Can I tell you guys something embarrassing? I have over a thousand photos of myself on my computer. I like to think of them as self-portraits, but the parties in the Great Selfie Debate of Aught-Fourteen would probably prefer the diminutive form.
My interest in self-portraiture makes me feel the same as when I eat Nutella out of the jar with a spoon. I’m not supposed to be doing this, I think. This is bad. I think these things despite the fact that I enjoy doing it, despite the fact that I know other people are doing it as well, and despite the fact that it fulfills me creatively. (The photos that is, not the Nutella.)
Considering the innocuity of the act of aiming a camera at oneself, there is a surprising amount of negativity aimed at the people—let’s be honest, at the women—who dare to take, much less post, self-portraits.
So why do I have so many? Well, after struggling to complete Project 365, a yearlong project where you take a photo everyday, I was intrigued by a similar project, 365 Days, which focused on self-portraits. I made an anonymous account using a phrase from Walt Whitman, I joined a Flickr group, I put on a dress, lay down on my bathroom floor and snapped a photo of myself, and that’s how, starting in June of 2007, I ended up photographing myself almost every day, give or take some lulls, until September of 2009.
I know how self-involved that sounds, believe me. In fact, although I uploaded the photos as I took them, I’ve never really connected the project to my name, save for two self-portraits that were published, one online, and one in print.
Aside from adorable baby photos, I had never really liked a picture of myself, and I’d never been entirely comfortable in my own body when a camera was pointed at me. I froze when someone said, “Cheese,” with a horrible plastered-on smile and unconsciously tense shoulders.
So here was my chance to control the lens myself. I had a say in the way I looked. I could take hundreds of unflattering photos of myself, delete every single one, and no one ever had to know. I had the freedom to discover my image, the ability to play with it, and push it in directions that interested me. Doing these things on a regular basis ultimately made me more comfortable in my own skin.
We live in a society that is entirely content to judge us on our appearances, yet doesn’t want us to be participants in the way we’re portrayed. When you take a self-portrait, you don’t have to smile. You don’t have to brush your hair. You don’t have to wear clothes. You don’t have to look like yourself. In fact, sometimes it’s more fun when you don’t. As Anjelica Huston says in her new autobiography: “People often think that looking in the mirror is about narcissism. Children look at their reflection to see who they are.” You don’t have to wait for someone else to show you who you are. You can pick up a camera any time you’d like.
Photo from Emily’s personal collection