits. It would also be interesting to know what the ‘sitters’ themselves felt both about the experience and the end result. Often the person in the mirror is not me!

  23. These are some great portraits, Otto. I remember three years ago, WordPress had put up ”Self-portrait” as weekly photo challenge. It was fun to participate in that. 🙂

  24. Interesting post! Generally I don’t photograph people anyway and personally I hate being the wrong side of a camera – so the idea of a self portrait …. ! You’ve provided enough of a challenge that I feel I ought to at least try it – one of these days 🙂

  25. I fully agree that taking a well thought out self portrait is an excellent assignment…even a few…but 1 per week for a year? I almost feel badly writing this because your views almost always echo mine but does this not border on narcissism? Yes, we are complicated beings and perhaps you wish to know yourself better and show your complexities but it does seem extreme to me. I am tired of this ME stuff all the time.

    1. There is a fine line between narcissism and understanding oneself – or trying to learn about oneself. For me the challenge I have taken upon myself is about the latter – I hope. And not necessarily t be shared with others.

  26. WOW. I enjoy this post on multiple levels. First, in my daily work, I often need to answer the questions – Are students learning? How do we know? With your assignment, those questions will be readily answered. So, bravo on creating an activity that pushes folks to really do some learning. Next, the examples that you provide just seem to shout creative. How awesome to be associated with such an amazing group of folks, whatever the reason. Then, recently I traveled to Paris and was amazed at the number of folks I saw who had a pole-like devise that they added to their cellphones which they used to take selfies. I found it a little bit crazy-funny – – to see all kinds of people snapping photos of themselves in front of amazing scenery. We live in a fun period of time! Finally, like many of your followers and yourself, I think a challenge to take a self portrait a day would deliver some interesting results. WOW.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on my post. It was a delightful response. A comment to your experience in Paris_ Yes, it’s crazy-funny, but also a little disturbing with all this self-centering, which relates to this delicate balance between narcissism and exploring of self that I just mentioned in response to ninagrandiose’s comment.

  27. I saw a wonderful documentary film recently – Finding Vivien Maeir – about a woman who took thousands of photos throughout her life, and whose photos were discovered by chance, many undeveloped, after her death. Several were self portraits, albeit images of herself through mirrors or her shadow on sand for example rather than a conventional portrait. It was interesting to see how some of your students also used an evasive style, and how many of the comments above expressed difficulty in taking self portraits.

  28. As I was putting in my contacts yesterday, I thought, “I should do a new self portrait…”

    And here you are making that suggestion as well…
    With camera will surely be faster than w/pencil or paint!

    Thanks for the nudge….Z

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