To take a self-portrait is to slow down time. In the ten seconds between pressing the shutter and its self-timer release, a new world opens up to me. I run over to take my position in front of the lens, draping the sunlight across my body as if it were a robe.
Six seconds to go. My left leg and arms extend into an arabesque pose, emulating the fluid lines of the trees around me. There’s an intimacy to the light in this quiet part of the woods, to the way the leaves cast dappled shadows across my skin. A sense of ease descends over me.
Click. The moment is captured on film forever.
While I’ve been taking self-portraits for a few years now, the process has evolved over time, becoming more regular and more specific. At first, these photographs documented my early twenties as I navigated love, loss and life in between. A late-night mirror portrait in a London gig venue. A snapshot of the first summer sun touching my skin at the start of a whirlwind relationship. A silhouette on a solo trip through the desert. I created visual records of the feelings I could not yet put into words – a photo diary of my inner life.
Over time, I began to approach self-portraiture in a more contemplative way. The shift happened when I came across my grandad’s old 1970s Canon AE-1 film camera three years ago. I was enamoured by the device’s analogue mechanics; the black enamel casing, the click of the lever, and the smooth turn of the focus. That same week, I shot the first two rolls of 35mm Kodak Gold 200, and fell in love with the results.
“Each portrait has become a conversation with myself. I take my time to sit with my thoughts and feelings to see where they take me.”
There is an inherent romance to shooting film. A sense of nostalgia is embedded in the grain. The experience feels tactile, sensory, almost sensuous to me – from delicately slotting the perforations into place when loading the film, to balancing the developing chemistry in order to unveil the final image. The risk of accidentally ruining a roll through a light leak or darkroom slip-up adds to the fragile beauty of the form.
In comparison to digital, shooting analogue does impose more boundaries. Each roll only holds up to 36 shots, with the film speed dictating the possible light conditions. There is also of course no way to check the results. This means that I take my time composing each shot, paying attention to the framing, and getting the components of the exposure triangle just right before taking the picture. The limitations of an analogue camera strip the world of distractions, and demand a sense of patience in its handling.
Each portrait has become a conversation with myself. I take my time to sit with my thoughts and feelings to see where they take me. Like a form of meditation or yoga, the almost daily repetition of the process allows me to discover something new every time. It’s as if I reach out to my most private truths, and witness how they respond.
Some days, I capture no more than a flash of a collarbone, a curved spine out of focus, or a set of downcast eyes. A photographer friend likened these moments to a form of bloodletting, echoing the therapeutic yet challenging nature of the practice. Other days, creating a portrait offers me a rare sense of freedom and playfulness. I take up as much space as I want, make eye contact with my mirror reflection, and let myself be guided by the texture of the light on my skin.
“I think self-portraits are about having the courage to no longer look for something outside of ourselves, but about daring to turn inwards.”
My own body intuitively became the main subject of my photographs. Frida Kahlo echoed this as she described being her own muse: “I am so often alone. I am the subject I know best. The subject I want to know better.” She created dozens of self-portrait paintings in her time, revealing her psychological responses to the personal triumphs and adversities she was facing.
In many ways, I think self-portraits are about having the courage to no longer look for something outside of ourselves, but about daring to turn inwards. I place myself into the work, and I let the outside perceptions and my inner vision engage in a dialogue. It’s as much about discovery as it is about presentation. The process feels rewarding to me because it demands both a depth of mental introspection and a very physical presence at the same time. When I find the balance between these, my favourite photographs emerge.
“Seeing my own body on film has made me appreciate it in a different way. Contained within the frame of the film, my body becomes my inspiration, my canvas and my message all in one”
Of course, as a queer woman, I’m aware of what it means to be perceived. This is particularly the case when skin is placed on display. I often pose naked, and nudity in art is shaped by the historical imbalance of the gendered gaze and the disparity in power. I wouldn’t want to explore my personal stories in front of the lens of other photographers. Instead, by being both the creator of my photographs and my own subject, my self-portraits are a form of empowerment.
One of the unexpected consequences is that seeing my own body on film has made me appreciate it in a different way. Contained within the frame of the film, my body becomes my inspiration, my canvas and my message all in one. When I look in the mirror for a self-portrait, I don’t see the parts that I feel insecure about.
I’m drawn to texture, light and intersecting lines. The freckles on my skin are the commas in a handwritten note. The lines on my thighs are calligraphy. A scar hints at a prequel. Nothing catches the summer light like the downy hairs on my arms. Each self-declared flaw transforms into a point of interest, adds character, and draws in the eye. The imperfections bring the image to life.
“Each self-declared flaw transforms into a point of interest, adds character, and draws in the eye.”
Taking a portrait is always a transformative experience. It centres me. Even after years of taking them, I’m still in awe of how I can condense such a deep connection to myself and to the world around me in such a short amount of time. The click of the shutter is almost inconsequential. I hold the position, and close my eyes to let the moment wash over me.
Perhaps most artists who work on self-portraits engage in the practice for themselves first. It requires building a level of fearlessness in introspection, time and time again. It is this repeated self-belief, despite all odds, that enables other people to also believe in what you create.
If I just work hard enough, keep at this obsessive daily routine, if I sustain this dedication all the way through, if I dare to be vulnerable, if I allow myself to let go, I can create something worthwhile in the process.
In the most intimate sense, every photograph is proof of my existence. Every self-portrait is a love letter to my life.
Elise Wouters is a writer, poet and visual artist, based in London. She is interested in exploring the dynamic between language, desire and the body, and she has a monthly Letters of Longing newsletter. Her work has been published in The Independent, Ploughshares and The Erotic Review. @elisewouters
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