Facing up to Yourself

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?

72 thoughts on “Facing up to Yourself

  1. I was often wondering whether you’ll ever show us some of the results from your challenge last year so I’m very happy that you’ve done it at last 🙂 I like the two close-ups best and it’s quite fascinating how different they are. When I started to experiment with photography back in 2011, I did a lot of self-portraiture very early on which came a bit as a surprise at a time where I was hurting but I was curious and enjoyed it a lot. In the last 2 years or so, I haven’t done any ‘real’ self-portraits but I’d really like to create at least one new image of me which I can use on the ‘About’ page of my new website. The problem is that I do have an image in my head (probably the opposite of yours, meaning a lot of white rather than black) but some problems to get the set-up (background and light) right. I will take this post as a reminder to tackle it and get it done soon 🙂

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Viola—and for even remembering my own challenge. When it comes to executing your new idea of a self-portrait; I would just start playing with the camera. The solution to the problems may come in the actually process of shooting. I look forward to seeing the result. 🙂

  2. I had to paint a lot of self portraits when I was in college. I hated it so much that it started to stretch my creativity in other ways to satisfy the assignment, but also be something less confrontational for myself. Even that was self-illuminating and growth. Maybe I’ll give it a new try? Thanks for the inspiration. I like the different faces you’ve shown here.

    1. Even when you hate making self-portrait, it’s a revealing process, as you point out, Linda. Thank you for sharing your experience. And, maybe I can look forward to seeing some self-portraits, then?

  3. Loved reading your thoughts on self-portraits Otto! I’ve had to make them on my first photography course a few years back. And now, on a new course we are actually right now talking about and taking self-portraits, with an accent on self-discovery and healing. It’s a very fascinating topic. And you are right, it can be difficult and feel like looking at yourself through a magnifying glass, seeing your own deepest corners. It’s a very rewarding experience though.

    Your self-portraits are awesome!

  4. I loved this post Otto, not only for the challenge of taking self-portraits but also for the reflection on our relationships with self portraits. It strikes me as rather strange that many of us would go to a professional photographer to sit for a portrait, but we find it so difficult to face ourselves from the other side of the camera.

    1. Sometimes it’s easier to let others look at us, instead of looking at ourselves, and that is what a self-portrait is all about. But yes, it’s an interesting thought, isn’t it. 🙂

  5. This is an impossibly hard thing for me to even think about. I don’t even take selfies with my cell phone. Maybe I should force myself, just to spread out a bit.

  6. You’ve proven your own point here with the three photos you’ve shared. Each resonates differently, and shows a different side of you as a person. That alone would make repeated self-portraiture valuable. No one has a single self — and the ones we don’t know about may very well appear.

    The difference between selfies and self-portraits is interesting, too. Selfies often seem reflexive, while self-portraits are more deeply intentional. Selfies are, in the end, for others, while self-portraits tend to be more for the subject. And in many selfies, the setting is far more important than the self: “Here I am, in this important (or luxurious, or exotic, or popular) place), they seem to say. A portrait says, “Here I am.”

    1. I think you have a point, in that selfies are more reflexive, than reflective, and more about showing the person in a setting for the world. A self-portrait can at least be much more about the person. Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Linda.

  7. First, your self-images are revelatory and simultaneously strong as photographs. Your subject of self-portraits is a touchy one for me. I’ve never liked having my photograph taken. But I can see some advantage in a thoughtful approach. Maybe I will be prompted by your commentary.

    1. I never liked having my photos taken—and still feel quite reluctant. But here I am in front of everybody… That would be my only way to prompt anyone. On the other hand, self-portraits aren’t a must for a photographer, by far, but it’s quite self-revealing once you try. Thank you for the comment, Sally.

  8. Ahh the selfie. The numerous coach loads of people I’ve seen discourged at some of Iceland’s most beautiful locations Otto and what I don’t see is young people looking at these incredible sights and taking them in. What I do see is young people with their backs to these incredible sights taking pictures of themselves. It’s as though the ‘I was here’ is more important than the ‘being here’ and I find that very sad. As a photographer the ‘being here’ is what fuels the photographs I eventually take. I can’t take a good photo without at least making an attempt to absorb and engage with the environment I’m in. Now I know these youngsters are not photographers but what are they missing in their headlong dash to get the next selfie on Facebook?
    My old git grumble about the cult of the selfie aside, a self-portrait is something I’ve never attempted. This I will give some thought to. If I were to set up a self-portrait, a photo perhaps of me sitting at my computer, processing a photo I’ve staged things to present myself in a way I would like others to see me haven’t I? This I guess is revealing in and of itself. You never know, I might even give this one a go given that I tidied my usually disasterously untidy desk just today! A very interesting read as always Otto 😀

    1. It might not be the right time for a self-portrait, if that tidy desk isn’t really you. 🙂 Otherwise I have no problems understanding and agreeing with your point of view when it comes to selfie. I think selfies can be fun (and do take some, too), but if you miss out the “real” thing because you turn the back to it, it is indeed very sad. On the other hand, who are we to say what is right or wrong for others, I only know that I would, like you, be taking in and engage with the environment, whether or not I will photograph it. Thank you for your poignant comment, Adrian. And good luck with the self-portrait! 🙂

  9. What an insightful post. I soaked up every word you wrote, it pretty much validated how I feel about “selfies”. Not to sound like a snob, but the “selfies” people take today are too quick and more of a instant gratification of a moment. Self portraits, how you described it, is more of a craft not only for the photographer, but in in a technical way too. I’ve always wanted to take a black and white picture (or colored) of a tear running down my face. There is something about that moment that is so personal, raw and organic that you are showing to the world, but I’ve always been afraid people would think I was depressed or something was wrong with me, when in actuality, I’m only expressing a feeling or emotion, not a diagnosis. If I do it, it will be personal in memory of how much I miss my mom these past years. Great post and I will try my best to take self portraits in the future. 🙂

    1. If you are able to capture yourself as you describe here (or in a similar situation and with the same personal expression) it does show a raw and emotional self that is much more than the regular selfies. And maybe some will see it as an expression of being depressed, but I think most viewers will understand it’s only showing one side of you, a touching moment and, yes, an emotion. Thank you for the lovely words, Amanda. It’s good to hear what you say.

  10. https://nazarethbe.wordpress.com/2012/11/07/selfie/
    that one was my first and hardest, notice i had to hide lol
    duck face ubiquitous selfie
    this is my ‘best’ self portrait in that it teaches people to be right scared of me lol

    you are very handsome, Otto; watch out, a pretty face like you might get into trouble on the world wide web 🙂

    1. These are all strong self-portrait, they give something of yourself and feel very personal. Love them. As for myself, I think I am old enough to be able to take care of myself. 🙂 Thank you, nonetheless, Elaine.

  11. This is so insightful. I think that part of what makes us uncomfortable about self-portraits – in many mediums – is the forced self-awareness. Many of us do not really know ourselves. And facing our true self is not always pleasant. We often fall short of what we wish to be. But, on the flip side there is the opportunity to discover beauty and strength to overcome those failings we didn’t know was there.

  12. This is a brilliant post, Otto… Self-portraits I believe are one of the most difficult things anyone could do ~ for as you say it cannot be easy “trying to capture something that says some truth about who you are” thus I generally have avoided any such attempt. You make me believe that it would be a good challenge. I like your second shot quite well…although I would say when it comes to taking self-portraits I imagine I’d be more like your last shot. Great post (and photos!).

  13. As ever your post is thought-provoking and challenging but I have mixed thoughts on this topic. I can appreciate the value of using sell-portraits to develop technique and to experiment with style and lighting etc as, indeed, painters have done over several centuries, but I find it difficult to accept that a photograph will tell me more about me than time spent before a mirror.

    1. I have no problems with your mixed thoughts about this topic.Of course. One thought about your reference to the mirror. As far as I see it (well, yes…) it’s the thought that goes into making the self-portrait that makes the difference. I wonder how often we think who we really are when we look in the mirror?

      1. If the purpose for looking in the mirror matches that behind a self-portrait (as distinct from the casual, vanity glance) i would expect little difference. I’m comparing like with like.

  14. Honestly, I am not even comfortable with iPhone selfies…I don’t know what my problem is with being so self-conscious! 🙂 I always love seeing self-portraits and yet it is something I’ve never even considered. You have me at least thinking about it. LOL!

  15. Absolutely excellent portraits, and thank you for making this post. I’ve wondered for quite a while how you would approach writing on this subject.

    I really don’t like making self- portraits. I’ve only done them when exploring lighting setups; I don’t really keep many of them afterward, and I don’t really look at the ones that I do hand on to with the lighting write-ups. I’ve never taking a selfie, and I can’t bring myself to do it. Some people have even asked me why I have never even drawn or painted a self-portrait. I’m just not comfortable with it yet. Perhaps one day.

    1. I think it’s fine to not want to take selfies or self-portraits. At the same time I think it’s a good challenge—and a learning challenge. But nothing one has to do. 🙂 Thank you for the feedback, Allan.

  16. Your self-portraits are interesting and very well done. I think one of the reasons I avoid self-portraits (other than the initial discomfort of being in front of the camera) is that I don’t think they would be very interesting (or well done?). I have taken a few selfies over the past year, and sometimes I hand my camera over to someone else to take a photo of me so that my grandchildren will have something to remember me by. I think I would like to try taking self-portraits again, but as a portrait instead of a selfie (which means I’ll have to find my tripod and not be so lazy about setting it up). Thank you for the inspiration! 🙂

    1. For me there is a big difference between a selfie and a self-portrait. The former is casual and just for fun, showing yourself in some setting to friends, while the later is trying to say something about yourself and even trying to understand yourself. I hope you will find it interesting to make self-portrait—and I look forward to seeing some on your blog. 🙂

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