The blog of photographer and musician, Kim Ayres

The Challenge of the Self Portrait

Last year I was asked by The Stewartry Camera Club to give a talk to their members about Portrait Photography. It seemed to go down well and I was asked back this year to talk about self-portraits and to set a competition, which I did on Wednesday.

In some ways, self-portraits can be seen as one of the most challenging forms of photography for most photographers, because there are significant obstacles to overcome on 2 levels.

The first is to do with the technical difficulties in getting the exposure, composition and focus right when you can’t actually look through the lens – at least if you want to avoid the cliché of just standing in front of the mirror with your camera in front of your face.

Cliché number 1

So you have to try and get everything set up then either set the timer, run round, get into place and adopt the right posture and expression before the camera goes click, or you need something like a cable or remote release that allows you to trigger the shutter from a distance – at least if you want to avoid the other cliché of holding the camera at arms length and just pointing it at you.

Cliché number 2

However, in many ways the far bigger challenge is in deciding how you wish to portray yourself to the world.

It’s one thing for other people to take your photo – it is their interpretation of you in that moment. But if you are taking it yourself, you have to make the final decision about how you want to appear. Intelligent? Sexy? Cool?

However, the problem with trying to look cool, for example, takes us back to those dilemmas from our teens. Cool people seem to be effortlessly cool. People trying to be cool are inherently un-cool. So how do you make yourself look cool without looking like you’re trying to make yourself look cool? The risk of ridicule if you get it wrong is gut-knotting.

Trying too hard

The reality is that while most people are wary about having their photo taken in case they look awful, most photographers feel this even more intensely. Indeed, for many, one of the primary advantages of holding the camera is precisely so you don’t have to be in the image. So to tell an audience of camera club members that I wanted them to turn the device on themselves was never going to be an easy sell.

However, I did my best to try and fill them with enthusiasm for the idea, primarily pushing the notion of photography as storytelling. It can be like having your own dressing up box – you can pretend to be whomever you want.

And once you move away from the suggestion that it has to be some kind of accurate representation, and into the idea of performance and play, then the possibilities for creativity and fun open up massively.

I don’t know how many will enter the competition. I know it will push almost all of them completely out of their comfort zone, but I feel the experience of doing it will be all the more rewarding because of that.

In about 3 weeks I’ll be given the submissions to look through and judge, and in the 2nd half of February, I’ll be going back to announce the winners.

Although anyone who is brave enough to overcome their reluctance and actually enter is already a winner in my eyes.

And if you have 5 minutes to spare, below is a video about the making of the Lavazza (coffee) 2012 Calendar, where they asked 12 famous photographers to create self-portraits. Each had a very different take on the concept.

The LAVAZZERS 2012 from Eugenio Recuenco on Vimeo.


Anonymous said...

done all the cliche bits...I believe there's a timer on my Nikon...I'll have to try and see if I can figure out how to use it...would be nice to take a really COOL self portrait...funny, campy!

The video was interesting...seeing how each wanted their self-portrait taken!

Kateri Von Steal said...

So, I'm going to be the non-photographer here....

Self portraits are usually my one armed at a weird angle FACEBOOK face shots.... **you can laugh at me now**

I think they look wonderful!

And, if I mess up, I just delete and retake.

Problem is, if someone goes through my camera before I pick THE PERFECT SELF SHOT... I look VAIN.

Laugh with me.
I'm trying to be funny...

hope said...

Exactly why I feel comfortable BEHIND the camera. I'm one of those self conscious folks...the only "good" photos of me are the ones I never saw coming.

I can't WAIT to see this competition unfold!

ruthie said...

Thanks for that Kim! I so much prefer the idea of taking a self portrait through "performance & play" and story telling is a favourite of mine! I think that might be a breakthrough to my aversion of the self portrait! Fascinating to see how others percieve themselves. A picture sure does speak a thousand words. ps A Happy very belated New Year to you!

Eryl said...

You've hit it, I reckon, once one can see oneself as a function in a story one can focus on the story and not on one's own self. That said I was seriously considering joining in the 365 days project on Flickr until I realised it required self portraits.

Hope your students overcome themselves and enter the competition.

Pat said...

Had a go - at arm's length. Found it difficult to get at the right level and next time must comb my hair etc etc etc.

Kim Ayres said...

Theanne - as my old physics teacher used to say, "if all else fails, read the instructions..." Give it a go and if you post anything to your blog then be sure to let me know :)

Kateri - Don't worry, I don't laugh at anyone who's trying :) If you like the photos you do, then that's wonderful - it's the most important bit! This post was about challenging people who are in a camera club and so use their cameras much more - helping them to overcome the standard ways of using the mirror, or holding it at arms length. I think Eryl's comment (#5) is spot on - if you can see yourself as part of the story, you can then play with the story rather than worrying about yourself :)

Hope - I bet I could take a "good" photo of you, looking straight into the lens. Let me know when you're coming over to Scotland :)

Ruthie - Happy New Year to you too! Look up Cindy Sherman - she made an entire photographic career out of self portraits. She would create photos that look like stills from a film - generating a real sense of mood :)

Eryl - here's a challenge then - 365 photos where you are a particular character from a book you've read or film you've seen :)

Kim Ayres said...

Missed you in the ether there, Pat.

No one ever gets it right first time. Even the super professionals take hundreds and only use the best one.

Don't worry about combed hair - I like the wild and unkempt look :)

savannah said...

after reading this, i used photo booth on my MAC - hilarious! i'm like hope on this one, the best shots of me have been when i wasn't aware of the camera! i look forward to seeing the photos posted!

Anonymous said...

My idea for good people observation is doing it when their not sketch that is. You know that already though.
You would know better than I how best to photograph a self portrait but for me I either have to be caught unawares or so tired I don't care.

Whitney Lee said...

I'm working more with my camera now, but that means I'm rarely in the shots. Since my handiest subjects are my children and husband I have a million family photos that are missing something...oh wait, that's me! You've inspired me to work on getting in the photo more. I'm interested in hearing how this contest turns out.

Rachel Fox said...

I love all the cliche shots of yourself you've posted in this! Very amusing. I could almost see a calendar of different yous... do you have one for every month?

Kim Ayres said...

Savannah - I'm afraid I won't be posting any of the images from the Camera Club. However, if you have some hilarious ones of you, at least put them up on your Facebook page :)

Allen - One day we'll have to get together - I'll take your portrait and you can draw mine :)

Whitney - it's a really good idea to be in more of your family photos. However, self conscious you might be, your husband and children will cherish the images. And you will too in 10 and 20 years time :)

Rachel - A calendar of photos of entirely me would be an ego trip too far, and would hardly be likely to sell a copy :)

Eryl said...

Now there is a challenge, I'll let its possibilities filter in, and may just take it on. Thank you.

Sayre said...

I am a behind-the-camera personality - I hate having my picture taken. The reality of what I look like is always shocking to me.

Kim Ayres said...

Eryl - keep me informed if you do, and don't hesitate to call if you want to pick my brains :)

Sayre - nearly everyone hates their own face. I wrote about this once before - click here - you might find it interesting :)

Conny said...

You inspire me so so much with your self portraits - one day I will go for it - thank you!!!!

Kim Ayres said...

Let me know when you do, Conny - I'd love to see them :)

Sayre said...

Oh my - you're right! I never look that awful to myself in a mirror but the whole thing looks off to me in a picture. Never mind the sags, bags and flabs.

Kim Ayres said...

Mind you, it's the sags, bags and flabs that make for an infintely more interesting photo than some computer-generated plastic smoothness :)

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