The Necessary Self Portrait
On the momentous occasion that you place a camera in front of you and the shutter is pressed, an array of emotions may chaperon the act. A nagging discomfort may erupt inside, tensing your arms, and curling and twitching your lip.
To subdue the awkwardness, you tilt your face at an angle, your best side. Hiding insecurities with your palms, cupping your chin in a nonchalant pose. In this moment you suddenly can’t feel any more unlike yourself. Really, what should I do with my hands?
Turning to the camera screen, you are bewildered after being faced with your face, a network of complex lines, of skin that didn’t sag five years ago, and a complexion that has been damaged by the free radicals of this world.
From that singular encounter with yourself, the image seems to scream at you: you need to change. Hurry, before it’s too late.
The photos you see spewed out into the world aren’t like the one you just took, and the monumental difference proclaims that you are in dire need of adjustment, of makeup, and maybe even a bit of whitening toothpaste. You decide that that will be the last photo you take of yourself.
What can change this narrative?
The self portrait: a ubiquitous yet extremely underrated form of art. The eye of the beholder, the portal to the mind. Our soul in the etching of our face. It’s all there, waiting for us to untangle the messy roadmap of who we are.
While everyone has fallen in love with the painters of old who created masterpieces in their own image, doing that for yourself isn’t talked about as often, unless we consider selfie culture, which is a disservice to the beauty of finding glee in our own imperfections.
Who Are You, Really?
I learned more about who I was when I stood outside my friend's apartment at 11pm in the balmy heat of a Japan summer. I had walked an hour to get there, and once I arrived, I received a message saying he didn't want to see me.
I not only felt devastated because I was alone in the dark, in the middle of nowhere, but my emotions were compounded because a week prior I had told him that I liked him, and he couldn’t say it back.
Perhaps we both assumed that our friendship would remain undamaged, but here I was. Alone. Waters of dejection were instantly pulled away from my mental shores, and I felt the arrival of an impeding tidal wave. I couldn’t handle these feelings alone.
I went to the vending machine and pulled out several beers. After an hour or so, I found myself drunk and miserable, not a soul around. No one was there to either condemn or to appease my malady. I pressed my face to the ground, and pulled out my Ipad. I need to remember that this was me, I told myself. And pressed the button. Not a crowning moment, in fact probably one of my lowest points.
Why would a person do that to themselves? Why would someone want to remember who they were in times of grief? When they are in a place that is not only humiliating, but also incredibly unattractive.
Self portraits are a time machine. It shows others that you were once alive. How you lived and breathed, and it reveals to yourself who you were in that moment.
If I didn’t have images to look back on, I might not have remembered how I felt, and may have even downplayed my emotions in memory. But when I see the photographs I took that night, it all comes flooding back to me and I’m there once again.
I’m teleported to that hot summer evening, beads of sweat on my back, tears in my eyes, and condensation on my beer. I was so drunk and frustration ran so high I even licked the floor. Why? I don’t even know.
I guess we all do dramatic things under the influence. Definitely a horrendous thing to see considering the state of our world today. The idea that I would even do something so unsanitary shocks me. It almost doesn’t feel like me. And that’s the point. We need to remember that despite the facade we hold up to the world, we were not put on this earth to live perfect lives.
In photographing yourself, it shows you plain and simply, how human you are. Yet what you show, and how much you show, is entirely in you own hands. You have the power to make yourself look better or worse than you are. Personally, I choose to take on the whole spectrum.
I’ve been taking self portraits for over 10 years. I have hundreds of black and white photos that I took with my Ipad mini 4, which I still use to this day. No fancy iPhones or cameras necessary, just a spoonful a curiosity and cup of acceptance.
The Soul of the Self Portrait
No matter what kind of art I make, it is in its essence a self portrait. Regardless what you choose as a subject. Whether it is a flower in the forest, old-time friends, or the man that just yelled at you at the subway, you are in the constant process of photographing yourself. The subject is a mirror, and they reflect our own psyche.
On rare occasions people share their stories with me, requesting to recreate their experiences as an image. Within that process, I try to reflect themselves to them, but in the end we are all just taking self portraits. Mirrors upon mirrors. We have something to say, but we are terrified to say it directly to the world.
Art isn't always easy to understand. A picture is a visual poem, and poetry is a code. To understand the heart of the author, you must dissect it. The self portrait in all forms, is a cry into the expanding universe. To show them who we are, in all our imperfections.
Being able to parade all my flaws to the world has not only awarded me with confidence, but also a softness. In this world where perfection reigns high, it is an act of rebellion.
No one knows what anyone truly looks like anymore, and ultimately in the end, no one knows who you are. Not even yourself.
The goddess of the self portrait, Frida Kahlo said “I paint myself because I am so often alone, and because I am the subject I know best”. In this world recently, I feel the same. I am often alone. Because of the current state of our Covid-struck world, I leave my house minimally.
I’m being forced to get to know who I am, to fight with myself, and to come to terms with knowing that my flaws are real, and to have them dancing before my eyes every day. And that is where you can learn to find magic.
Your Many Faces
When I am taking a picture of myself on a good day, it is an act of play. I dance with the light, throw objects in front of my face. How will I look with this covering my eyes?
It’s almost childlike in process, turning objects around over and over, listening to the sounds they make, touching each item you see, and then discarding it just as quickly when interest is lost. Everything suddenly has a beating heart, and all has potential.
On a bad day, it is my diary. There is only room for honesty, and in the act of photographing the struggle it is purified.
There is nothing more poignant than seeing someone you know crying in a hospital bed, vulnerable, with the fear of their immortality ringing in their ears.
It is even more so when it is your own face.
That was me in 2020, I couldn't believe it was me in the images, eyes swollen from crying, in hospital garb and a UV drip pierced through my skin.
When Self Love Meets Reality
I don’t find myself beautiful in the modern sense. I could have been a looker in the pilgrim days, but the desires of this generation are quite specific.
When I say that, it isn’t in self-pity, or god forbid to fish for compliments. But as someone whose vocation is within the visual it is the conclusion I have come to. I am abysmal at the selfie. There is a format already in place for what dictates a good one, and I was never it.
In defiance to that standard, I take pictures of what I am most self-conscious about instead. I photograph my “hobbit” feet, as an ex-boyfriend would call them, I’d take pictures of my geographic tongue (A condition that leaves me extremely sensitive to tomatoes), of the bands of wrinkles that wrap around my neck.
Truly, anything that I hated the most about my body. In it, I have come to marvel at the changes. I am whole. Not a part. Why not shoot everything? Why not choose to love everything?
When you do this, you allow new thoughts about yourself to enter, You find the lines and wrinkles fascinating. And then you slowly become enamored with all the things you once thought were imperfections.
Your crooked smile is no longer something you catapult hate at, but you find that the angle of your mouth fits wonderfully in frame. No one else can take a photo like that, and you are perfect within yourself.
How to start
Childlike wonder is back in your hands. You can return to that place where you stare at yourself in a mirror for hours on end. Not out of ego, but in the pure glee of being in a working, moving body. One that you have the honor to maneuver, one you are given the chance to love.
I believe it is important to approach self portraiture in this way.
So, I will give you a little bit of homework. Not a two step or five part plan, but a little something that you can do for yourself.
The next time you are alone, I want you to take your phone, and stand in a place with delicious lighting. Stand in that room, and take a photo of yourself with your favorite objects. I want you to look through your cabinets, pull our plastic wrap and cover yourself with it.
Go into your shower, and try to take a photo of yourself (Be careful of the splash) and see what you look like when you have a face full of water. Hide behind your plants or curtains and pretend you are a fairy in the woods.
Take the time to look through and find a moment that you have never seen yourself in.
While not everyone will find that this practice aligns with them, it is important to try, just in case it does with yours. In this life, where so many are chasing success, imaginary numbers, and real numbers, filling their bodies with the regret of their choices, it is important just to sit.
One of my favorite quotes in the world is “I felt in need of a great pilgrimage, so I sat still for three days”. The examination of yourself is part of it, a side quest from that journey, if you will.
In the end, I can only preach about how it has been a saving grace in life. I’ve been photographing myself for a decade, both casually and professionally. The relaxed side of things is where I find the joy, where I can fully be myself with no consequences and allow the excavation of my old stories to begin.
So when you are feeling waves of emotion where they attempt to overpower you, taking over your mind like a nest of angry termites, hold your phone in your hand. Don’t tilt your head, stop thinking about how you can be beautiful in the eyes of the world. Try to find yourself, and turn it into a thing of magic.