Do Self-Portraits Only Serve to Explore One’s Self?


Weegee loved nights, as it brought out the bizarreness that lay dormant within those living in New York City. It was the crime scenes he was most interested in. And the grislier it was, the more excited he got. There was nothing offensive about the crude photographs of blood splattered walls or the distorted human torsos, as the pictures were shot in a way that one would photograph a celebrity sighting. His pictures had locals gawking at the stiffs, as if they specially came to observe and admire an important exhibit. It was this inclusion of theatrics that set his photographs apart from the standard crime photos that one was used to seeing at the time. At the same crime scenes he loved so much, Weegee also photographed himself, extensively. There’s a picture of him posing with his camera inside a patrol wagon used to transport criminals. He also shot himself in studio-like setups and on the streets, where he experimented with distortions, especially with prisms and mirrors. It is not difficult to decipher that he was someone who enjoyed attention. His portraits were often mixed with humour, and he made sure that they stood out.

While Lee Friedlander widely documented the urban American landscape, he also spent five decades or so photographing himself. The self-portraits range from those where he is explicitly visible in the frame, to the more obscure and ominous reflections and shadows. Two photographs that immediately caught my attention was one that he shot on the streets of New York City and the other one with his wife, in their bedroom. The former self-portrait had his shadow, falling upon a blonde woman in a fur coat. It’s a little unsettling, and almost feels like he’s stalking the woman. In contrast, in the latter portrait with his wife, one can gauge the warmth in the scene. She, standing topless against a wall, in a patch of sunlight, with his shadow falling subtly on her body. It’s hard to gauge what he might have felt, each of those times, or all the times that he photographed himself. Was it mischief, melancholy, indifference…? “At first, my presence in my photos was fascinating and disturbing. But as time passed and I was more a part of other ideas in my photos, I was able to add a giggle to those feelings,” he said.

A lot of what we know today of Vivian Maier is through the photographs, negatives, notes and other artefacts that she left behind. And amongst these exist images of an intimate kind. For someone who led a very quiet and private life, Vivian’s self-portraits help us peel away a few layers of the obscurity that still surround her life. Her pictures give us the impression that she wasn’t shy or insecure about her appearance, as she frequently photographed her face at various angles. In them she sometimes appears moody and stone-faced, while at other times, one can almost notice a hint of a smile. But what was it that she was exactly going after?

Discovering one’s self has always been the crux of any self-portrait. But is it all? Or is there more to it? Why have people, right from the very inception of photography, taken up the camera to photograph themselves? Was it curiosity, or narcissism, or a hope that the final picture would reveal something that they’ve never seen before? I found some answers when I interviewed Chieska Fortune Smith, for this month’s cover story. One of the things that she mentioned, hit me deep. In the short time that she has been photographing, making portraits of people has become a means for her to understand herself. However, it’s not always so easy when she turns the camera towards herself. “It’s harder for me to see the raw version of myself,” she said. And so, she dresses her self-portraits with distortions, deep shadows, or immerses herself in reflections, and through them she is slowly trying to understand what it means to belong. I, too, felt, or rather continue to feel the same… this state of being in a limbo. And a lot of it shows in the photographs I make of objects that also don’t quite have a home. I also find it hard to turn the camera towards my face, because of the years I’ve spent hating the way I look. But since the past year or so, I’ve been slowly making mends. Whenever I travel in a rickshaw, I love the play of the wind on my hair, and how it embraces parts of my face. I have been shooting these moments, and making videos of them on my phone. They may not be as intricate or as thought-provoking as some of the names mentioned in this piece… But self-portraiture is as much about chasing away the things that haunt you, as it is about discovery and acceptance.

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Better Photography.