Self Portrait Assignment Articles

The selfie: on a slow day, I probably see twenty while skimming social media. Other days, I am sure that number is in the hundreds.

Recently on Your Shot, National Geographic staff photographers Mark Thiessen and Becky Hale ran a Self-Portrait assignment. I can’t say I was particularly excited about the assignment at first. The advent of the selfie had left me with some misconstrued ideas about how unoriginal it is to turn the camera on yourself. A selfie is one of the easiest images you can take—after all, many people have a camera lens facing them every time they check their phone. Selfies are a way to show off a new haircut or your favorite outfit. They are a way for a group of people to take a photo without having to talk to a stranger.

Whether shot at arms length or reflected in a mirror, selfies have become such a common image for me to see each day that I almost forgot the beautiful and vulnerable place from which they originated. Of course we saw some pretty classic selfies while editing the assignment. And they too have their time and place. But by week two of the assignment, I was beginning to feel reinvigorated by a phrase I had left out of my vocabulary for far too long: self-portraits.

Self-portraits are not selfies. They are beautiful and revealing. The good ones are extremely difficult to make. After sifting through thousands of these images, I was astounded to see that the final edit was, essentially, faceless. I didn’t need to see someone’s face to learn about their essence—Ocean’s battle with cancer, Katrina’s struggle with aging, Amanda’s four-decade love for baking.

These images reminded me of why I loved studying self-portraits during my first photo classes in high school. They are about artists, showing themselves in the way they want to be seen—revealing something deeply personal, illustrating something they cannot explain with words.

All of this reflection started quite a discussion in our office about self-portraits that we have loved—Janna remembered Maynard Owen Williams’s reflective self-portrait and Coburn shared Cindy Sherman’s Untitled 96. In recent memory, I took interest in Kyle Thompson’s work. This project revitalized my love for those raw and revealing moments when a photographer turns the camera on themselves.

Visit the Your Shot story “Self Portrait” to see the final chosen images.

Marie is a photo editor for Your Shot. She looks at every photo submitted—most days it’s between 5,000-7,000 images. Follow Marie and her occasional selfie on Instagram.

Are selfies the 21st century version of a self-portrait?  What even is a selfie, and why is everyone taking them all the dam time? Hashtag I woke up like this, hashtag I’m on a top of a mountain and you aren’t. The artistic medium has rapidly become the universal way of taking control of our image and presenting ourselves in the best light or filter imaginable. But wait, isn’t that the same thing as a self-portrait; ‘a portrait of an artist produced or created by said artist’? As the lines are becoming more blurred between the two movements, discover some of the best selfies and self-portrait artists, so draw your own conclusions about this highly controversial debate! 

Alex Israel. Self Portrait (Selfie and Studio Floor). 2014.

What even is a Selfie?
We’ve all done it so don’t you dare deny it. Flick through anyone’s pics and I challenge you to find someone who doesn’t have a handheld image of themselves, whether it be in the mirror, holding a cat or doing something way cooler than your normal life. Thanks to the first front facing camera on Apple’s iPhone 4 in 2010, the selfie phenomenon has gone viral. Bestowed ‘word of the year’ by the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013, its’ official definition is ‘a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media’. Unlike the traditional self-portrait, the love of being liked plays a key role for those who snap, enhance and upload to get attention. Although generally deemed as a lower form of artistic culture the likes of Barack Obama, David Cameron and The Pope have taken more than a few selfies in their time. Now, Saatchi Gallery in London is holding its very own Selfie to Self-Expression exhibition at the end of March. Call it narcissism, call it art, call it whatever you want, the selfie is here and dominating the prestigious world of art.


The World’s Best Selfie
Think outside of the box, or even the planet next time you tilt your phone at a 45-degree angle just above the eye line, perfect your pout and bask in the nearest light source. Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide took what may be the greatest selfie self-portrait of all time during a spacewalk in 2012. Hoshide captures the sun, the earth, two portions of a robotic arm, his spacesuit and the deep darkness of outer space. Worth a fair few likes, no?


L-R: Frida Kahlo. Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird. 1940. & Kim Kardashian. Selfish. 2016.

Before there was Kim there was Frida
Love her or hate her, trailblazer of the artistic movement Kim Kardashian knows exactly how to take a good selfie. She knows it so well in fact, that she’s published Selfish, a 445-page book of chronological selfies that’s sold over 100,000 copies. But before there was Kim, there was Frida. Though the two females are worlds apart, the prize for the original female artist who dominated the art of self-portraiture is none other than Frida Kahlo. A car accident, two unsuccessful pregnancies, a cheating husband and a whole lot of loss and pain led Kahlo to produce spellbinding self-portraits of herself that expressed her psychological and physical sufferings. The Mexican surrealist artist produced over 50 paintings of herself, expressing her pain rather than her glory or how she woke up that morning. ‘I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best’.  Turbulent marriages, expressive clothing, ex-husbands, rebellious behaviour and a strong self-awareness…maybe Kim and Frida aren’t so different after all.


Rembrandt. Self-Portrait Wearing a White Feathered Bonnet. 1635.

The Self-Portrait Kings
To compare Warhol, Dürer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh or any other self-portrait master to that of a selfie snapper is ridiculous; however, the underlying end goal is the same in both ventures: the art of self-representation. Dating back as early as the 15th century, self-portraits were carefully contrived to represent only the best of its subject. Those silly hats, gold chains and fur coats that Rembrandt donned in many of his works were far from his every day attire, but no one else needs to know that except the man himself. Van Gogh painted himself simply because he could not afford to pay models to pose, and it’s widely thought that Andy Warhol, master of the polaroid portrait and member of the 1970s glitterati, portrayed himself in a deceptive way that would raise questions about whether he was hiding behind his own image or purposely drawing attention to himself.

Andy Warhol. Self Portrait with Camouflage. 1986.

Although the two genres may have more in common than what first meets the eye, the underlying difference is that self-portraits are made with more time, money and skill whilst selfies are created by a much wider range of people, yet they’re managing to change the world of art history as we know it. Same, same but different basically! If you find yourself in Amsterdam, feel free to get snappy selfie happy but more importantly make your way to The Public House of Art and discover some great self-portraits!


Written by Paris-based freelance writer, Joanna Reid for The Public House of Art





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