Studies for Shadow Selves

A series of pseudo-self portraits for Visual Arts 241: Digital Photography.

We were given the task of creating a self-portrait inspired by a work of our choice from a MoMA exhibit. I was inspired by Bruce Nauman’s 1970 piece Studies for Holograms. In these screen prints, Nauman pulls at and squishes his face in ways that are very uncomfortable and at times even disturbing. This work made me think of the popular meme of having a “flesh prison,” the way having a body is so absurd and at times feels burdensome, even as an able-bodied person. For me, the burden comes from how I believe that others see me- what sociologist Charles Horton Cooley describes as the looking glass self: we create and understand our identity through social interaction and how we feel we are being perceived. As a person who has been skinny all my life - genetics - I have almost always been uncomfortable with people seeing my body because of the judgments and sexualization that come with this body type- things that have left me wondering: am I only attractive to people with warped beauty standards? Is liking my body problematic? That being said, I certainly don’t face the violence or abuse that fat people do and I fully acknowledge the privilege I have in being on this end of the weight spectrum.

To explore this discomfort, I wanted to create non-sexualized images of my body, of myself, in an environment that had the chance of sexualizing me- through the lens of another person with strangers walking by. I directed a friend of mine to take photos of me the way I wanted them to, but ultimately the task of creating my self-portrait was out of my control; the same way our attempts at controlling our entire image is ultimately futile. I did this in very simple, normal basic grey, underwear, in secluded but public space just off a popular walking trail in a public regional park. The person I was directing to photograph absurd non-sexualized close-ups of my body was a close friend, so there was an element of trust and I knew that he mostly understood my intentions with the project. However, with strangers walking by, I was always worried about being sexualized/ having the performance be seen as something sexual when in fact I was just standing there in nature pulling and squishing my skin for an art project.

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Learning Significance

  1. I got to explore the more thoughtful side of photography, self-portraiture in particular- as well as my relationship with my body as a subject. I got to be publically vulnerable with my art making process rather than just the final work.

    I only submitted three of the photos as my assignment, all of which were submitted to the 2018 Undergraduate Art Exhibit by my instructor Damla Tamer. The photograph with the blue border made it into the packed show.