MODULE 4: INFORMING CONTEXTS. WEEK 10.
So, since the Covid-19 lockdown, I’ve increasingly turned the camera on myself. Practically, this has simply been because my planned portrait collaborations are not available, so I have had to adapt to find ways to ‘fill’ those gaps. Also, this has thrown up a new context from which I am considering the work – as mentioned in this post – about isolation as it relates to my own experiences of that both culturally and racially.
Self-portraiture is not something I have done much of in my practice (though I’ve used myself once before in a previous module). I don’t like being in front of a camera (something that I believe has helped make me empathetic with my subjects when it comes the portrait work across my practice). More than that, I am much more interested in other people, in the spaces they take up in the world and what they exude consciously and unconsciously. But needs must, and I can’t sit still in terms of making work as the end of module submission deadline approaches.
There is an incredible power available within the realms of self-portraiture that I hadn’t fully expected. As I’ve been making images, I’ve realised the potential for the exploration of alter-egos, characters, personas, and other revisions of the self – these can be powerful statements, and they provide the opportunity to try out ideas that might be difficult to encourage in others.
There have been technical considerations to working in this way, not least how to operate a camera when there is only myself present. I’ve seen these as healthy creative limitations rather than frustrations (which they can be as well). So, I’ve used the self-timer built into the camera (giving me a maximum limit of 10 seconds before the shutter fires) and used that to govern the image content: allowing an unprepared, more realistic or candid image to be captured. Alternatively, and more consciously, I also used a remote wi-fi shutter release, especially where the image was more posed.
In all of this work, due to the lock-down restraints, I have worked with what I have in terms of clothing, locations, and props. For example, in order to ‘depersonalise’ myself, I chose to wear clothing that I don’t normally wear, although the suit in the image above has a personal meaning as it was bought and worn specifically for my younger brothers funeral last year. I also chose to shoot some of the work at dawn in my immediate neighbourhood – the low-light gives the work a slightly ‘haunted’ feel, and the slow shutter speeds forced motion blur into some images that gives an added layer of something being out-of-synch.
The results are mixed, and its such a nascent addition to my way of working that I’m not clear on how it will sit in the wider context of my practice moving forward though I will include some images in my final work-in-progress portfolio. Having said that, this approach might become a necessity as we begin to operate in the new paradigm we are now living in. Alternatively, it might well be that this work becomes ‘sketches’ for future development. I will have to see.
As a result of this new approach, I’ve been looking at practitioners who explore similar types of work, especially where it relates to notions of cultural and racial identity, geography, status and history. For example, Zanele Muholi and Tomoko Sawada both use self-portraiture to explore those notions in relation to their own autobiographical narratives. They also use elements of theatricality and performance, often exploring multiple ‘characters’ and identities within the self.
Muholi’s work is deeply rooted in her black LGBTQI+ activism. Consequently her ‘motivation lies in making change’ (Harris, 2020) though, pertinent to my own biomythographical work, she also states that she ‘picked up a camera to affirm my existence’ (Harris, 2020). She uses makeup, styling and props to take ‘the self-portrait in idiosyncratic directions’ (Soutter, 2018, p. 32) and this approach is something that appeals to me greatly and evidently sits well with work that already exists within my project.
Extending Cindy Sherman’s detailed performative portraits and turning them up to a point where they become almost virtual reality, Tomoko Sawada uses herself as the canvas for her explorations of identity. In her work she is, as she states herself, exploring ‘inner and outer life’ (SFMOMA 2018) by creating fictional characters that examine the female experience. This exploration of inner and outer life is the cross-over point with my own work. Sawada frequently uses a typological approach in her presentation, not something that I’ve considered for my practice, but which helps portray a litany of culture and status proscribed in her attention to detail and cultural references. Something to note and carry forward then (from both practitioners), is this attention to styling and detail: the signified elements that underline those choices and decisions being all important. I will have to get to grips with this more if self-portraiture becomes a mainstay approach in my practice moving forward.
REFERENCES & RESOURCES
Soutter, L. 2013. Why Art Photography? 2nd edn. Oxford: Routledge.
Harris, C. 2020. ‘We Are Here And we Will Be Counted’. The RPS Journal Volume 160, April.
SFMOMA. 2018. Tomoko Sawada’s portraits create familiar characters. [Exhibition interview]. Available at:
New Cosmos Of Photography. Available at: https://global.canon/en/newcosmos/gallery/selected-artists/tomoko-sawada/index.html