I've got this friend on Facebook, everyday without fail I see their selfies. I know what they wear for work, what they ate, how they dress to go out. Let's face it. We are in the me, my and myself generation, and visually that means selfies also known as: images of the self. But self portrait photography is much more than simply images, they reveal a lot about the person who made them.
Photography as self portrait
Before getting into the self portrait per se, one can make a simple point: Every image that we create is in a sense a self portrait.
Or, at the very least, little mosaics that end up creating a self portrait. Like below, a small mosaic showing my family side:
There are 3 ways we have creative control in photography:
– At the time of exposure
– At the time of post processing
– At the time of editing and sequencing
Whether we know it or not, we infuse ourselves into the work. Why photograph this and not that? Why shoot it that way and not this way? Why post process that way and not this way? Why include this shot and not that one?
When we photograph, it's as much recording the outside world as it is the inside world. That will be a given in this article, it's scope is about exploring the intentional turning of the camera towards us and ultimately what it means.
The self portrait: A Worthy Endeavor
The self portrait is not inherently a narcissistic endeavor. Yes, some people turn it into one, it's pretty evident when someone focuses exclusively on themselves when it comes to photography, just look at my friend on Facebook! But besides this extreme, it's a worthy pursuit.
First of all, if we claim to point our lens to the world, and we are part of the world, then not photographing ourselves is borderline misrepresentation of the world!
Not only that, making self portraits affirms our human nature. Nothing torments the human mind more than the longing to matter. That's what drives certain folks to try to be someone they are not, to go to brothels, to drugs, etc. Self Portraiture is a reminder that we matter, it's to say “I exist! I'm there…I matter.” It helps soothe a fundamental human longing.
Last but not least, the self portrait is like a torchlight, a tool in finding one's self. Sometimes we can't express how we are feeling inside truthfully, so self portraiture can help us discover ourselves more clearly than we can. What is truly revealing about a person is not only the different kinds of self portrait they do but ultimately the difference between them.
Type 1: Self Portrait as record of a place/state/temporary mood
(above) a Record type photo of me at a Tilapia farm
This is a pretty straightforward Self portrait. Usually made when traveling, it is basically a record of you and your mood in a definite space and time. I had a time I dyed my hair blond, a time I was in Nicaragua, a time I was depressed, etc.
(above) a Record of a moody day
Those are record-type self portraits. Their sole purpose being a sort of reminder. These are good for memories but not really good to find yourself in.
Type 2: How we want to be perceived a.k.a the selfie
This is by far THE most pervasive type of self portrait. The purpose of this type of self portrait is essentially to be perceived in a certain way. It's the most pervasive because being perceived in a certain way is a big deal for most people.
Ever seen the shot taken from up high on the side? It's the field of view that is found most flattering in general. Lots of selfies are taken like this because the person wants to be seen with their best features. Some folks make shots with their DSLRs over one of their eyes looking at a mirror, that's in order to be perceived as a photographer. Intent determines what this kind of selfie ultimately means.
Example: I was younger (You wouldn't catch me dead doing this now ><), and I wanted to be perceived as cool and sexy. Hence this:
I don't even remember if that was a self portrait or a portrait, but whatever the case, that's what I wanted to be seen as.
These self portraits are made then, in order to be perceived a certain way by others. Depending on who we want to show off to (Person of the other sex, employer, peers, etc), the selfie can change dramatically. That's when assets are exaggerated, the best face is shown and the best clothes are put out.
Type 3: The personal self portrait: How we perceive ourselves
But beyond the selfie, which is dependent on others, this kind of self portrait is highly personal and raw. This selfie is about showing ourselves, or at least how we think we truly are inside.
Furthermore, that type of self portrait might reveal how we want to see ourselves in the future, how we would like to feel about ourselves.
Let's look at this self portrait:
This image freaks me out because of the questions it's making me ask. Is it REALLY how I am inside? Or is it how I imagine myself to be? Whatever the case, it's these kinds of images that makes us take a step closer to finding ourselves.
Type 4: How we think others perceive us
This other type of self portrait starts like a personal one, made to express how we feel about ourselves, but instead of showing us who we are, we end up showing us how we think others see us.
I do not remember the name, but there was a cop killer that was on the run. When he was caught, he said, “Me? I wouldn't hurt a fly!” There is, most likely, always a divorce between how we truly are and how we think others perceive us. The bandit believed himself to be nice, he believed everyone should see him that way, but the reality was everyone saw him as a criminal. Let me be the first to admit that sometimes it's very hard to make out the difference between how we perceive ourselves and how we think others perceive us.
The quest for truth
It's one thing to make self portraits, it's another to find what it means about us. I think inside, people are like a nice, big, fur ball, and it's very entangled! But the different types of self portraiture are like multiple mirrors you can put around the fur ball so that you can start sorting each strand of fur by having multiple angles to look at.
Sometimes I make self portraits that I don't know what they mean. Is it how I see myself? Or how I think others see me? How I would like to see myself? Finding what your self portrait says about you takes time and one must be cautious, because we have our own biases! Here's how to do it
What your self portrait says about you
So now we get to the meat of things, we've seen different types of self portraits, it's time to identify and question yours:
– Go to your catalog and single out your self portraits
– Look at your record-type self portraits. What is it you find worthy to record? Your clothes? Your travels? Your good moods? Your bad moods?
– Look at the self portraits you made to be perceived a certain way. Who are you targeting and why? Why do you want to be perceived a certain way?
– Look at your personal self portraits, what do you always show? Why do you process your images like that?
Are there recurring elements you can find there and why? Are the self portraits a true reflection of you or is it how you want to be perceived?
– Can you single out the self portraits you made that reveal how you think you are perceived by others?
Why is there a difference between how you see yourself vs how you think others see you?
– What is your favorite self portrait? What type do you think it is?
– What common theme you can find in your self portraits and what do you think they mean?
At the end of the day, we as humans are highly complex and who we are is easier asked than answered. The self portrait offers us multiple mirrors at ourselves to examine our motives, how we see ourselves, how we think others see us. When we put everything together we will have a better understanding of who we are by being able to observe our blind spots. So….what DO your self portraits say about you?
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