My thoughts on the art of self portrait

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February 9 2011 – Photographers, as well as other artists, often feel that it is sometimes difficult getting started and finding the inspiration. Or finding the feeling… and then we start feeling this frustration. Why not just get started? And start this journey with self portraits.

When I was a guest teacher in photography at a community college for two weeks in autumn of 2009, I gave the students an assignment and the assignment was “self portrait”. I felt that it could be a creativity opener. I believe, that if we see how we see ourselves, we find out everything else about ourselves. Perhaps we start understanding a bit more about who we are, in how we see ourselves in the way we choose to photograph ourselves. Maybe this opens up things more than we think.

To photograph oneself can sometimes be both sensitive and complex. We start thinking about all those inner images we have of ourselves…. and also the outer.

Who am I?
Photographing myself?
But how?
I have never photographed myself.

Somehow we experience this thing with self portrait as a very loaded topic. We are afraid of being perceived as something we’re not, such as self-absorbed persons. We don’t want to be perceived as persons that admire ourselves or that we’re fixated by our look. Taking self portraits with a camera or painting self portraits has somehow always been viewed at as some sort of narcissism, so it is a loaded topic, even if we are increasingly more aware of ourselves today than ever before… it’s more socially accepted photographing ourself thanks to the mobile phone cameras.

It’s not about narcissicm, of course. It’s about beginning to see ourselves. The inner in ourselves. For me, self portrait is actually about “soul portraits”, wich I have written about earlier and all our images are in some way sort of self portraits. It’s about what we choose to photograph and how we choose to photograph the things we see. “That particular tree” or “that particular person”. But I believe that it is in the actual self portrait that leads us to understanding more about ourselves. The subconscious and the unconscious…

I once read an interesting article in a Swedish newspaper about the perception on self portraits in art history; “To interpret oneself is admittedly an individual act that is not infrequently characterized by narcissism, but at the same time comprise the collective human community. That’s why self portrait always has wavered between the private and the public, between self-reflection and the collective gaze.”

I don’t look at it as narcissism. I look at it as that I show my truth. My truth about myself.

I also read this in the same article; “Why does artists choose to depict themselves? For instance, to Renoir it was important to give an official version of himself, because he considered that the portraits of him, made by his friends, was contrary to the truth, or rather against his truth.”

My self portraits, or soul portraits, is my truth. The way I see myself. And I will continue opening up for myself in my photography, whether I photograph myself or myself through others/other things. Don’t be afraid to photograph yourself, just start doing it… And I believe that this is where the openings are.

22 comments

  1. I photograph myself all the time. But that’s because I do as I’m told, I don’t complain, I take direction well and I’m always willing to do weird things ;-)

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  2. This is an interesting read, Malin. There is the narcissism thing of course, which I discount; and the quest for an “official” version of oneself, as with Renoir (an artist I like very much).

    To think that “selfies” are more socially accepted now, in the era of mobile phones, is a chilling concept – I can get very frustrated indeed at the concepts of social acceptance, and of taboos! :) Where was I reading about the ritual breaking off taboos – sounds a good thing to me.

    As in so many things, I agree with your thoughts re self portraits exploring truth and soul – and the ways in which we seek to see ourselves. I certainly agree with your views.

    But another of the reasons why I take self portraits is very simple – I want to include pictures of people in my photography >>> but I have great trouble finding models! And so, partly, I photograph myself because I can’t photograph others – incredible really, but its the truth! (I’m posting a “mother and son” portrait tomorrow, by the way).

    Thanks for these thoughts, my friend! Adrian

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  3. “My truth about myself.” – I´ve been taking self-portraits since my twenty’s…and I always felt that way, this was always my search… I see myself as a landscape, that I look very carefully and everyday… and the seasons are changing it – and I can see it my body and face, time is acting there… how will I be from 20 years on?…I feel curiosity, as when I am reading a book or watching a film, and I don´t know the plot… I have this feeling…
    …but I believe when I am taking photo of a person, a real landscape…it´s the same . I am looking at myself in the other, I am searching for the bound, the connection, that line…

    I like your thoughts, dear Malin!! (…smiling again…)

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    1. Kari (I hope I have your name right!), seeing oneself as a landscape that changes over the course of one’s life is a very interesting concept, something I’ve never thought of – thank you! Adrian :)

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    2. Thank you so much dear Kari! I agree with you. And I’ve said this for many years too, about seeing oneself as a landscape and seeing the changes in the landscape. That’s what fascinates in all this with self portraits. Thank you so much for understanding and I really like your self portraits, Kari.

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  4. Väldigt starkt, Malin. Och väldigt intressant! Du har kommit långt, och dina bilder är underbart vackra i sin sårbarhet. Det är sann STYRKA, sann och ärlig!
    Ha en fin kväll
    Kram

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  5. Mycket intressanta tankar. Jag som alltid har sprungit och gömt mig när någon plockat fram en kamera, ända sen jag var riktigt liten blir riktigt nyfiken på vad det skulle kunna göra för mig personligen att ta självporträtt. Du inspirerar verkligen Malin och då menar jag inte bara självporträtt, utan på många plan. Tack!

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    1. Det finns ingen bättre känsla än att kunna inspirera. Jag gillade din serie självporträtt – den där du jobbat med lång slutartid och rörelse. Hoppas se fler självporträtt från dig framöver, ska bli intressant att se. Tusen tack för din kommentar och lycka till med självporträttfotograferandet.

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