… Or In Defense of the Shameless Self Portrait
(Please note: I do not advocate taking selfies in inappropriate locations or at inappropriate times or flexing muscles in a state of undress. Come on people. Common courtesy. I don’t advocate the mirror selfie either… always looks dumb. Yes I am looking at you, Miley Cyrus)
I wouldn’t call myself a photographer, but I always liked taking pictures. Being artsy-minded, it was an interesting medium growing up. I liked the concept of encasing a unique moment of the world through a view only I could see. I asked for a 35mm camera for my 16th birthday. I took a photography class sophomore year in high school and loved the whole film developing process. I liked taking pseudo-artistic photos of my friends and environment. But if there was one thing I loathed, it was having my own picture taken.
Not to say I was any more insecure than your average 16 year old girl, but I was still growing and changing and trying to figure out my face, my angles, and my self. I would stave off any desired photograph by a simple yet effective method… I would flip off the camera. The best thing about this is that I was not the sort of girl to typically throw up the bird to anyone or anything. It just became my defense mechanism to avoid being photographed, or at least captured in a usable photograph.
Eventually I think the point was made and people stopped trying. Because of that, there are very few photos of me from high school beyond the requisite yearbook snap and sports & clubs pictures. Few candid, random or surprise photographs exist of me for a solid four year period and that is something I do regret. Even in college, it took me a long time to step in front of the camera. With friends and at events, I was always the one behind the lens, capturing the moments but rarely in them. As I grew more comfortable in my skin, the immature sabotage attempts went by the wayside but the pattern had been set… I was the photographer, not the photographed. It was my comfort zone.
It wasn’t until I signed up for a photo elective in grad school that I truly dealt with this. When we were assigned a straight-up self portrait, and one that our faces/selves HAD to be in, it was unbelievably challenging for me. But I came up with a concept, something I thought was artsy and thoughtful. I was vaguely uncomfortable with the final product but at least I had gone for it without even allowing myself the loophole of strategic back lighting, blurred motion or an abstracted close up. The picture was me… my face, my body and my message.
The unanticipated challenge of this particular assignment came when we critiqued each others work and I had to hear, without a prior explanation from me, what my classmates thought of my photo. More than that, I had to listen to what they thought my face, my body, and my composition was saying. While going for “contemplative and a little melancholy” I apparently came off as seductive.
I am serious. Someone thought my photograph was seductive. And if you know me, dear reader, you will know that is not something I “go for”. Not going to lie, this was pretty darn traumatizing; like suddenly discovering that I had no control over my self or at least no idea of the message I was might be sending to the world. Now yes, there were other interpretations and impressions my selfie conveyed to others, but “seductive” is the one that stuck in my mind. It was just so fundamentally WRONG. It was embarrassingly opposite of what I thought my photo was saying. And it was a big driving factor in embracing my face and overcoming my discomfort with being photographed.
Of course the explosion of Facebook and camera phones somewhere in the middle of this acceptance of picture-time probably was a factor. (To date myself, I think I joined FB in 2005, my junior year in college when it was still .edu only) Suddenly there was really no way to avoid being photographed but also tons of pictures to choose from. I began to enjoy the photography process from both sides of the lens. I liked seeing what pictures accurately captured my mood and to understand what I had done to accomplish it. (A slight love for the early seasons of ANTM might have been a factor in my ability to “find my light”) And with social media, it became easier to get a broad outside perspective on what looked good to others and what I was really saying with my face. Sometimes it would surprise me what photos would garner the most highly coveted “likes” versus others. It was a way to step outside of my own view of self and try and understand a pretty that others saw.
And in recent years, in the world of online dating, how can I select the ideal profile pic if it hasn’t first been Facebook vetted? How do I accurately represent myself without my peer group declaring “so pretty!” for a pic? How do I know that the snapshot I think is adorkable isn’t actually awkward? It may sound silly, but getting outside critiques has actually enhanced my self confidence by increasing understanding. I don’t “live for the likes.” I just use them as a review process and a system for better understanding and expressing me. Plus I am developing a pretty fantastic digital scrapbook of my friends, my activities, my life. Pictures of participation in your own life are a wonderful thing to have and nothing to apologize for. Really.
Perhaps you think I have gone too far to the other end of the spectrum. Maybe now there are TOO many pictures with me and of me. Maybe I really am a typical narcissistic embodiment of the Me Generation. But I disagree. Comfort with selfies doesn’t mean I am not still behind the camera, focusing on others smiling, posing and “acting natural”. It’s just that now I am equally comfortable turning the camera over for a moment and hopping in myself. (That or doing the ever awkward long-arm-reach-out pic.)
I think too many self portraits is better than to the middle-finger-flipping, fledgling-confidence high school avoidance option. So I will apologetically defend the selfie. Especially with the ease of technology in this day and age, you should go for it. Snap a quick self portrait at the beach or eating fro-yo or whatever. Embrace your face, be comfortable being memorialized on film and have fun digitally capturing your life from time to time.
Let’s just call a moratorium on duck face please. Just… no more.