I do not like to be photographed. Rarely I let anyone take my picture, which has resulted in lack of documentation throughout the years. It is odd to see myself in an image. I recognize the clothes, the hair, the body, and the face — but not the facial expressions. Which muscles in this face were operating, what triggered their motion and which feelings were the cause? The angles that one usually sees oneself from, such as straight forward when looking in a mirror, or when looking down at ones hands while they are working, or seeing oneself through a screen are never the same as the angles used when someone else makes the portraying. Pictures of me taken recently do not feel like me, even though they are, just from an unusual angle. Or is it the other way around — the image reveals a version preferably not acknowledged? Seeing facial expressions where a camera is present creates self-awareness of how to be perceived by others. I suddenly see what others can see, catches me off guard with the feelings towards myself. It is not my appearance that is bothering but the confrontation of awareness, the realization of ’’I did not know that is what I look like’’. Being confronted with my frozen facial expressions feels dishonest to the memory from that moment. My face prevents me from masking my feelings and hiding my thoughts, feeling transparent as integrity becomes lost. Sometimes it says something I do not remember feeling, leaving me the imagination of being out of control over my body and its communication. There is a glitch between what I believe I felt and what I am communicating. Recent self-portraits force self-reflection while showing behavior of not wanting to self-reflect.
Where does the self-representation begin and where does it end? Is it in my appearance and existence, or is it when I am alone, or only when someone is there to witness? Is it something you or someone else choose? Or is it in someone else’s memory of me, the storytelling of me? Or maybe it is in the pictures that represent my body? Most people would argue that a self-portrait is a picture taken by oneself of one’s body, usually the face, a part that is easy for others to recognize as truly you. There is an expectancy self-portraits reveal something about oneself as if it is supposed to lay bare something hidden inside its motive or in the beholder. I believe that self-portraits are more vague and that we should redefine their conception. We make decisions every day on how we want to be presented and wished for to be perceived. We do it when we choose our clothes, what subject to make conversation about, when we publish on social media and much more. It is an example of us choosing our identities. We frequently decide how to be perceived, maybe that is why the self-portrait considers to reveal who we really are as if it becomes powerful when the portrayed person becomes powerless. But what if you, like me, can not find validation in your own face? I started looking elsewhere.
I am a portrait photographer. My fascination for faces and their communicative abilities is endless. It is incredible how 43 muscles in a face can be so valuable, that they tell us how someone is feeling — it is actually quite cute, like our faces are trying to help us connect. I am certain no other part of my body does it the same way. There is a name for how faces look in relation to certain feelings and it is called the nine basic affects, it was defined by Silvan Tomkins but Charles Darwin was the first to show interest hoping to prove the theory of evolution. We can try masking these expressions but somehow they often slip through. You can usually tell when a smile feels off because the muscles feels stiff, as if they were not triggered correctly. I believe there is a link between why we put so much trust in facial language and our inability to control facial expressions. A dishonest face intimidates us. It is difficult to control the muscles in a face in comparison to, for example, a finger, because facial expressions often rely on emotions.
As a photographer, I work intuitively from images made up in my mind. The image consists of a face moving for a short second in slow-motion. It is usually the face of someone I have met and a facial expression I have seen them make. It is their appearance echoing in my head. This image might be a memory and an afterimage. I later get the need to recreate this image, to stay with it for a longer time, and that is when I turn to photography. The photographic image makes me notice what I without it would not see, or more accurately, would not have the time to notice. A photograph can be analyzed, related to, and stayed with for how long one would want — over and over again. It can be whatever we want it to be when we want it to be, transforming in the beholder’s view. This, of course, goes both ways. Historically the camera’s relation to power has been abused to exploit people. The power play is complex, I believe it is impossible to shake the fact that the portrait photographer uses someone’s body to speak their mind. Even though in the end I think our need for validation is unable to be overstepped. I believe the desperation to see each other can connect instead of divide.
The complexities of a facial expression are intriguing. We apply truth to them, even when they are dishonest. We rely on them, we are drawn to them and we relate to them. I see many similarities between how we read the photographic image and a face to search for truth. There is something about faces that makes us believe in them. We do not question a realistic photograph but when we look closer we start noticing if something is strange. When looking at a photographic portrait it allows me to be with a facial expression without meeting the person. There is nothing else but me to keep in mind and relate to. It becomes a moment to communicate with myself and find a connection between someone else and me, something I can not discover alone. Nothing connects me and makes me feel the same way as portrait photography can. It is the only way for me to without distractions or worries about my appearance let another face communicate to me, allowing my mind to exist while my body disappears.
I consider my work self-portraits even if they do not contain my body. They can be portraits of someone or something else — but there is so much of me in the process. It is important that I work with a process that has a personal meaning so that the work feels like me. For example, In the Distance I Hear Surges (2023) shows five portraits printed on transparent silk hung from a metal sculpture. I built it with my own hands without any knowledge of how to do it beforehand. The process of learning about printing on silk, welding, grinding steel, and putting it together as a complete work got a symbolic meaning to me and what I wanted my project to revolve around. The theme of this project was to regain control over lost memories due to growing up with epilepsy. The need to find myself in what I do goes for all my work and being drawn to the images, material, process, and most importantly facial expressions that remind me of my idea of myself. I am choosing my identity, self-presentation, and validation — I’m controlling my self-portrait while, at the same, its material controls me too.
Thinking about the lack of my body in my self-portraits brings me back to the start of this text and my thoughts around me not recognizing myself in an image. It makes me wonder when I last recognized myself in a picture.
It looks like I was around three, maybe four years old. My mom was making whipped cream, it was supposed to go with the blueberry cake she used to make I assume. I stand next to her, almost as if I have taken a few steps back and wanted to hide under the arm whose hand wears a wedding ring connecting her to my father, I can imagine hugging her with the arm of mine not visible — while at the same time, my face looks curious, happy, I probably felt safe in the situation of being photographed. I can not remember this exact moment like I can with more recent pictures, instead, my mind focuses on the feeling of it. Since I can not remember, it allows me to accept my facial expression as true and accurate to the situation. Looking at this picture stirs up something in me, I truly see myself and relate to the child in the picture. She is me and I am her. At the time, I was not aware of this image’s later importance for me because there was no such thing as being anything else but me, the camera existed while the picture did not. None of the rules on how to act in front of a camera were there, but most especially — none of my own rules, expectations, and ideas of my identity were there either. This child’s appearance has changed, grown big, tall, and grown up, but still — this child who was me is the only example I have of my body embodying itself. Looking at a photograph I can relate to puts me in the same feeling of just existing, it is the same event as feeling at home.
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Darwin, Charles. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. 1st edition. London: John Murray, 1872.
MoMA. Guillaume-Benjamin-Armand Duchenne de Boulogne. https://www.moma.org/artists/1637 (Downloaded 2023-06-13).
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973.
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. 1 uppl. New York: Picador, 2004.
Tomkins, Silvan. Affect Imagery Consciousness (Vol I-IV). New York: Springer, 1962, 1963, 1991,1992.
1. Randulv, Hilda. In the Distance I Hear Surges. Documentation video, Röda Sten Konsthall, 2023.
2. Private family archive.