I tried this July Challenge thing once before, but the topic wound up being too sensitive for me in this context and I pulled the post the next day. (They say that on the Internet, everything lives forever – but that’s only if somebody cares. I can vouch for that.) So this time I’ll go for something shallower – my feelings about self portraits.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: I hate taking self portraits. Certainly, artists have painted themselves since they had the pigment to do it; photographers have taken photos of themselves even when it took minutes for a single exposure. Yet I’d argue there’s something slightly different at work today in this world of digital photography and immediate internet access – this isn’t solely an exercise in self exploration or even in documentation. Do you remember the “Myspace angle?” I feel uncomfortable with the notion that if I want to create a certain impression of trustworthiness, friendliness, fun-ness (and in certain contexts, even sexiness), I must smile and look at the camera. There’s something empty and emotionally vacant in looking at the lens for that reason.
Currently, I use two pictures when I need to post an image of myself:
Both of these are self portraits in that I set up the camera equipment, but collaborative in that I had a friend doll me up, psych me up and press the shutter button (I’m sure the remote timer is somewhere …). They’re almost a year old. This means they are Ancient History and need to be replaced, but I find myself dragging my feet.
Many women, myself included, have a fraught relationship with our physical selves. At best, since I identify myself with my intelligence, I tend to regard my physical self as an accident that my mind and soul got saddled with. At worst, my body is a betrayer of my own interests. This is partially a result of a physical condition I inherited, but it is also very much a product of a world in which most women would be happier if they lost weight and where even amateurs Photoshop their own portraits.
I can take some horrendously unflattering pictures, as most of us can. With digital, I can take more just plain bad pictures than ever before! When I take self portraits, I typically reject a good 90% of the images that result. (Interestingly, I can improve this to around 50% if I am not the photographer.) I can count on one hand:
- The number of self portraits I have taken where I am looking at the camera,
- The number of self portraits I have taken where I am wearing my glasses,
- The number of self portraits I have taken and deemed “good,” period.
I am a minimalist when it comes to Photoshop (maximum tolerance: cropping, removing egregious zits), but I seem to have compensated by placing other restrictions on images of myself. I rarely look directly at the camera because I often look angry when I do. (It also feels incredibly fake.) When taking self portraits, I almost never wear my glasses, as the reflection of light on the lenses gives me “the crazy eye.” I don’t smile, as my front teeth are uneven (you can see a hint of this in the color picture).
I think the human body is meant to be seen in motion. When we attempt to take a photograph and capture the self at a particular second or fraction thereof, somehow, features that would never have been much of an issue become much greater. In the artifical setup of a portrait, equipment, posing, and proper lighting can make all the difference. In real life, I’m smiling all the time, and I rarely think of my uneven front teeth in my day-to-day doings. Yet when creating images for consumption on the Internet, I’m always aware of “how they look,” for their uneveness has somehow become far more visible in the photo’s stillness than it ever was in person.