Self-ing The Self

I feel really uncomfortable about selfies. I also feel really uncomfortable about how uncomfortable I feel about selfies. I work in a world which comes ready made with the most fantastical facebook newsfeed; it isn’t unusual to see women discussing the difficulties of balancing a champagne glass and a snake (bellydancers unite!), plus phone selfies of people in what are often transport-related locations (since they are en route to something really exciting and want us to know that they are between things, and attractively so) which the perpetrator has evidently deemed quite irrelevant since you can’t see any of it in the shot; instead you can see eyes, hair and pout, plus near-endless hashtags which make me feel weird (by the way, for some reason a memory has popped up of Alan Partridge saying ‘stop singing; it sounds bad’; see here; this is quite irrelevant to the point at hand, and I assure you there may be a point quite soon, but such is memory and life); anyway, I quite constantly see selfies which are self-tagged (hash-tagged) with things like #lovely, #blueeyes, #longhair #beautiful #cheekbones and #modellife. I’m sorry, but, well, it makes me feel weird. I know it’s a marketing thing; I know that those in question hope that someone searching a relevant tag will find their photo via #paleskin and contact them to hire them and pay them a lot and maybe make a film about them and make them rich and, most importantly, known. I even occasionally use certain hashtags myself when sharing photographs others have taken of me (mildly, I add, though purposefully enough not to exclude myself from my own attack); it’s modern life. It’s marketing. #preraphaelite model-seekers unite, hhmkay (appropriating a term which others have so repeatedly applied to my look seems matter-of-fact rather than self-aggrandising; but is it?)? … It’s gross though. Isn’t it? Or is it? I don’t know sometimes; all I know is that to categorise and declare yourself so aggressively as having #blueeyes and #lips isn’t quite how I think the world should be.

I question my hatred of selfies though. Why is it OK for others to take photos of me, and for me to share them (though admittedly there is tension involved for me even there, if I’m completely honest; wherein lies much of my discomfort with a job which I have simultaneously loved so much), yet the idea of taking a photo of myself for the sole purpose of then posting it on social media to allow people to see in that selected moment what my face looks like is hideously embarrassing? Occasionally, my casting agency asks for a current selfie to know what my hair is currently doing (this is high-drama stuff, of course; though, spoiler alert: no change. Always massive, always doing its own thing, wildly. If my hair and I had a battle one day, my hair would win and when photographers say they want my hair to be ‘quite wild’ it’s a relief; once, in Dusseldorf, a photographer casually asked if I had any hair straighteners with me and the world nearly stopped turning; I didn’t. Have any. Or stop turning). Still, I obediently perform the selfie maneuvering, taking 457 attempts to achieve something even remotely half-decent (perhaps my distaste for selfies stems from my inability to do them well) and resulting always in grand appreciation for the photographers I work with who make me look #lovely.

The other day, I saw a man in his twenties (ish; I am crap at judging age) taking selfie after selfie, each time examining the results and re-doing it, greedy for satisfaction; hungry for perfection. We were on a bus. I was behind him, watching the back of his head and the results on his screen. I was mildly curious as to whether my disapproving face would show in his background. Finally, he seemed pleased with the image he held in his hands and, I think, sent the select photo of himself to someone who was presumably his girlfriend or boyfriend. My certainty that this was a romantic tactic of some kind came from the fact that all of the selfie attempts he swiped between, analytically (but I think overall pleased), depicted him pouting into the camera. The pout in itself is worth a blog post. Why is pouting a thing? Is it the generosity of the pose in its creation of #cheekbones where none may previously arise? Or is it that you want the person who is in receipt of your self-portrait to be able to imagine what you might look like nano-seconds before a kiss? I remember Roger Scruton arguing (and I studied this on my ‘philosophy of sex’ module, during which I had massive arguments with my tutor but still got a first – #justsaying – she was a very interesting lady) that desire often arises (actually I think he said it mostly arises, or maybe even that it only arises; oh dear, need to re-read stuff) out of your awareness that the other person desires you. It’s a fascinating, circular affair, ripe for much manipulation (this is basically the entire premise of Much Ado About Nothing, of course, the film version of which is well worth a re-watch not least for the Hey Nonny Nonny song which my friend and I used to sing to each other hysterically and Kenneth Brannagh making bird noises in a maze). So this man on the bus may have been emulating desire (pouting) to invoke desire (I hope the interlocutor pouted back)? I dunno. It doesn’t really matter anymore. None of my business. Nevertheless, I once had a boyfriend who was almost entirely incapable of dancing at a club or party without pushing his lips into a pout. It made me feel weird.

But self-portraiture – that’s very cool. I can get on board with that like it’s a full-on ship. Self-portraiture is something proper, isn’t it? Not just your face filling the screen looking #sexy, but your face telling a story you have decided you want it to tell. Or is that precisely what you’re doing on a bus, when your face contorts to convey what you think is ‘here I am looking approachably goofy but still, you’ll notice, bloody attractive’, complete with semi-ironic (but not really) hashtags? Is it the level of effort involved that distinguishes phone selfies from artistic self-portraiture (and for some reason Francesca Woodman keeps popping up in my mind as an example of the ‘art standard’, though there are plenty of examples of brilliant models and photographers I’ve worked with whose excellent self portraiture pops up, too, on my facebook newsfeed)? It is true that many ‘phone selfies’, though intended to look spontaneous and haphazard, are actually the result of careful lighting and several attempts, so one could argue that the requisite effort is involved. But not the pain-staked alchemy of chemicals and intention. Or is it? Sometimes, maybe. I don’t know. The boundaries between things are soft.

And, confusing myself further, there is an argument running mostly unspoken (until now?) through my own modelling portfolio which, when illuminated, speaks roughly thus: all of the photos of me that others have taken are a form of self-portraiture. That might sound a controversial statement (is she trying to take credit for photographers’ work? Models are such divas!) Well, here’s the situation as I have come to see it: one of the ways by which I have been able to thoroughly enjoy this 7-year strong and relatively successful ‘vocation’ of modelling for artists and photographers, aside from the surface delights (the travel, the meeting fascinating people, the independence and variety…) is through my careful guidance (and it has been quite careful!) of the entire trajectory. I’ve been in control of things (in the grand, overall sense, over the years, and also in the minute-by-minute sense during actual shoots) perhaps even far more than even I have realised. Some photographers would balk at the idea; a truly good model, they might say, would be so completely impressionable, so blank, so chameleonic, that they are no more than a canvas on which the photographer can project his idea. This may be true. BUT, I could argue from experience quite the opposite; I know that I am often booked precisely because of what I contribute, or, rather, what the artist/photographer believes I can contribute upon viewing my image. At this point in my modelling experience, I have come to see quite clearly how much of myself is in the story of my portfolio; it is an interesting power to create your own persona (though I have actually come to see my modelling persona as an expression of one of the truest versions of myself, far less artificial than even I might have thought it might have been; and this is a strong defence/apologetic of my work if nothing else), your own narrative and your own expression. I think it’s a real privilege to have been able to do that, and am very grateful for the photographers who have been simultaneously in complete charge of the shoots they hire me for (and I say this sincerely) and also inadvertent catalysts for my own self-exploration.

I think there is a lot more to say on this, which explains why I have been working the entire time on a body of poetry which explores so many of these issues from various angles, through the voice of ‘the muse’ in different moods, and in different guises. Only yesterday, I printed all of my poems out for the first time (since they had until then been merely impressions upon a computer screen, in the main; which I now see is bizarre, though quite typical of me; and since the collection has become quite enormous over the years), laid them all out on my floor and arranged them so that they make some kind of narrative sense. This really is one big selfie (and perhaps the truest kind in that it reflects outwardly onto the world as least as much as it reflects inwardly). It isn’t finished yet, but it is getting quite near to something I can call complete. I am calling the collection ‘The Costume Department’, after a poem I wrote in my head during a fitting for a filming job, and which got pressed into the computer after I got home, later. When the time is right, I’d like to publish the entire body of writing, whether publicly or just for myself.

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3 thoughts on “Self-ing The Self

  1. Have you read Susan Sontag’s “On Photography”? I read it years ago and would love to have the time to check it out again to see what she said about Models and self-portraiture, and whether in general her arguments still stand up in today’s world of ubiquitous and instaneous imagery, where a lot of people photograph everything but look at nothing.

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