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.
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.
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.
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?
Sara Harley - I became a follower of your work in the Spring of 2017. In June, my husband suffered a major stroke and was hospitalized for months. I wasn’t able to go out with my camera but, using your self portraits as my inspiration, I created a series of self portraits that I called “Stroke of Emotions”. The work was featured in a photography gallery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada in February and recently featured online by PhotoEd Magazine. (the article even credits Brooke as my inspiration) Here is a link: http://www.photoed.ca/single-post/2018/04/22/Sara-Harley-Stroke-of-Emotions
brookeshaden - Sara, I am so glad that you shared. Thank you for putting the link here. I was really moved looking at your images (about to go read the full article). It is obvious they contain depths and that is so beautiful to see come out of a dark time. I’m sending you a heartfelt hug and wish that things in your world are looking brighter.
Gallagher Green - What a wonderful set of photos Sara, great work! <3
Kristey Fritz-Martin - I love this post so very much! You gave been such an incredible inspiration on my journey and I just adore your beautiful soul and work. I finished this image up this morning and thought it was so random that your inspirational challenge today was about creating a self portrait and stepping outside your comfort zone that I thought I would put it into a little blog post and share it. I am so proud of myself for actually making it work and stepping outside my comfort zone with compositing. Thank you so very much for being you! http://www.myartisticjourney.net/the-journey/brookeshadenmondaychallenge
brookeshaden - Absolutely FANTASTIC. Talk about doing something out of the box…or, in the onion, in this case 😀
Kristey Fritz-Martin - Thank you so very very much!! I am starting to think it may look more “cabbage” than “onion” BUT I am still so excited it was created lol. I am definitely going to have to peruse the theme onward. And now I am going to seriously go geek out because my idol has actually seen a piece of my work and called it “fantastic” Bwahahaha. Seriously and truly made my whole year!! Thank you!!! ❤️
Gallagher Green - I love that photo!!! I will read the blog post later. 🙂
Kristey Fritz-Martin - Aw shucks Gallagher!!! That is so incredibly kind of you!!!! Thank you so very much!!
Geetha Slock - Hi Brooke,
I completely relate to this. I don’t take selfportraits because I love the way I look. Far from it. But I can be a character in front of the character and I have full control. I’m creating my vision, purely, without taking the opinion of others in account. Through selfportraiture I learn to accept my body, which is a major step because I used to be anorexic and these thoughts still plague me to this day. But I chose to handle them differently. I recently created a miniseries to tell the story of my journey as a lost teenager to being a woman with a passion and love for life. I hope it raises awareness for mental health issues and gives comfort to people that can relate to my story. It was different for me because I took close ups and usually I take selfportraits of my entire body since the pose is a big part of story telling for me. (quantumfluctuations.co/how-i-used-the-fine-art-actions-on-my-images/).
I love the colors in this image. Looks like a painting!
Gallagher Green - I will be honest here when I started fine art I had a lot of trouble taking self-portraits because I just wasn’t comfortable in front of the camera, because of body image. I don’t like to admit that, but it is true. I have now taken lots of self-portraits, and am starting to get used to it, but it is still hard and I don’t like it.
I have never Experienced cruel comments like you (sorry you had that happen) because I have very few followers, and I am a man. People are so much harder on women than men on things like this, it is so sexist!
Anyway, thank you for sharing Samantha Geballe work, it is so powerful and inspiring!
I will have to think up a new self-portrait challenge for myself, but these are the self-portrait photos I have done. I write a description with everyone, to guide their story, I always hope that isn’t a mistake.
Jon Miller - Wow a challenge about something I really am very uncomfortable about, self portraits. I hate seeing myself in images and more so, self portraits to be honest, but since you asked, I’m going to work on this today and post later in the week. Because I’m “trapped” at home due to a accident I had last February I have not been able to go walking anywhere as my right foot is in recovery mode and the other will be operated on soon. I’ve had to setup my studio here at home and do my work here, it’s been a good experience. However, for those days when I want to get out and shoot I cannot per doctor’s orders. I thought about shooting myself the other day before your newsletter came in and it’s ironic that you have thrown down a challenge and I accepted. I told my friend Eva about it because besides you she is one of my favorite self portrait artists as well.
Els Aartse - Dear Brooke,
After reading your blogpost with this beautiful image I realized now is the time to be really vulnerable and let myself see to others and tell the world about my story. By making my images even more real, just as it feels when I am working on a image. And to be be honest about it. Often I found myself hiding away from what has been so difficult. Not daring to represent what is going on in my head. Still being busy with what others think of my art and self portraits. But now you mention it I am inspired because of your story and I am determined to go further then I have ever been in my work to create. This is all for me and about me but more important I want to inspire other people to go beyond their fears and stand up for themselves. Like I did.
It took me a while when I finally left the abusive relationship I was in. And it took almost that same time to overcome the trauma. But now I am free and ready to help others by inspire them to also make choices to stap out of what makes them unhappy. I am now 50 years young and my children are all grown up. But I have overcome most of my fears and I am becoming more and more happy because of me making art. It helps me and I can be proud of what I have learned and what I can create because of my art. So it doesn’t matter who you are and what you have been through. It’s about what you can and may do because of that.
I have learned a lot from you Brooke. And now it’s time for something Els 😉
cindee still - I am a Photography Major at Academy of Art University, San Fransisco (online). My 56th birthday is in two weeks. I have never been comfortable with my looks but it’s who I am. So, this weeks assignment was to do a collage self portrait that emphasizes identity. After being a prison guard for 24 years of my life my image looks like a description giving by a witness of what that crazy lady looks like.
Anne Parsons - Brooke: I’ve been to your workshops-you are the genesis for my becoming a photographer. My problem with self-portraiture is focus. How do you focus on where your face will be once you pop in front of the camera? On what do you focus while behind the camera?
Tonya - I watched a Creative Live class, pretty sure it was Brooke, where she used an old tripod for focusing on, so I’ve taken to doing that and so far it works fairly well. Sometimes I put a hat on top of it just to have something with a little more substance to focus on. And setting shutter to a delay with remote so I stop getting myself pushing the trigger in images! 😀
Tonya - I love your work Brooke! You are such an inspiration!