Nothing sounds more self-obsessed than the word selfie. But is it really narcissism? What if taking photographs of ourselves were vulnerable, courageous and inspiring acts of artistry? Maybe turning the camera around has more to do with the heart than we think...
By Amanda Ford
You can stop yourself from anything, even your destiny. Logic can list a million cons. The pros, though, are often nebulous to the rational mind.
The first time I pointed a camera at my own face, I could have easily stopped myself.
For one thing, I thought I was ugly. I was born with very rosy red cheeks. During childhood and young adulthood, a good day was a day that nobody commented on the color of my face. Good days were rare. In high school I took a semi-feminist literature course where the teacher asked us to anonymously rate our own appearance on a scale of 1 to 10 as part of a lesson about self-worth. I rated myself a 2, the lowest score amongst the group. Well into my twenties I still could not look at myself in the mirror when others were around as I imagined them wondering, “How can she stand to see how hideous she is?”
For another thing, I knew nothing about photography. I owned a digital camera only because I was writing for a travel website that required me to post snapshots of the restaurants, shops and neighborhoods that I profiled. I could point and shoot. That was all.
But in 2005, at age twenty-seven, through a series of random internet coincidences, I found myself online admiring self-portraits taken by strangers that had been uploaded to a photography sharing site. This was before Facebook, before Twitter, before the launch of the first iPhone, before selfie had entered the lexicon. To me, at that time, these images were surprising, fresh, like visiting a foreign country. Some portraits were highly stylized and surreal, others were spontaneous and out of focus. Some people took a self-portrait every day. Every day I logged on and clicked through image after image.
The most unexpected things can call to us, you know. I studied art history in college and knew well the self-portraits of Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman and Francesca Woodman, but it wasn’t until I saw the self-portraits of my contemporaries, of “ordinary” people who were not artists in the academic sense of the word, that I was deeply stirred. As I looked at those images online, an innocent voice inside me shouted, “I wanna play!” It made no sense. As I said, I didn’t care for my appearance, I knew next to nothing about taking photos, I didn’t think of myself as particularly creative or imaginative, I knew I would never earn money or acclaim by taking self-portraits and I could easily build a case that doing so was frivolous naval-gazing.
Longing does not surrender to logic, not easily anyway. Longing takes hold of the body, it swells up, rouses feeling, ignites energy, encourages you to take action. When inspiration hits, I believe it is better to follow it than to fight it. I believe we were born to participate.
That’s why I reached my hand out as far as I could and snapped that first arm’s length self-portrait.
As a teenager, I often danced in my bedroom. Wildly. With candles lit. One evening, after dancing for hours nonstop, I collapsed to the floor. Lying there, feeling my breath and heart return to their resting rates, I distinctly felt my personality split in two. Some part of me left my body and rose to the top of the stairway at the entrance of my bedroom, and I looked down upon myself even as I remained spread across the floor. Time swelled, suspended. I was doubled, both watcher and watched. My self-awareness expanded beyond the small, superficial constraints of a suburban teenage girl and became eternal, omniscient. I saw myself clearly, truly. I. Saw. Myself. And I was beautiful. Not beautiful like an Italian model in French lingerie, but beautiful like Earth seen from outer space, naked and floating.
Slowly I learned about my camera. I switched from shooting exclusively in automatic to aperture priority mode and experimented with depth of field. I noticed subtle shifts of light while chasing morning sun rays around my house, documenting their evolution from soft pink hued, to orange, to yellow, to pointed white. I discovered how to set my camera’s timer. I built makeshift tripods from stacks of books and upside down coffee mugs. I dashed into the distance in front of my camera, paused and posed, hoping to capture myself candid, at ease.
For a long period I took a picture of myself every day. I took self-portraits in the morning before brushing my teeth and at night, made up, before heading out on first dates. I captured images of myself reading in the stacks of the library, riding my bicycle, washing dishes, waiting outside the church before my father’s funeral, a man I had not seen in over fifteen years. I set my camera on the floor, taped it to the ceiling, hung it in trees, tucked it into shelves at the grocery store. I photographed my feet, my hair, my back, my boobs. And my face. I captured a lot of my face.
I realize now, looking back on those first images of nearly a decade ago, that the longing prompting me to begin taking self-portraits was a longing to see myself. I wanted to create distance from myself, the sort of distance I had spontaneously discovered that evening after dancing as a teenager. I wanted to see myself beyond the confines of self-consciousness, to get outside my own skin so that I could look back at myself, objectively. It wasn’t so much my physical self ~ my face and body ~ that I was yearning to see clearly. It was something intangible. I wanted to understand my essence and the depths of my personhood.
Today a camera lives in nearly every cell phone. Self-portraits and selfies flood social media. These images are widely critiqued as self-involved and over abundant.
While taking a shower just three months ago, I was surprised with strong feelings of empathy and love for my body. After decades of self-criticism for the very vessel that carries me, to feel empathy and love toward my physicality was miraculous. I owe this in no small part to the act of taking self-portraits.
I am not alone in this sort of experience. Perhaps you know what I mean. It’s when you look back at a photograph of yourself taken at a time when you thought you looked bad and what you see is beauty. You think, “I can’t believe I was so hard on myself.”
This story, however, goes beyond the ugly duckling who finally sees herself as a swan.
In all those selfies floating around the internet ether, I see a basic, universal human longing to understand one’s place in the world. We are all reaching our arms out as far as we can, hoping to find the perfect vantage point, to capture a new perspective. We are claiming our journeys, celebrating the mundane details of our lives, owning our worth.
It is a brave act to look at yourself honestly, openly, to be willing to shine light on every nook and cranny, to witness your stuck spots, to acknowledge the times you have been ignorant, jealous, dishonest, enraged, selfish, judgmental. It is a brave endeavor to look at the things inside yourself that are uncomfortable to see.
It is brave, too, to know your generosity, your compassion, your attention, your honesty, your intellect, your optimism, to look at yourself completely, beauty and all.