Primal Urge and the Art of the Self-Portrait

Objects in the mirror may appear closer than they are. That little phrase on my car’s rearview mirror doesn’t just give me wiggle room when I’m trying to switch lanes in heavy traffic. It also gives me food for thought about photography. Bear with me while I get a little philosophical on you, but if you take my rearview mirror’s verbiage, pair it with a little Jean-Paul Sartre, and apply it all to photography, you’ll start seeing self-portraits a little differently. I know I did.

Self Portraits Sartre Photography

I’m no philosopher, but I’ve read enough Sartre to know this: He believed that humans are gripped by a burning need to know ourselves; it’s the whole point of being alive. And to Sartre, looking inward just wasn’t enough. Sartre believed that we couldn’t really get a good look at ourselves unless we knew what other people see in us. He even thought that the intimate relationships we forge with others are more about self-discovery than anything else. We can’t be objective about ourselves. We need to know what others “know” about us.

I think people are drawn to take photographs of themselves for similar reasons. Maybe it’s connected to what Sartre believed. We’re kind of dying to capture something of ourselves that isn’t visible to our naked eye. It’s like trying to photograph your soul so you can get a better look at who you really are. Introspection on its own will go only so far, and what you see in the mirror just shows you what you already know: The mirror gives you the illusion of seeing your true self. Self-portraits get you closer to the truth, because they’re a way of accessing how you might appear to others.

In a book titled Smarter than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, writer Clive Thompson puts it like this: “There is a primal human urge to stand outside of ourselves and look at ourselves.” It’s true, isn’t it? I know I have that urge, and I do think the camera helps satisfy it sometimes. Thompson also writes, “Taking a [self] photograph is a way of trying to understand how people see you, who you are and what you look like, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

I think what’s really interesting about all of this is that it sets the photographic self-portrait apart from other types of self-portraits. Though we can add our artistic influence, we can’t reinvent ourselves with photographic self-portraiture as much as we can with other media. In that way, a photographic self-portrait gets you closer to seeing what you look like to others, not just what you think you look like to others. That seems like a good case for trying your hand at a photographic self-portrait. Take your time. Get some distance between you and the camera. Try to glimpse something more of yourself, something you can’t quite see from within. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll undo the trick the mirror plays.


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