Finding Your Voice Through Self-Portraits

Have you ever taken a self-portrait?

If the answer is no, why not?

I’m going to go ahead and guess that if you’ve never ventured into creative self-portraiture (but you’d like to) it’s not a lack of technical knowledge on how to be both behind and in front of the camera that’s holding you back. And if the thought of turning the camera on yourself is making you feel a little uncomfortable right now, you’re not alone.

Why do we struggle with self-portraits?

We’re uncomfortable with seeing ourselves

Perhaps it’s just one feature you don’t like, maybe it’s a few things. Or maybe you just don’t feel comfortable drawing attention to yourself. For some of us, body confidence issues have been present for most of our lives, for others it can come as a result of changes as we age. Then there’s modern marketing, which thrives on telling us we are not enough because if we didn’t believe that we wouldn’t need to buy all the things they were selling. Seeing an image of ourselves can bring a lot of emotions – whatever yours are – to the surface.

We compare ourselves to others

We are constantly exposed to images of others, from glossy advertising to social media and we can often feel inadequate by comparison. Even the fine art world tends to focus on young, attractive female artists, and this can lead us to believe that we need to look a certain way for self-portraits to be acceptable.

We fear what people will think

As humans, we innately seek the approval of others. Many of us have been told at some point that focusing too much on our appearance is vain, that we should be modest and not showy, and we can feel embarrassed by putting ourselves out there. The fear is often not of the judgement of strangers, but the judgement of people who know us – when I first started taking self-portraits I posted them online but didn’t show them to any of my friends or family because that felt more terrifying than sharing them on a public forum.

Why take self-portraits?

“Any moment might be our last.
Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed.
You will never be lovelier than you are now.
We will never be here again.”

Self-portraits provide a unique opportunity for self-exploration and self-expression.  They enable you to tap into your feelings, your experiences, your perception of the world and your place in it. They give you a voice, a voice that says that you don’t need anyone else to tell you who you are, a voice that gives you back control, a voice that lets you tell your story, your way.

In fact, self-portraits are a lot like therapy – they can be incredibly rewarding but you often have to deal with the difficult parts first before you get to the good stuff.

The value of self-portraits

Self-portraits can

  • Enable you to take back control over how you see yourself
  • Allow you to express feelings, emotions and situations and process them through a form of creative therapy
  • Help you feel more confident in your own skin
  • Give you the opportunity to create beautiful images that speak not only of how you look on the outside, but who you are within
  • Create a record of your presence in your life and in the world
  • Encourage connection with others if you choose to share them
  • Enable you to explore your identity and tell your own story of who you are
  • Give you the outlet to create something purely by and for yourself

How to make self-portraits work for you

Focus on what you really want to say

Treat your self-portrait as an opportunity to communicate something other than just what you look like. It might be a feeling you want to express or a moment you want to capture. You might be making a point about something you are passionate about or trying to build a connection with your audience by adding a human element. When you focus on the “why” of your photo it becomes less about your physical appearance and more about the concept.

Separate yourself if you need to

Sometimes if I’m struggling with feeling too vulnerable or personal about an image and it’s tainting the creative process it can help to think about myself as “the subject” in the image. It may seem a little strange but looking objectively at your photos as you would if you were photographing someone else allows you to separate any self-conscious feelings you have from the overall image.

Work alone

Find a place where you are comfortable and not likely to be interrupted by anyone to shoot. This gives you the space to work at your own pace, without pressure or worrying about what others think of you.  

Work together

The opposite of the above can also be helpful in some situations. If you have someone you feel comfortable around it can be less daunting (especially if you are shooting in a public space) to have someone else taking photos with you.

Take lots of photos

“you have only seen yourself two times
taking a picture and looking at the image and staring in the mirror and looking at your reflection
you don’t get to see the way your eyes light up when you talk about something you love
and you can never see how beautiful you look when you really smile”

Understand that when you take a photograph the shutter is usually open for less than a second – it’s such a small fraction of time to catch yourself at the perfect moment. An unflattering photo is not by any means an indication of what you look like all the time. Digital photography allows us the luxury of taking as many photos as we want and only keeping the ones we like so take advantage of it. If you have the option of shooting in burst mode so you can take a series of images this can often be helpful in capturing a more natural moment.

The final point to remember is that, like many things in life, self-portraiture benefits from being an ongoing practice. You won’t like every image you take and that’s ok – delete them and move on. Trust the process, be gentle with yourself, learn from your experience and gather the rewards of exploring your own creativity.

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