Bring Back the Power of the Self-Portrait

My students have all grown up in the world of the selfie…and they are good, so good at taking them — in a way that my approaching 50-year-old self can’t quite figure out.

I recently came across the article “The Un-Selfie: Taking Back the Self-Portrait” by Marie McGrory, first published in June 2014 by National Geographic.  The article has provided inspiration for my students to explore a refreshed way of looking at and capturing themselves. 

In her article, McGrory writes about how she thought of a selfie as “one of the easiest images you can take.”  Because she was seeing them every day, in their simplest form, she “almost forgot the beautiful and vulnerable place from which they originated.” She realized a critical word that she had been missing: self-portraits. 

McGrory goes on to explain the lesson that I have brought into my classroom.  “Self-portraits are not selfies. They are beautiful and revealing,” McGrory said. “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.”  

At a moment in time when it is difficult/impossible for students to take pictures of each other, I gave my journalists the chance to turn their camera on themselves.  

Delia Binetti, a senior at Community High School, is tall; she is so tall, that when people first meet her, they make a comment about her height. In her UnSelfie Portrait, Binetti took on this part of her that has been a constant in her life.  Her caption is simple, short and powerful: “The words that usually spill from someone’s mouth when they first meet me relates to my height. It has always been my introduction. I used to hate it — it just seemed useless and unordinary. But, I have learned to love it. Here I am pictured from inside a dollhouse. Just a friendly giant wanting to look in:).”  The stories that accompany the photos are an essential part of the Un-Selfie Portrait. They explain the picture and the person on a deeper level, and the words are an integral part of the self-portrait.  

Grace Wang, a junior at CHS, at first felt a bit overwhelmed with the assignment: she didn’t have a fancy camera, and she couldn’t go anywhere to take pictures.  But, then it clicked.  Her new “school room” is her living room where there is a piano and school photos going all the way back. There is a photo of her as a five or six year old that always caught her eye — in part because it was in her line of sight, but she thinks is was also something more: it brought her back to such a different time.  In the photo, Wang pulled her bangs back with what she describes as  “weird little bows.”  Her mom was already at work, and her sitter didn’t say no.  When Wang looks at the picture, she would find herself wondering: What would I think of myself? Would I wish I was doing more? Something different? Would I like myself? The photo that Wang took was of her torso, holding her five or six year old self in a frame in front of her face.  

Erin Simmons, a senior at CHS, has always struggled with her acne — as many people do.  In her work, Simmons shared a self-portrait where she is not hiding it.  Simmons explained, “For years I’ve been ashamed of my acne. I’ve hidden it with makeup, band-aids, hair, everything under the sun in an attempt to look perfect and presentable in our plastic society. I’ve spent hours editing photos to hide it, to make sure it never stood out. Just this once, I wanted it to be in the spotlight, to be open and natural. I wanted to be me.”  

Eventually, I hope that we will get to the point where my journalists can help other students take their “Un-Selfie Portraits” virtually.  When they do it, they will definitely be using the advice from Annie Tritt and the phone in their hands. 

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