Inspired by the classical Greek elements, I wanted to portray the mix of emotions that have colored my journey as a photographer in four self-portraits:
- Fire – passion, determination, grit
- Air – elation, inspiration, celebration
- Water – self-doubt, despair, suffering
- Earth – gratitude, self-compassion, faith
These emotions and elements are not as straightforwad as this list—just like my journey has not been a straight path. They are dynamic and jumbled, raucous and complicated.
This self-portraiture project was the culmination of a summer class. All assignments required looking directly into the lens. I did not retouch any part of me in the photos. I only minimally cleaned up seamless and distractions on clothes. The final project required submission of five images: four of me and, practicing what I've learned on myself, one of another person. While all other assignments were in black and white, the final could be in color. Any photographic elements (light, shadow, color, props, etc.) used in the portraits should not compete with the subject. Concept, technical skill, and the expression of the eyes factored into grading.
For the fifth image, I asked a fellow volunteer from the SF SPCA, Vivek, to be the subject of my final project portrait. I wanted to photograph someone I didn't know well and I took this as an opportunity to get to know Vivek better. Lucky for me, he was game!
I'm no stranger to selfies but a snap of myself on a smart phone is not the same as a self-portrait taken intentionally and with some amount of care. I thought it would be interesting to further explore being the subject of my own photography by taking the self-portraiture class this summer at City College of San Francisco.
The premise of the class was to better understand what it means to be in front of the lens so that I can be a better photographer behind it. That's how my left-brain, or analytical and rational mind, justified taking the course. The right-brain and intuitive mind said, "Hey, I've been so in my head this year, I bet there's a lot of great emotional fodder for this class." Indeed. I'm sure what I learned in the class will be helpful to me as I photograph people in the future, but the immediate impact of the class was much more in the emotional and artistic department for me.
I really enjoyed doing the assignments for this class and trying this genre of photography on for size. For lack of a better way of putting it, I had a bit of fun getting vulnerable in front of the camera. That sounds weird, doesn't it? But maybe that's the artist in me. The part that longs for self-expression through my chosen medium of photography. It also happens that I don't mind being the subject of my art.
On a practical level, with self-portraiture, I don't have to go to the trouble of finding and coordinating with a model for a portrait session. I can also experiment on myself with different ideas before shooting them with or for a client such as shooting with a color gel to get a color shadow behind my subject. That's basically what happened with my final project. By the time I photographed Vivek, I knew exactly how to set the lights up.
On a personal level, delving into self-portraiture was a way for me to explore, discover, and mine the inner self. I chose to portray my emotional experience as a photographer for my final project because that has been my life for the past three years - raw and very current. I have blogged about my journey previously (here and here) and I suppose I will continue for some time to come as well. Something that has come up for me again and again, is how my leap into photography was and is not only about pursuing a passion but perhaps more about pursuing authenticity and the courage to live more fully as myself. To be present and at times, vulnerable. In taking photos of myself, I challenged myself to be as authentic and fully present as I could. Conveying a specific mood or feeling is difficult; how the heck do I express passion with my eyes, face, and body? Even if I think I've done so, do others agree? I asked some friends to pick which photos they thought were most effective from my initial selects and their votes were all over the map.
Something else that occurred to me in taking this course – self-portraiture is about getting comfortable with oneself too. Not just getting comfortable in front of the camera and empathizing with clients on the other side of the lens. I don't have time to fully flesh this out in this blog or maybe ever, but consider my gif above as a fun free-association of related "self- " words. Self-image, self-concept, self-confidence, self-esteem.... (On my laptop's dictionary program, there are more than 200 words that begin with "self-.")
I have not always been comfortable with how I look and I never thought I was attractive growing up. I think we all struggle at one time or another with self-image. We are constantly bombarded with messages on how to look younger, slimmer, more attractive, etc. I know for me, part of my journey to being more authentically myself, whether as a photographer or not, has been getting more comfortable with speaking my truth and accepting the many ways in which I show up physically, visually, emotionally, energetically, etc – my many selves – even when it's not pretty. This includes how I look on and off camera! It's hard to look or feel beautiful when I'm angry, crying, tired, or annoyed. Or jumping up and down like a fool to get the "perfect" self-portrait. Really, that's not what matters. Self-acceptance and self-compassion, though, do. Also, a healthy sense of humor and ability to laugh at oneself.
Additional Takeaways From the Self-Portraiture Course
- A photo or headshot of someone, including myself, is not the same as a portrait. A photo captures the persona of a subject while a good portrait makes visible some truth about that subject. Or shows some presence in, or essence of, the subject.
- I may be comfortable as the subject of a photo but most photos are of me smiling or hamming it up - in other words, projecting a certain image of myself. Portraits, of myself and others, mean getting past the public persona, to something deeper and perhaps more authentic.
- A good portrait is given by the subject to the photographer. In order for that to happen, the subject has to trust the photographer enough to share a private aspect of themselves. Vulnerability can be a loaded term — and feels like somewhat of a buzz word these days — but the subject has to feel comfortable enough to reveal what's behind his or her public face or mask. I have been the subject of a portraiture session in which I felt uneasy. In hindsight, I realize that the photographer was expecting me to give him something of myself that I was not willing to. He had not earned my trust or made me feel at ease enough to let down my guard. His expectation was highly awkward and uncomfortable.
- It's all in the eyes. For every assignment we looked at our eyes, comparing the expression of the right with the left eye, and comparing the expression of the face and body with the eyes. They may all say different things but the eyes usually don't lie.
Behind the Scenes: Technical and Creative Process for My Final Project
I've not played very much with color gels so I knew I wanted to use those as part of my project. Another goal of mine this year has been to get more comfortable with off-camera flash. I bought two additional speedlites and triggers earlier this year so I used those in this project too. A tripod and wireless trigger were essential for my self-portraits. Shooting digital and tethered to my laptop were also really helpful.
I kept my set up simple. Camera left: color gel on a speedlite in a small rapid octabox on the seamless and spilling onto me. Camera right: key light in deep parabolic softbox on me. I didn't want to spend much time messing with the technical each time I was in the studio. Nevertheless there was some amount of fussing around when a speedlite wouldn't fire (recycle time was slower than my trigger happy finger, batteries were draining, auto-off feature kicked in because I was tooling around with something else), figuring out which color gels I liked best for certain shades, and blocking out window light.
Getting into the mood of each self-portrait and capturing the right expression, pose, and hair action (yeah, my hair was the worst!) were the most work. To successfully express each mood, I tried different strategies to tap into different memories and emotions. I read out loud, wrote, verbalized thoughts and feelings, listened to music, and moved my body through dance and jumping.
I actually started shooting my project in a black dress, which is why some of my BTS and outtake photos differ. About midway through I wondered whether white would be better? So I did a full version in black and white! I can be compulsive about things. Having two different versions made it harder for me but I'm glad I had the option. No two photos were alike within the white or black dress series because each moment captured a slightly different expression and mood as well as pose. There were some expressions in the black series that I really loved but ultimately I went with white because it felt more fluid with the color lighting and concept that I was photographing. Likewise, there were some expressions I loved in my white series that did not make the cut because my pose was not quite right, especially for the jumping Air photos.
Before photographing Vivek, I asked him two main questions to help me prepare for and guide our session:
- What is your favorite color?
- Which mood feels most salient for you these days?
His response was blue and resilience. I asked for two hours of his time and we spent most of it chatting. I had the lights already set up and tested so I didn't have to mess with anything and could just focus on him and being present with him. I only took about three dozen photos of him. That sounds like a lot, but it's significantly less than my normal head shot sessions, in which I'm trying to get my client to smile, look confident, approachable, etc. — a photo that projects their ideal public image. And waaaaay less than the photos I took of myself for this project!
Lastly, if you don't follow my Instagram feed (@jungfitzpatrick), you've missed my four initial assignments from the class, so here they are. Oh, and if you're on IG, follow me! More and different behind the scenes goodies.