My Thoughts on Self-portraits

Question: My name is Amy and I am doing a project at school for photography about self-portaits. I was wondering if you have a minute whether you could tell me something about why you take them occasionally and what you find difficult about it, how it makes you feel, that kind of thing. Thanks for your help. Yours sincerely, Amy (a budding photographer).

What are my thoughts about self-portraits? Good question! Self-portraits, Amy, are a continuing struggle (and preoccupation, in some ways) with artists of all kinds. Many artists do self-portraits, the thinking being that if one can adequately represent SELF then one can perhaps more adequately represent someone, or something, else.

It is hardest to look closely at oneself.

Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph with Little Edgar the Squirrel

Dr. Ellen (above) with Little Edgar the Squirrel who was hand-raised by Ellen but not releasable back to the wild. His jaw was severely fractured in a fall from the nest during a hurricane at one week of age, and his teeth never grew in properly as a result. He lived unconfined in Dr. Ellen’s household for more than six years and left many wonderful memories behind.

Doing a self-portrait is a provocative experience. How we think we look to others, or how we think we come across to others, can be quite different from what happens in reality. It’s a matter of how we project ourselves and sometimes ego or need or anxiety gets in the way of – interferes with – that projection. It is considered to be one of the harder experiments, to see if one can capture one’s essence in a way that reflects one’s important aspects that are also seen by others as important.

Given that, however, we must remember that others see us through their own emotional filters, and through their own needs and egos and anxieties of the moment. What they think they see in us may not be a fair representation of us at all, although they don’t necessarily know that. We can only do our best to project ourselves as fairly and as openly as possible so as to evoke real and meaningful dialogue with others.

Meaningful dialogue does not happen in a vaccum. It does not happen when we are defensive or feeling hurtful. Dialogue is self-portraiture at its best. It is an exercise in openness.

People generally know me for my work with animals, for my travel photography and writings, for my affections for today’s high-tech world of digital cameras and computers, and for my living systems view of the natural world. I am a psychologist by training and a photographer by inclination and avocation. My self-portrait with Little Edgar the Squirrel (above) embodies these things although the systemic aspects are embedded in a more subtle way through the use of a reflection of myself in a mirror. When I print that image of myself from my own desktop as high gloss photographic output then I am adding yet another element to the self-portrait – the interface with computers.

Little Edgar the Squirrel was a disabled friend and resident of my household for his entire life – he was a part of me, and therefore I felt moved to include him in my self-portrait at that time as a representative of the natural world that I treasure so greatly. I plan one day to write a children’s book about Little Edgar so that I can spread his influence and magic beyond these walls.

Remember that self is illusive at best; not all parts of the self can be reflected in a single moment but rather over time in flowing movement. The more fragmented or fractured our experience in the world the more disjointed our reflections.

The elements that I tried to encompass by that single image of mine include critters, cameras, computers and self-reflection.

I try to do self-portraits as a model for other photographers, as well, for we are what we photograph. What we see is who we are. We see the things we see because of who we are. We cannot be seen as separate from our subjects or as separate from the environment in which we find ourselves. Photography is just a way of being in the world. I chose it because it is a way, for me, of being in the world that feels harmonious, rather than in conflict, with the natural world.

My over-riding mantra is to, first, do no harm. Leave only footprints. As do others of like mind, I struggle with self-guidance concerns that, in many ways reflect the individuating ideals of native American Indians:

Treat the Earth and all that dwell thereon with respect
Remain close to the Great Spirit
Show respect for your fellow beings
Work together for the benefit of all mankind
Give assistance and kindness wherever needed
Do what you know to be right
Look after the well-being of mind and body
Dedicate a share of your efforts to the greater good
Be truthful and honest at all times
Take full reponsibility for your actions

I credit Paul Morgan with those encapsulations which very closely reflect my own motivations. I drive a small car because I try to be responsible and ever-mindful about how I interface with the precious natural resources of our world. It is a small effort but I believe that every small effort contributes to a larger whole.

I help animals in need for the same reason; as humans encroach more and more on wildlife habitats I believe that we must become more and more responsible, individually as well as collectively, for the plight of animals in our midst. I deliberately bought an older house instead of using more natural resources to build yet another, new house. I recycle. I try not to leave too big a ‘footprint’ in my wake. I pocket my discards. I strive to control excess. And I try to use my observations and insights in the very same way that a painter uses a brush to convey their impressions on canvas.

Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t. But the fun is certainly in the trying.

Question: Dear Doc Ellen, I am a British A-Level photography student who was surfing the web on self-portraiture when I happened upon your “Thoughts on Portraiture” essay. What you said about self-projecting through images, without the obstruction of ego or in other words what we think of ourselves, compared to the reality of it, really struck home.
It in fact caused me to completely scrap all the current ideas I have had for the project of self-portraiture that is currently set at my college. (It might be relevant to any answers you can give me, if I mention that the work is to be digitally edited on computers, merging multiple images into one, to create a self-portrait.)
When thinking about your words, I realised that my ideas were not totally egotistical, but merely a little fantasized. Thus I have a few questions I would be grateful if you could answer. 1. How can I get a perspective on myself without being bias in the process? (I am not the most honest and perfect of people, I shall admit)
2. I originally had ideas for people in my portrait that affected my life, e.g. loved ones. However now I am inspired to really create an image that shows my deepest truest form of self, are there any tips you can give me to express this?
3. In many celebrated photographers work, self-portraiture does include, or feature on their own, loved ones. Is it a little cheesy or in fact silly, if at my age I choose to express part of my self, with images of a girl?
4. Are there any tips you can give me to express properties of my personality, through a camera, for example, an easily tripped temper, wear my heart on my sleeve and my imperfection as a person?

I await your reply with anticipation.

Tom, let’s start with the notion, ‘We are what we photograph.’ A good first exercise in self-portraiture is to figure out what it is that you like to photograph the most. Why? Because that will tell you a lot about yourself.

For example, scenic photographers as a collective tend to be more insular, more emotionally distant from others, less engaged with others, more introspective and thoughtful, and their ‘subjects’ project LIFE in the form of flora and fauna in often pristine and relatively remote locations. They tend to feel more or less uncomfortable around people, and only rarely do their lovely scenic portraits include impassioned people. They also have the patience of Job and will wait for days or even weeks if necessary to ‘get the shot.’

The photographer has found a match with their personality in their choice of subject.

Or, take the photographer who specializes in macro photography where extreme close-ups are the norm. Their ‘subjects’ are equally distant from them, albeit at the other extreme. So in that respect they, as personalities, are perhaps not that far afield from the scenic group.

Other photographers strive to ‘capture the moment’ – to show the life passion of the sentient being that they are focusing on – the look in their eyes, the emotion expressed in body posture or stance, inherent tension. These kinds of photographers reside generally closer in to the stream of life and their images reflect this.

People photographers are, in this respect, remarkably different from wildlife photographers. So, too, wide-angle shooters are remarkably different from telephoto shooters. I am talking, of course, about shooters who gravitate to a particular type of photographic style and subject over all others.

We can learn a lot from them, and about them, by watching them.

Indeed, people do the same thing when selecting professions or careers. Does the Type A personality gravitate to hectic and high-pressure work places for no good reason? Or do they know, at some level, that they will thrive in that environment because it fits well with who they are as as a person? What drives a first born male or female into leadership positions in the work place, if not to continue to exert the kind of control and guidance of others that they became used to growing up?

We see the things we see because of who we are.

This is another interesting and related concept to explore. If we put a large African Elephant in the middle of a crowd of people, each person in that crowd will view the Elephant quite differently depending upon where their focus normally resides in life.

For example, a behaviorist will stand back and observe the interactions between the Elephant and the crowd of admirers. They will feel that they can’t know the Elephant until a certain amount of interactive data has been obtained. A psychologist, however, will be far more engrossed in observing the Elephant for symptoms of distress, anger, annoyance, excessive obedience, docility, or other such things, and they will smile knowingly when they see them.

A cardiologist will surely be thinking about the weight of the Elephant in relation to the size of its heart and its overall health. Just as a dermatologist will spend little time examining the Elephant’s behavior and will focus, instead, on the animal’s skin and its remarkable assets and functions.

Many marriage counselors can be heard bemoaning the fact that ‘there are no more healthy couples’ out there, but you have to remember that that is who they spend their time with day in and day out – couples in chaos. These marriage counselors have so learned to train their focus in the direction of a failing marriage that it often blinds them to other kinds of couples.

So we do bring ourselves and our past enlightenments with us to any endeavor in the present, and we see the world around through those established filters.

In strictly photographic terms, then, I am often amused by the extreme focus on equipment amongst photo practitioners. You will find that this fairly characterizes their LIFE in general, not just themselves as photographers. Their general life focus tends to be external, away from self, critical always, and often highly competitive in nature.

But there is a very large difference between the camera being used to make an image and the person who is pressing the shutter button. A master can achieve a masterpiece no matter what camera he or she uses, because the master sees the world in a special way. The master has also learned to hone in on dynamics in their subjects that are important to them. They feel inside a certain way and that becomes translated and expressed externally to others via their images.

Someone technically proficient in all aspects of today’s digital world may lack a certain compositional flair. And if they do, it is because artistry and a technical knowledge base do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. Their images will not have ‘soul’ if they are not themselves soulful. Their images will not engage the observer if the photographer him or herself is not an engaging person.

On Knowing the Self

We never really get to see ourselves as others see us. Even if we look at ourselves in a mirror, the mirror always distorts. The best we can manage is to strive to know ourselves and to live in harmony, as best we can, with the sense of self that we have.

Sometimes, perhaps too often in life, we are dumbfounded by the visions that others have of us – visions that to us seem to be so off-track.

Most often this stems from an inconsistency that we ourselves project. If we say one thing and mean another, that is confusing to others. If we say yes to please someone else when we really want to say no – then our communications will be hopelessly muddled. But if we try to live every minute in accordance with our basic precepts about the world, then others will begin to see us in a way that is closer to how we see ourselves.

The Art of Constructing a Self-Portrait

A self-portrait, then, necessarily comes from within. Injecting ‘those we love’ into the portrait steers one away from the harder task to trying to reveal self without adornment.

If you eat, sleep, and live for speed then your self-portrait should reflect motion and movement as one of its cornerstones.

If you are a reflective type, then reflections and patterns and their intersections should occupy a primary space.

If overall you feel more flawed than whole, then you wouldn’t want to go about photographing the most pristine parts of yourself; you would want, instead, to capture your essence in a manner that describes and defines you without complaining. I say that because the essence of self-discovery requires you to be a benign observer of self so as not to hone in too closely on this or that part.

A sense of ‘wholeness’ is difficult to capture. Indeed, wholeness is almost impossible for some people to even understand – let alone capture in themselves – because their persons and their lives are so fragmented, so disorganized in general.

But that is what self-portraiture is all about, capturing the whole – the whole of who you are as a person.

Try to be unforgiving in a benign and neutral way. Study yourself in the mirror and paint what you see there. Then go inside yourself and paint what you see there, as well. Then try to merge those deparate parts.

How can I get a perspective on myself without being biased in the process?

Only by looking closely at what you do can you get such a perspective. Let your actions speak louder than words. Let your lifestyle tell you who you are. Look to where you gaze for answers about yourself. If you do that, the photograph will tell the real story.

Are there any tips you can give me to express properties of my personality, through a camera, for example, an easily tripped temper, wear my heart on my sleeve and my imperfection as a person?

Any focus on parts will fail to reveal the self as a whole.

So look at your whole self without trying to zero in on various parts. A living whole is much more than the mere sum of its parts.

What metaphors in life can you think of that best describes ‘tripped temper, heart on the sleeve, and social imperfections’ all rolled into one?

It sometimes helps to look through your image collection to see what patterns you find there. Make a list of your favorite photographic haunts and see what that tells you about yourself. Look closely at the important people in your life and see what they also reveal about you. You are what you eat, so look there, too.

Happy Shooting!

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