We use self-portraits to explore a basic question that plagues all of us: Who am I? As early as the mid-1400s, artists began painting themselves onto canvas. With the invention of the camera, photographers began turning the image (and their artwork) inward, as well. Yes, a photograph can tell a person what he or she looks like, but we know that the physical image doesn’t reflect the whole self.
Self-portraiture insists that we embark on a journey of self-exploration. This journey of self brings about choices, the main one being how to represent ourselves authentically. We always get to choose how we see ourselves; this is the beauty of self-portraits.
Authentic self-portraits should strive to capture everyday beauty. But life is sometimes not beautiful at all, right? It can be messy and frustrating. There’s illness and anger that counterbalance the joy and love. Taking the literal definition of "beauty" can be confusing when approaching topics as broad as art and self.
So, what is beautiful? Everyone has an opinion. I believe life and reality, and the thought that we’re here with our cameras and film, exploring these thoughts—that is beautiful. All of it is worth documenting. Your masculinity, your femininity, your weakness and your strength—it’s all truth and worthy of being seen. Your job as a photographer is to pick up your camera and begin.
I define my self-portrait project as me seeking grace through the conflict. It documents the peace within, the flurry and chaos, and the fluttering of heartbeats. My self-portraits capture where I’ve been and where I’m going—a circular timeline put on repeat. Photography acts as the reminder that life happens moment by moment, each and every day.
BITS AND PIECES
By focusing on small details, you can begin your photographic story. This is an easy way to start the somewhat intimidating process of self-portraits. Details can be bits and pieces of you: cropped faces, calves and bare feet, skirt hems and dress-up shoes. Details are found in the way your hair curls, the way your eyes smile, the hands you inherited from your mother or the dimple that appears with real laughter. When I take self-portraits, I look at the image as a photographer setting up a scene. I do my best to remove my inner critic and view the scene as a director. How is the light? How is the angle? What’s behind me? Once your camera settings are correct, place yourself within the frame and start photographing the moment. It helps if you don’t review each image until your session is over. Be gentle with yourself. Smile if you feel like it. Don’t smile if you don’t feel like it.
DON’T FORGET TO PLAY
Everything is an optical illusion! Using playfulness to create authentic images is a fun practice. Set up a tripod or use your remote to get some space from yourself to be in the moment. Then grab a Hula-Hoop, dance, twirl and spin. Be silly with props, bubble gum, wigs or masks. There are so many ways to lighten up in front of the camera.
For playful self-portraits, try jumping! Be mindful of your scenery and environment. Big open walls work best (bricks, warehouses, painted murals). A shutter speed of 1?500 sec. or faster will help "freeze" your frame and keep you in midair (1?320 sec. can be used in darker conditions). Jumping by intuition with your self-timer or remote will require many attempts and guaranteed laughter.
One of my favorite ways to document my sense of self is through reflections. It’s where I have most creative control. I seek out reflections to create something surreal or obscure. Think about how the space around you can help tell your story.
Find unusual surfaces (other than mirrors) in which to photograph yourself: teakettles, car windows, mixing bowls, hubcaps, puddles—reflective surfaces are everywhere. Shop windows can easily create double-exposure-type self-portraits. Putting your reflection into a colorful storefront display can lead to some great abstract and thought-provoking images.
Use your environment to aid in composition and storytelling. My surroundings are very much a part of myself; I enjoy seeing how I fit into my world. By inserting yourself into your environment, you’ll quickly see the story of self that can be written within the frame.
Try different perspectives. Lie in the grass and set your camera on the ground in front of you for a more intimate nature self-portrait. Set your camera on the ground for a lower point of view. Walk away from the camera to include more of your environment around you. Autofocus your lens to the spot where you’ll be standing. Then switch to manual focus before using your remote or self-timer; this way, the focus is set and doesn’t change with the release of your shutter.
LIGHTING IS EVERYTHING
Lighting is crucial to evocative photography. Focusing either on darkness or light will provide strength in your self-portraits. Setting your intention for mood prior to taking your shot will help you get the photo you’re looking for. To find great catchlights, turn your face toward a glass window. This will put a sparkle in your eye and the natural lighting will complement your face.
I know the rules of photography, and occasionally I like to break them. Capturing sun flare is a technical rule-breaker, but can be a great way to inject mood into your frame. With your back to the sun, practice watching the beads of flare move across your lens as you move your position to the sun. Lens flare can be seen as several starbursts, rings or circles in a row across your image. Flare patterns spread across the scene and change location with the camera’s movement relative to the sun. Different lenses create different flare patterns. Remove your lens hood and try out a variety of lenses to capture and play with sun flare.
My everyday emotions are my cue for picking up my camera. The mood of the image will be authentic if you stay in the moment. Pay attention to those times of strong emotion. Your camera acts as a tool of expression. Part of me needs to visually define my outer boundaries of who I am as a person, woman, mother, sister, daughter and lover. There’s no easier (or harder) way to do this than through photography. Photography becomes the proof I seek to state that I was here, I existed, I mothered, I loved and I created something with my time.
As a photographer, you already document the world around you. Through the process of self-portraiture, you now have a place in all that beauty. By putting yourself in front of your lens, you’re contributing to the important moments of everyday life.
Meredith Winn is a writer, photographer, and co-founder of NOW YOU Workshops. She’s also a contributor to Shutter Sisters, featured in our regular column, Point of Focus. See more of Winn’s photography on her blog the-spirit-of-the-river at www.meredithwinn.com.