Have you ever tried to make self-portraits? It can be a scary experience. And it can very much be a revealing experience. Not just pointing a camera or a cell phone at yourself, but trying to capture something that says some truth about who you are, that maybe even uncover something about yourself that you hardly knew about—that is what makes self-portraits so challenging. Self-portraits can be a way of revealing your inner character, which is a way of exposing yourself, and thus such a difficult task to take on.
Paradoxically enough, must of us are happy making selfies these days, and for some reasons those kinds of self-portraits are not at all challenging to make. Apparently at least. Maybe because it’s a less pretentious way of making self-portraits—or so we think—and maybe because it’s generally accepted as a way of expression ourselves these days. But as soon as we start making self-portraits with more depth to them, it becomes a complete different ball game.
Back when I studied photography, one of the first assignments was making self-portraits. It was maybe the hardest assignment I got through the whole study, at least for me, then. And I know from workshops I teach that many students really have a hard time with self-portraits. These days I am teaching another round of my e-workshop «Finding Your Photographic Voice», and this week one of the assignments is exactly making telling self-portraits. I know from previous rounds that this can be one of the most challenging assignments.
There is a sense of self-indulgence and even vanity related to taking self-portraits. Of course, making self-portraits can indeed be self-absorbing and self-centred. But it’s also a way to explore and find out more about yourself. It can be in fact a way of dealing with something you are struggling with, finding a way out of some challenges you are facing and even coping with grieves that otherwise leaves you chattered. Look at Sarah Treanor’s blog 12 Months of Creativity and her touching way of using self-portraits to come to ends with a tragic incident in her life.
Another example of the healing and understanding that may come with the process of making self-portrait is expressed in the book The Photographers Playbook. The photographer and teacher Janet Delaney writes about the response from one of her students: «I had been in an awful, long-term relationship with an emotionally controlling, manipulating son of a bitch. I was not able to find strength to realize how miserable I was, I was stuck. […] I tried to express in those photos something that went between being trapped, being helpless, being knowing, powerful, stuck, tangled, engaged. […] And that broke the spell. I saw what he was and I had become before him. And I left him. That assignment, those photos, gave me a hard look at myself, and I haven’t been the same since.»
There is a risk and fear of self-exploration when making self-portraits. The photographer is in a very vulnerable position of opening up and stating how he or she is, but that is also what makes the self-portrait such a strong and universal—beyond the mere self—expression. Turning the camera on to the photographer involves challenges of its own, that doesn’t exist within the ordinary reference of portraiture—the photographer becomes his or her own sitter, and unless a cell phone is the camera or a mirror is used to check the pose, the moment recorded is only «felt» rather than seen through the camera. To photograph yourself, you have to stand in front of the camera and not behind it. The camera confronts the photographer rather than separates the photographer from the subject.
Making self-portraits are indeed challenging. But when pursued with an earnest intent, it’s also very rewarding. Any photo you take or make is a mirror of yourself, in some way or another it reflects who your. A self-portrait does so even more directly and openly. Yet, it may be just as intangibly revealing, uncover more subtle and more hidden characters of yourself. That’s part of the reward, if you are willing to take the chance. The hard part is getting in front of that camera and let yourself reveal who you are. Most of us feel uncomfortable in front of the camera, and more so in front of our own camera. In a Ted-talk conducted some time ago, the photographer Peter Hurley and the psychologist Anna Rowley brings up thoughts about why this is so uncomfortable. It’s worth a look.
As mentioned, one of this week’s assignments in the e-workshop «Finding Your Photographic Voice» is making self-portraits. As a general rule I like to let my students do assignments or exercises I have already done myself. I have indeed made self-portraits many a time since I was first challenged back when I studied photography. Nevertheless over the last year I have challenged myself on a regular basis to make self-portraits, some of which I present in this post.
Have you turned the camera towards yourself to learn and shown who you are—or would be willing to give it a try?