What’s in a self portrait?

I recently read Miss Aniela’s book on self portraiture and was inspired to try some experiments with my 2 new cameras that have a timer (S95 compact and 5D). I had also spent a couple of insomniac nights pulling faces at my iPhone held at arm’s length. What I discovered is that I felt an impulse to capture strong emotions and heightened awareness, perhaps as a form of therapy and exploration of identity.

The question of identity is one that continues to fascinate me, and exploring the parameters of what can be conveyed in a captured moment seem to continue to resonate after the event, a kind of lingering memory of someone that I was for that instant and a feeling that can be recalled. Perhaps an element of the self can be created in this way, in the same way that a musical recording becomes a part of who I am. Self portrait is also a term that can be interpreted in so many ways. A photo of another person or a place may contain so much of the photographer’s personality, feelings and ideas that its dominant aspect becomes that of a self portrait. There is a good documentary about Richard Avedon which describes this element of his work.

This photo was taken recently on my way back from a visit to a Chiropractor and the issue of Scoliosis (mine is relatively mild, though noticeable through occasional rib pain) was on my mind. Seeing this image that accidentally mirrored my internal thoughts so directly made me do a double take and decide, “this is a kind of self portrait”.

This image raises questions about gender, desire and spectacle, and illustrates my instinct to gently provoke. These are all elements that add to its validity as a self portrait.

I enjoy looking at self portraiture which deals with symbolism, constructed events, artifice, fantasy and also explores psychology. The amazing photography of Dr Joanna Ratkowski deals with these themes expertly (a google search shows some of her images, though the flickr page and portfolios seems to have been removed). As I consider future photographs I can make I’m seeing possibilities for experiential growth, technical as well as emotional challenges. Above all the idea of photograph as event interests me. Is it possible to explode reality, to make an incision in its fabric – letting in light from the other side? Could it be that engineering an experience, a situational process that is refined and explored – could be of greater interest than planning or composing the image itself? Some of Matthew Barney’s work has been along these lines. Filming himself running and jumping onto a trampoline to make a mark on the gallery wall with a pencil, over and over again. A kind of athletic disciplined repetition which leaves behind a strange piece of evidence in the marks made, their randomness and order.


I’m not so concerned with the issue of narcissism which is often connected with self portraiture. In fact if there is a natural tendency for narcissism then exploring and addressing it is most likely the healthiest (and potentially funniest) option. While expressing our own self we can also address a wider concept of self (such as in shared feelings), and in doing so perhaps even become more connected to others, the collective unconscious, a kind of meta-self to which we have access as explorers and witnesses of consciousness. Just like a theatrical monologue or a film in which the director, star and cinematographer are different aspects of the same person the possibilities appear endless. Choices and limitations remain vital, while experimentation and cultivation of self-knowledge through questioning and repetition will lead to that place of coherence. As the David Carradine-a-like character in Sucker Punch says, “And remember, If you don’t stand for something.. you’ll fall for anything”.