Selfies, Self-Portraits, and the Women Who Love Them

In 2010, my mother nearly died of an aggressive form of cancer and I became her caretaker. It was a sudden, life-altering experience. At the time, I didn’t have the words to express myself — I barely had any words at all. But I had a camera. By turning the camera on myself and giving myself some distance, I could free myself for a blessed hour from reality and explore my emotions through movement and image.

Self-portraiture, as Casey Cep reminds us, has a long tradition, predominantly among women. I only discovered self-portraits in 2009, mostly because I didn’t have any other models to sit for me while I was learning how to operate a variety of film and Polaroid cameras. Over time, taking self-portraits became something more than just practicing how to take a picture, which I mean in both senses of the phrase. I was learning how to be a photographer, but I was also learning to be comfortable with myself. Cep tells us “[i]t used to be embarrassing to stage your own portrait” and even in 2009 there was something a little embarrassing about admitting you did self-portraiture. It was as if your work wasn’t serious enough, or you were a narcissist and self-obsessed. As women, are we only interesting to look at if someone else takes our photographs for us?

In the early days of her work, when she was still working in black and white, Cindy Sherman examined a woman’s place in the world. Her self-portraits showed the roles a woman is granted in society. Just as powerful, though, is the series in which she transforms herself from very plain, almost masculine to painted, flamboyant, feminine. In the last frame her gaze becomes less direct, sexier, more come hither. She does not simply change her face but switches roles and matches our expectations, before our very eyes.

Many female self-portrait artists are also heavily influenced by Francesca Woodman and the way she transforms herself and the world around her. The courage of these women to be ugly, beautiful, present, hidden, and real has given courage to thousands of others. We have yet to know what will come with the wave of millions of faces presented by the faces themselves, especially when mixed in with boys doing the same thing.

In her post “Selfies Aren’t Empowering. They’re a Cry for Help.” Erin Gloria Ryan asserts selfies are not feminist because they reinforce the idea that women should be judged solely on attractiveness, and that worth comes from affirmation of image. After thousands of photographs of myself, I realized a crucial lesson: Image can be manipulated so easily. Anyone’s can. I am attractive and I am unattractive. A photograph, a bad one, does not make me ugly, nor does a good one make me pretty. My self-worth is separate from the image I present to the world. What if selfies can help women separate themselves from the images they are forced to see every day, of themselves and others? Just as importantly, what if selfies can allow women — particularly women of color — to represent themselves when they are not represented at all?

In 2009, the women who took self-portraits — and yes, it was mostly women — did not call them selfies. In fact, many of the photographers I knew who used themselves in their images were and still are resistant to the word selfie, the way it diminishes an already marginalized genre of work.

I have come to see it differently. Self-portraits and selfies are similar but not the same in what they hope to achieve and what they communicate. Self-portraits can run the gamut from staged and photoshopped or weirdly magical to images of ourselves as raw or unsure or normal or honest as possible. Selfies, at least at this moment in their evolution, are anything from a fleeting moment in time to an individual’s attempted express her (or his) own desired identity. I agree with Cep that they may yet evolve. First women have to be in control of their image, and then we can feel more free to free ourselves of the tyranny of duck face in the photos we take of ourselves.