For a change, I haven’t had to labour over a suitable subject for an assignment, but Self-Portraiture really isn’t as easy as it sounds. The first thing to come to mind when I thought of contemporary Self-Portraiture was the Selfie. But would a series of Selfies, whether shot on a smart-phone or an expensive camera be suitable for a degree level assignment? The problem for me is just how ubiquitous they are, regardless of their meaning or content. Anyone can snap a Selfie on their mobile phone and share it to Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, but these types of photograph or snapshot are rarely ‘considered’, ‘thought out’ and used to communicate something other than that narcissistic need to show the world just how good the subjects life is on social media. I decided to explore the notion of Selfies further. According to Arpad Kovacks, curator of the Getty exhibition, In Focus:
The self-portrait and the selfie are two separate, though at times overlapping, efforts at establishing and embellishing a definition of one’s self. Qualities like medium specificity, deeply rooted histories, and traditions (or lack thereof) that define these efforts only superficially differentiate the two. What has greater weight is the selfie’s inherently replaceable and even disposable quality. If after taking a picture of oneself the results are unsatisfactory, it is easily forgotten and replaced by a new picture. The self-portrait, whether it is a carefully composed study or created in haste, often contains more decisions than could be easily erased. Calling a self-portrait by Rembrandt a selfie is not only anachronistic, it also negates the carefully calculated set of decisions that created the rendering. This does not mean that selfies cannot be self-portraits, or that selfies by nature require the opposite of calculated intent. An artist could choose to represent him or herself through selfies; however, self-portraits don’t immediately signify selfies.
As far as Kovaks is concerned, a Selfie is ill-conceived and easily replaced/deleted (most of the time), where as a Self Portrait is meant to last having been created in a considered and thoughtful manner. I would have to agree with this, otherwise, are not all Selfie-takers artists?
Another view is that of writer and theorist Alli Burness:
Self-portraits are created to be read as art, are displayed in museums or galleries, and we are granted permission to view them as texts, functioning independently from the intent of the artist. Selfies are borne of vernacular photography practices and are brought into museums and galleries by visitors. It is perilous to read selfies in the same way as art, to ignore the context of their social interaction and the intent of the selfie-taker. It is important to remember these images are shared as part of a conversation, a series of contextual interactions and are connected to the selfie-maker in an intimate, embodied and felt way. We are allowed to leave these elements out of our reading of artist’s self-portraits.
In Burness’ view, it is about the intent of the author. With regards to this assignment then, it is the intent that I need to define if I am to create meaningful Self Portraits as an Artist.
So now I find myself in the same predicament as every other assignment, where I need to define a subject, or in this case an intent. What is it I want to achieve by photographing myself? Truth be told, I’m not a big fan of taking my own photograph, unless it’s a holiday snap. I am not a compulsive Selfie taker and would consider myself an introvert. I have used myself as an actor in previous assignments purely due to not having anyone else available.
I have re-visited the diary that I kept for 3 weeks at the beginning of this project. (I have decided not to upload it to this blog due to its personal nature). Despite my reservations, this turned out to be a useful exercise. A lot has changed since I kept the diary. Christmas has been and gone, my family and I have moved house, I’ve started a new job, my son has started at nursery, and our circle of friends is changing post-move. But despite all of that, there are key elements of the ‘pre-move’ diary that I can strongly relate to which all fall under the banner of ‘Self-Image’.
To cut a long story short, prior to Xmas, I was concerned about the amount of weight I’d put on recently, and my lack of physical fitness. I made an effort to go running regularly and to improve my diet, both of which fell by the wayside. Over Christmas, my weight has increased further, and my physical fitness has decreased. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not obese. I wouldn’t even go so far as to say I’m fat. But I am overweight in so far as I am carrying excess body fat. I do not suffer from Body Dysmorphia or any other weight related illness. In fact, I’m just a pretty average person who’s put on a few pounds and is struggling with the motivation to lose it.
Reflecting on this, I’m now at a point where I need to be brutally honest with myself, and I need to make changes. This is both Psychological (a matter of both negative self-image and increased self-consciousness resulting in a diminished self-worth) and Physiological (more weight = lower fitness/slower, increased health risks etc). It also doesn’t help that I’m a self-confessed Fattist.
Before you judge, let me explain; I am not an extreme Fattist, I don’t hate fat people, give them menacing glares, or treat them unfairly as per the dictionary definition of a Fattist. I do however feel a general dislike towards Fat people. I have always believed that people are fat because they lack self-control/self-discipline and because they are lazy and/or greedy. I also believe that they receive unfair advantage at the expense of others. They are a drain on the health service, and despite the ‘condition’ being completely self-inflicted and preventable, are not charged for treatment/transport. When getting a flight, If my baggage is 2Kg’s overweight, I am charged Excess Baggage Allowance despite my own weight being 76Kg. Yet a Fat person, who weighs 90kg+ who’s baggage is within the allowance, doesn’t get charged for their ‘Excess Baggage’. And then some poor bugger (normally me, having just been charged Excess Baggage) has to sit next to their oversized sweaty carcass, when really, they should be charged for 2 seats! They drive around town centres and shops on mobility scooters as if they have a disability which only compounds the issue, but now I’m ranting so I’ll stop there.
I know there’s a lot more to it than this simple summary. For some it’s because of illness (hyperthyroidism for example), and for others, they’ve had unhealthy lifestyles thrust upon them since childhood (poor parenting). But in general, these Fattist views are preconceptions that I’ve had for as long as I can remember. And herein lies the problem. I’ve never had to worry about my weight. Until a few years ago, I could eat what I wanted, when I wanted, and not put on weight. I didn’t need to do much exercise to maintain my fitness, I just had to keep myself ‘ticking over’ to meet the Army’s physical fitness requirements. However, over the past few years, as I’ve progressed through the ranks, my job has become a lot more sedentary and managerial, working from behind a desk. My lifestyle is more comfortable, I enjoy eating, and drinking, and I also smoke occasionally. And with age comes a slower metabolism. In the past 3 years, my body shape has changed quite dramatically. I can no longer fit into jeans or shirts that I used to wear, I have a gut, love handles and Moobs. Because of the excess weight I’m carrying, I find running to be more difficult which discourages me. I’ve never had to diet or resist temptation, and didn’t realise just how difficult it was. For the first time, I’m beginning to empathise with fat people. On the flip side, I’ve always looked at the obese and wondered “at what point did you realise you were getting that big, and decide not to do anything about it?”
For me, now is that time, but I need a kick up the arse! I have this self loathing, whenever I eat something I know I shouldn’t, when I enjoy a pint of ale in all its calorific hoppy glory, whenever I don’t go for the run I know I should, and whenever I look in the mirror. But I lack will-power. I don’t want other people like me, judging me. I don’t want that stigma. I want to be a fighting fit professional soldier. I want to live long enough to see my son grow into adulthood and I want to be fit enough to play football with him. With fitness and negative Body Image being the key drivers to my success in loosing weight, I’m hoping that a series of revealing self portraits will act as the visual stimuli that I need, to make the changes I want, and to maintain a healthier lifestyle.
So what do I want to achieve? I want to create a series of images which narrate how I negatively perceive my body, in order to contextually act as a visual reminder of the changes I need to make. I want to explore my negative body image and self loathing through photography. Essentially I want my self portraits to say something about me, to me. Something I need (not want) to hear; That I’m getting fat and need to do something about it! I want them to be the polar opposite of the glorified selfie.
With this initial idea brewing, I decided to look more at Self-Image, what it means, the Psychology of it, and how I perceive my own physical body. This began with a Mind-Mapping exercise which can be found here:
As I began to look deeper at Self-Image, I veered off into the realms of Fattism and other areas of research in a bid to remain objective about myself as a subject. This objectivity is quite important. If I want to show myself how I look in order to promote change, I must do so knowing that it was done objectively. There must be a ‘truth’ to the photographs. If the images are knowingly taken in a subjective manner, this will inevitably lead to me making excuses further down the line when I am lacking will-power. I also want to expand on the context of the work. Rather it be purely personal, I would like the images to resonate with others, so that perhaps other people who are struggling to find motivation, may find some in the photographs.