I get asked all the time why in the world I take self-portraits. Usually it is a simple curiosity. Especially from fellow photographers who can’t imagine being in front of the camera, this is a strange thing to do. It is vulnerable, reflective, and telling.
But it is also a way to take control over all parts of your craft – to focus on the self is to be bold, brave, and mindful. Or at least, it can be.
Often the fear of self-portraiture goes back to body image. And, the assumption about self-portrait artists is that they love the way their body looks, so they photograph it. I can only speak for myself and what I know of other artists, and that isn’t always true.
I create self-portraits to see myself as a character, to be in total control, to not be accountable to anyone but myself, and to embolden and empower myself. To find acceptance.
One of my favorite self-portrait artists is Samantha Geballe. You’ll see why immediately. She is vulnerable, direct, bold, and innovative in all that she does and says with her lens.
Image by Samantha Geballe https://www.samanthageballe.com/
She is also the perfect example of someone who takes the conversation in the direction she wants. She is an artist who drives conversations, not one that takes a backseat.
Self-portrait artists can be harshly judged. I’ve received emails saying that I shouldn’t create self-portraits because I’m not good looking enough. It happens. (Don’t worry about me, I’m a very tough cookie.)
But I think that a really smart artist drives the conversation. If you create a self-portrait and want to talk about body image (like Sam does in a lot of her work), then do that intentionally. Be the one that moves the talk in a way that feels productive to you. That doesn’t mean criticism won’t come in, or that you won’t hear hurtful comments, but you are more likely to command respect and positive attention in this way.
For example, I am very mindful of how I write online about my work. If I feel the focus should be on the theme, I write about the theme. If I feel it should be on the story of the image, I write about that.
This directs the conversation away from a place I don’t feel it should go.
Images from 2009.
I remember in my very early work I created an image where I highlighted and accentuated my rib bones. I released that image and received a backlash of comments calling me anorexic (which is a horrible accusation to throw around) and, essentially, body shaming.
The next time I posted an image like that, I didn’t get mad about those names I was being called. Instead, I directed the conversation. I drew attention to the fact that I was accentuated my bones for the story of the image. The entire conversation changed, and it became about why that choice was made.
In self-portraiture, we have the ability to direct the conversation just like any other time we release our art into the world. You might argue that we shouldn’t have to do that. That people should just be nice. That we shouldn’t have to deal with judgment. But, that simply isn’t the world we live in. And if I am given a chance to be in control, I am going to take it.
Throughout my 9 years as a self-portrait artist, I have learned more about myself than I ever thought possible.
I’ve learned how to see myself as the main character of my life, not just my images. I’ve learned how to love my body through bad camera angles. I’ve learned to not touch the liquify tool in Photoshop, to not change my body, to let it be as it is. I’ve learned photography through self-portraiture, learned composition intimately, learned how to express emotion through non-verbal communication, and more.
I highly encourage you to create a self-portrait. It might be just what you need and you didn’t even realize it. Or, maybe it’s old hat and you’re in the market to try something new with it. Either way…
This week, create a self-portrait.
Share a link to it in the comments below.
What are your fears about self-portraiture?
What has your experience been?
I have always been open about my love of education. Growing up I wanted to be an English teacher. I thought my path was set from a very early age. I loved teaching, I loved helping others, it just seemed natural. But then I found creativity and that took over my life in a massive way. So, I started what any normal person would – teaching creativity!
I have been teaching for 8 years now, and I remember my first workshop like it was yesterday.
I used to shoot in this old warehouse. Half of it was still being used for some sort of materials company. I waltzed in one day and asked the owner if I could take pictures in the back of his shop. He said yes, and so a wonderful collaboration was born. I took pictures there countless times, even brought a dance crew there to photograph them…
And then, when I decided to host my first workshop (planning commenced in June 2010) I asked him if I could bring my workshop group there.
This is the first image I ever created in a workshop.
HUGE liabilities aside (it being a decrepit warehouse), he said yes, I announced my workshop, and it remains one of the neatest locations I’ve ever used.
I remember carefully planning out every single minute of the day. I remember feeling extremely confident in my curriculum. I remember freaking the heck out over my organization skills, if anyone would show up, and if they would find it valuable. I charged $200 a person and we did everything from inspiration exercises to shooting to editing.
My workshop structure has changed little since that first one. I spent hours upon hours planning it out and it worked.
I’ve been fortunate enough to teach at major conventions, go around the world with these workshops, and prattle about at Creative Live (it was an honor to teach their first fine art class).
Here is a look at just some of the images I have created during my Creative Live classes, of which I have taught over 60 hours worth.
You have trusted me, given me so much love, too many hugs to begin counting, friendships made, and experiences that have filled my 20s with so much appreciation. I’ve visited 21 countries on hundreds of trips. It has been out of this world.
Why give it up?
The answer isn’t what you may think.
On one hand, it is. I need to stop traveling so much. I need a break. I need to be home. I’m homesick even when I’m home because I know it’s just a week until my next trip.
But on the other hand, it is something very different that took a lot of growing up to realize.
When you teach your craft, you learn your craft intimately. It was the best decision I could have made to really, truly understand what I’m doing, and why. Nothing else compares, not hours of shooting or editing. It’s repeating that information in a digestible way that allowed me to understand my craft as well as I do. And how well I understand my craft, which I daresay is extremely well, is why I’m leaving teaching behind for now.
I’m in a new period of creative exploration. The baby stages. I don’t know what I’m doing yet. I explore it every single day. I’m not ready to teach it because I’m just getting to know it.
It’s like we’re getting tea for the first time, awkwardly not knowing if we should shake hands or hug, and we’re making small talk.
Some big conversations are coming on soon.
After that, I’ll be ready.
I’ll be ready to teach my new craft. I don’t know if it will be massively different or the same. I anticipate teaching writing workshops as well, something that, in more ways than you’ll understand, fulfills my childhood dreams.
But for now, I wait.
I don’t know if this break from teaching will last 2 months or 2 years. All I can say is that I am grateful beyond belief for your support thus far, for letting me guide you into the deepest realms of creativity, and for standing by me as I pursued this path.
I’ll continue on with my blog posts and videos, of course. But as for in-person education – that will have to wait until I’ve met my creativity, stared it in the face, and learned every wrinkle inside and out.
If you’ve been to a workshop, please comment below and let me know where we met!
(And maybe even your experience!)
If you’ve been to a class of mine, even if it was online, this is what I want you to know about me: I give everything. I am not someone who fears. I am someone who gives because I would rather see people uplifted and empowered rather than held back by knowledge that I could give but do not because I am afraid. I do not say that in vanity, I say it because it is a trait that I hold in high esteem and because I have built my life on that foundation. For my many, many flaws, this is where I hold my head high.
Teaching has taught me the kind of person I want to be. It is not someone who holds secrets close and guarded; it is someone who shares openly, with a heart like a sponge, who listens and aids and feels deeply. Thank you for letting me do this. It is an honor for which I cannot properly express my gratitude.
Want to take a class from me? While I am on hiatus from in-person education, I have classes on Creative Live that are extremely comprehensive and fulfilling:
These days I spend a fair amount of time in my room alone talking to a camera. And…I love it! I really do. Creating video content is so much fun and always a creative challenge for me. Last week I found myself in Los Angeles passing through between jobs, so I visited my friend Devin Schiro.
On a whim while we were out to breakfast, I asked him if he would create a video with me – a creative challenge, I pitched. One video, one photo.
He happily agreed, cancelled his appointments for the day, and we got to work.
I met Devin when he attended a workshop of mine 6 years ago. I came to love his style of filmmaking and we have collaborated many times since then, like on this most recent underwater video last year. Not to mention we became lovely friends (as you’ll see quite plainly).
These are the 3 reasons why I think creative challenges are so impactful:
It brings out your YOUiest you. When you are creating against someone, you are forced to think about how you can make the challenge into something that fits your style, and that allows your content to stand out. Immediately when we started our photo challenge, I looked at the fireplace. BINGO. I can fit in that fireplace, and he can’t. That’s what my brain said immediately, because I started to think in terms of who I really am artistically and what gives me an edge.
It lets you learn new skills. All day long Devin taught me so much about video, from the best settings on my camera, good microphones to use, ways to keep the camera still while moving, and lots of editing tips and tricks. It felt so good to be a student! And I like to think I helped him with a few things, too.
It takes the pressure off. You might think it would be the opposite when competing against someone, but for me, it really does take the pressure away. Yes, I wanted to make something nice. But the atmosphere was much more about learning, growing, and spending time creating than anything else. At the end of the day Devin thanked me for making him create for himself. That’s the spirit, truly.
What should have been an hour long project filming this video turned into a 12 hour day. I kid you not. We filmed and created and laughed from 10:30am until 10:30pm.
What you’ll see in this video: me laughing so much that I can’t breathe, Fumi the cat casually sauntering about in at least 5 scenes, a bathtub, frantic running, candles melting on skin, Devin’s incredible historic apartment, and more. Much more.
It’s a long one (13mins) but a really good one. I can’t watch it without bursting out laughing. Especially the bathtub stuff.
Giving yourself a creative challenge – or better yet, teaming up with someone for a challenge – is a beautiful experience. When I first started photography I joined a challenge group on Flickr. That’s how I met one of my closest friends Christine, who I met in person for the first time when she came to my first gallery opening. You just never know.
In case you don’t have someone readily available for these types of creative days, I want to create a safe space to share.
If you’re up for it (and maybe even if you’re not, hint hint) I invite you to participate in the creative challenge that Devin and I did!
Photo Challenge: Create using the color RED.
Film Challenge: Create using the theme FEAR.
Stills from my video challenge.
If you’re looking for a good resource to challenge yourself creatively, my dearest friend Lindsay Adler (with whom I frequently challenge myself creatively) has a book called Creative52. I adore it, and you will too if you’re looking to be challenged.
Please feel welcome to post your images and/or videos in the comments. I’d love to see some inspiration flood in this week and I know others will appreciate seeing what you have to offer as well.
P.S. Devin, thank you for having a very heavy hand in editing my video. I learned so much from you and I know I will continue to learn from your unique way of seeing the world. Thank you for sharing. I hope the whole world gets to see your talent someday.
P.P.S. I’m going on VACATION, y’all! I can’t believe it! I’m going to Hawaii on a trip with my sister for a week. That means there won’t be a new Monday video next week because I’m trying to take a proper holiday. So, I’ll be back the week after with new content and goodies!
Scroll for information about today’s giveaway, to watch the video, and read my thoughts.
I took a self-portrait class.
Even though I’ve created over 800 self-portraits, even though I’ve taught self-portrait classes before…
I went. And I was a student.
Going to this class, taught by the gorgeous person Meghan Davidson, opened up two ways of thinking for me.
The first was one that I had to understand before I went. I’m a natural facilitator. I love teaching, love guiding people. When I went to this class – the first workshop I’ve ever properly taken – I had to put that aside. I wasn’t the one leading, and that is a role I’m not comfortable in.
Instead of walking into the classroom with a leader mindset, I embodied a student mindset. I decided to be curious, to keep an open mind, and to create something I never would otherwise. Watch the video to see what I ended up making (and more!):
The other thing I realized was what a gift it was to attend. To listen to another perspective on creating, to have my mindset challenged and pulled at. That is a gift that I’ve never given myself before. It was a beautiful experience.
This post comes in lieu of those two things: being a beginner + giving gifts.
I challenge you to create like you don’t know what you’re doing.
Even if you’re a professional, even if you have been creating for 20 years, even if you think you know your style, even if you know your craft.
Go back to basics. Do something that scares you, that challenges you. Do something simple. Don’t feel the need to PRODUCE.
That is where this image came from. For me, it was a relatively simple image. I shot it close up, which I normally shy away from, and I didn’t rely on heavy-handed editing.
I covered my body in paint, used a little butterfly I’ve had for 6+ years, and I had fun. Simple, I-don’t-have-to-produce-anything-good FUN.
I tried new techniques in Photoshop, I tried new colors, and I didn’t hold myself to what I already know.
I began again, even though I had already begun creating self-portraits 9 years ago.
What would you do differently if you could begin again?
Scroll for GIVEAWAY!
This week I’ve been given many things, some emotional, some good for the soul, and some were just downright awesome products. I came home from a week away to find a new 3 Legged Thing tripod (this one, specifically) waiting for me as well as a new Microsoft Surface Studio home computer. I mean…
So, I’m passing it on. I really, really needed a new computer (mine was mid-combustion) and I was about to spend money on it. Now that I don’t have to, I’m giving away $150. Because I know this: Someone really needs it.
If you’d like to enter the giveaway, leave me a comment. Tell me either: a bit about yourself or about a friend who you think could use this kind of a gift.
And if you have the ability, pay it forward today.
How often do you make something that surprises you?
As the great photographer Jerry Uelsmann once said, and I paraphrase – if he has any goal, it is to surprise himself.
I think that is one of the most profound statements an artist can adopt. It is so difficult to surprise ourselves. After all, we are ourselves. To do something so out of our usual comfort zone that even we are surprised by what we do or the outcome of what we do is my mission.
I found that recently I wasn’t very surprised by myself. And by recently, I mean the past handful of years. I took risks, but they were calculated. I took risks that weren’t really all that dangerous. So, were they risks at all if I have to categorize them as baby risks? Probably not.
When I started photography I would have done anything – misshapen bodies, weird contortions, grotesque imagery. I think that as my taste for imagery grew, so did my images. But, they became more normal.
I’m beginning to shed that. I’m beginning to stand out.
I’m doing it in small steps. I’m working my way back to the macabre. But I’m going there, little by little, day by day.
In today’s video, we’re looking at a step back to those ideals. Some philosophy, some shooting, some editing…and of course, my spine.
(Well, not my spine. My elk spine.)
Essentially, it comes down to this. I want to be willing to look into a strangers eyes and not break eye contact. I want to be able to stand proudly with my art, as dark as it may be or become, and be willing to stand by it. I want to represent my art by not backing down, but presenting my vision and not caring if it is weird or makes me an outsider.
I’m working on it.
How often do you create something that surprises you?