Look at me: the art of self-expression

Vincent van Gogh created a collection of 50 self-portraits, albeit painted. Andy Warhol is famous for his. So are Surrealism artists, Man Ray and Salvador Dali. This is not to say that self-portraits make you famous, but that creators have been representing themselves in their art for a very long time. Their reasons are fascinating. Their rewards, unexpected. Candide McDonald investigates.

The story of Jennifer Kiaba is one of the more striking examples of this. “Self-portraiture, for me, is a tool for self-exploration. I use it to peer into my psyche, and to begin to unravel the inner workings there,” she says. “I was born into one of the most notorious cults of the ‘70s and ‘80s in the United States - the Unification Church. That experience warped my perspective on what it meant to be a woman and what my inherent value was. Since extricating myself from the group in my late teens, it has been a long road to healing and rewiring my mind in an attempt to undo the damage of the cult.”

© Juliette Jourdain. Day 146, from the series, Big-Headed.
© Juliette Jourdain. Day 146, from the series, Big-Headed.

Kiaba began taking photographs to try to make sense of her world. “But for many years I was afraid to turn the lens on myself. Perhaps I was afraid of what I might find, and the burden of confronting the demons of years past. Eventually, though, the need to express and explore became paramount and I began to create work that directly addressed those experiences. It was only when I began to step in front of the camera, however, that the work truly became powerful and meaningful to me.”

The self-portraits in her favourite series, Burdens of a White Dress, refer to her experience growing up in the cult, but also the struggle she went through in trying to find her way out of a forced arranged marriage within the religious movement.

Kiaba’s work has been exhibited internationally and has also given her the opportunity to begin teaching in an arts program for at-risk youth. “Being able to give young people the tools to explore their own experiences and create meaningful work has been one of the biggest joys of my career thus far,” she states.

From one simple purpose…

The first-ever self-portrait photograph is believed to be a daguerreotype shot by a US metal worker, amateur chemist, and photography buff called Robert Cornelius, in 1839. Cornelius set his camera up at the back of his family’s store in Philadelphia and took the image by removing the lens cap and then running into frame, where he sat for a minute before covering up the lens again. On the back of it he wrote, “The first light Picture ever taken. 1839.”

© Brooke Shaden. The creation of blood and bones.
© Brooke Shaden. The creation of blood and bones.

Early self-portraits like these became popular among photographers. They were a form of advertising, the photographer posing with a camera or a set of photographs, that showed him as a professional of his trade. When portrait photography also gained popularity, the images were used to make the photographer competitive by demonstrating his or her ability to capture a flattering likeness.

Self-portraits serve many purposes above and beyond building careers. Vivian Maier’s self-portraits made the photographer famous (sadly, long after her lifetime) – for documenting American life. The woman, who made her living as a nanny, created a collection of more than 100,000 negatives across five decades as she walked the streets of New York and Chicago from 1951 until the ‘90s. Among her thousands of street life photographs were remarkable self-portraits. She would capture her own reflection in shop windows, mirrors, and through shadows on the sidewalk.

Robert Mapplethorpe, who made his name stand out as a photographer by opening the world to controversial subjects with his provocative black-and-white images, has left a collection of self-portraits that also document his own controversial life and eventual death from HIV AIDS. The collection now belongs to the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, which the photographer set up in the year before his death, to protect his work, advance his creative vision, and help the causes he cared about.

© Jen Kiaba Barry. Hold Your Peace, which explores issues of forced arranged marriage, from the series, Burdens of a White Dress, 2013.
© Jen Kiaba. Hold Your Peace, which explores issues of forced arranged marriage,
from the series, Burdens of a White Dress, 2013.

… to a complex of reasons and rewards.

Now, self-portraits are a fascinating niche within professional photography. Whereas a selfie, the self-portrait’s amateur cousin, is “all about me”, a way to show off oneself to the world, the intentions behind self-portraits are far more varied. And this is certainly the case for French photographer, Juliette Jourdain. “The goal of my self-portraits is not to express myself, but more to get people’s imaginations going and get them to rely on them with their own stories and feelings,” she explains. “My self-portraits also stimulates my own imagination with freedom, but also everyone else’s. I love making them, and re-invent myself every times. I love to make people feel all sorts of emotions. And make them wonder.”

Polly Penrose is a London-based art photographer. The catalysts for her self-portraits are complex. “My pictures aren’t designed to communicate a lot about me and my life, other than in the instant that they are taken. Because I shoot in the moment, responding in a raw and spontaneous way in an (initially) unfamiliar space, they are documentations of my body and its reaction to its physical environment. But even though I am creating momentary sculptures and think my work is figurative, the pictures do give the viewer an insight into who I am,” she says.

© Polly Penrose. Oxford I, June, 2011.
© Polly Penrose. Oxford I, June, 2011.

Based in Portland, Oregon, Marico Fayre, a photographic artist and visual poet, says: “My images have been diary, performance, meditation, mirror, and window. For me, art is all about empathy. I create and share work in order to connect and open a dialogue. I don’t, for a second, think my images represent everyone’s perspective. They are a starting point in a conversation,” she comments. “Self-portraiture is a way for me to record transitions in my life, to see physical manifestations of how I’m feeling. When everything is changing around me, I turn to photography to make sense of the world,” she says. “I travelled quite a bit and lived in four cities in as many years, so creating self-portraits and still life shots of the houses and hotel rooms where I stayed became a way of recording my presence in new places.”

Sometimes, the catalyst for self-portraiture is very simple. “A self-portrait transforms the photographer into something else. He becomes a ‘performer’ by being the only actor in his production,” Jourdain says.

For American fine art photographer Brooke Shaden, self-portraiture also has a fantasy aspect. “Self-portraiture is my way of creating the characters I wish I was. I often daydream of faraway lands and the people who inhabit them, and I love to pretend that I am one of those people from one of those lands. It is a way of escapism in many ways, but also of envisioning a better or more unique version of yourself.”

Shaden says that its challenges help her to develop her craft. “I have a much better sense of how to pose models because of doing it myself. I can often tell a model to isolate certain muscle groups that you simply have to feel to know how to direct it,” she says. “It has taught me about pre-visualisation since you have to know what you are photographing in order to set the camera and trust that it will capture your idea. It has taught me that if you can know more about your image before you begin shooting, you will often appear more professional when working with clients.”

But this is not so for Penrose. “I’m actually trying to take pictures of other people at the moment and I’m so used to shooting myself, so it’s proving to be a tricky exercise,” she admits. “Because I shoot on a self-timer, I don’t see what I’m shooting until it’s taken, so I have no choices as I look through the viewfinder.” For her, the growth that self-portraiture triggers is personal. “I think we soak up sadness and horror along with joy and delight from the world around us, so [it] can’t help but flow in to the work we create. I’m not commenting on anything. My work isn’t political, but it is honest and is definitely a way of venting what’s inside – almost exorcising or purging what I’m carrying around with me – like wringing out a sponge.”

© Marico Fayre. You & I, I, 2011.
© Marico Fayre. You & I, I, 2011.

This characteristic of self-portraiture as a means to develop an understanding of the world is also recognised by Fayre who has an activist undercurrent in her approach to her work. “Photography in general and self-portraits, in particular, allow us to explore larger questions and experiences in a very personal way,” Fayre notes. “I’ve turned to self-portraits to express femme invisibility in the queer community, to visibly show the effects of emotional abuse and neglect as well as sexual trauma, that document the toll mental illness takes, to comment on the fact that women are too often silenced, to explore the widespread search for purpose and belonging in our disconnected world, to provide an outlet for my recent anger and feelings of hopelessness with the current state of politics in the US, and to explore the heaviness of shame and grief, or the fragility of the environment in the face of development.”

Penrose recalls a recently letter a friend wrote: “…we create beauty from our damaged places. And then we have to keep functioning. Or not.” She says that photography is cathartic and healing. “I have turned to this medium for over 20 years as a way to understand the world, and my place in it,” Penrose says.

Look at you

While visually, the artist is the focus of the work, the aim of self-portraiture is to make its audience central. For Fayre, photography has been a way out of an uncomfortable relationship with her body. “By my mid-20s, I needed a reset. When I was able to see myself as part of a beautiful work of art, to begin to appreciate the body I have instead of focusing on everything, I wanted to change. By becoming something more than myself, I began to accept being how and who I was.”

And yet Fayre hates being photographed. “I’m terribly awkward in front of the camera, unless it’s my own. Self-portraiture has given me a lot of empathy for my subjects because I know intimately how it feels to be seen and captured, the vulnerability and trust required. As an introvert in a loud and busy world, self-portraiture, and photography in general, allows me to connect with subjects and viewers, and to slow down and make more meditative or contemplative work because I’m shifting how I engage with the world,” Fayre says.

The process Fayre now follows has changed from being tightly controlled to organic. In the past, she says she would storyboard a project and plan the locations, framing, and wardrobe very carefully. “I tell stories with my images, individually and in a series, so that’s always part of the process, but in the last few years my work as a whole is becoming more process-driven,” she says, “where the act of setting up, experiencing, shooting, and editing an image informs the narrative.”

© Juliette Jourdain. Day 138, from the series, Big-Headed.
© Juliette Jourdain. Day 138, from the series, Big-Headed.

Fayre says that the decisions are intentional, and more intuitive. “I’m exploring not only what there is to see, but how I see, as well as how differently I see based on my mental and emotional state at the time,” she says. “I’m not seeing the shot as I make it, so I set everything up, and then I just feel it,” Fayre adds. “The poses and gestures are a reflection of something internal made physical. I draw inspiration from the location, the light, the music I’m listening to, or the books I’m reading.”

And the aim is to challenge her audience to stop, look, and feel. “I want viewers to reflect on their own experiences, emotions, desires. I want to challenge perceptions and wake people up to another way of seeing or relating. I want them to pause, to see beauty as well as question it, to look deeper.”

If the headline of this story aligned with your understanding of self-portraiture, change it. “Ultimately I learn from looking at the self-portraits as well as creating them,” Fayre says. “My photographs have never been about capturing what I look like. They are a way to understand my experiences, and a vehicle to connect sincerely with others. The images I make and the stories I tell become the life I live.” Self-portraiture may have begun as an advertising tool, asking its audience to “commission me”. Now, while its catalysts are many and its motivations vary, its overarching result is to challenge the people who view it to, “Look at yourself”.


Jennifer Kiaba
Marico Fayre
Juliette Jourdain
Polly Penrose
Brooke Shaden
© Brooke Shaden. Brighter Days.
© Brooke Shaden. Brighter Days.
© Juliette Jourdain. Day 151, from the series, Big-Headed.
© Juliette Jourdain. Day 151, from the series, Big-Headed.


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