The Un-Selfie: Taking Back the Self-Portrait

The selfie: on a slow day, I probably see twenty while skimming social media. Other days, I am sure that number is in the hundreds.

When National Geographic staff photographers Mark Thiessen and Becky Hale ran a Self-Portrait assignment, it got me thinking. I can’t say I was particularly excited about the assignment at first. The advent of the selfie had left me with some misconstrued ideas about how unoriginal it is to turn the camera on yourself. A selfie is one of the easiest images you can take—after all, many people have a camera lens facing them every time they check their phone. Selfies are a way to show off a new haircut or your favorite outfit. They are a way for a group of people to take a photo without having to talk to a stranger.

Whether shot at arms length or reflected in a mirror, selfies have become such a common image for me to see each day that I almost forgot the beautiful and vulnerable place from which they originated. Of course we saw some pretty classic selfies while editing the assignment. And they too have their time and place. But by week two of the assignment, I was beginning to feel reinvigorated by a phrase I had left out of my vocabulary for far too long: self-portraits.

Self-portraits are not selfies. They are beautiful and revealing. The good ones are extremely difficult to make. After sifting through thousands of these images, I was astounded to see that the final edit was, essentially, faceless. I didn’t need to see someone’s face to learn about their essence—Ocean’s battle with cancer, Katrina’s struggle with aging, Amanda’s four-decade love for baking.

These images reminded me of why I loved studying self-portraits during my first photo classes in high school. 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.

All of this reflection started quite a discussion in our office about self-portraits that we have loved—Janna remembered Maynard Owen Williams’s reflective self-portrait and Coburn shared Cindy Sherman’s Untitled 96. In recent memory, I took interest in Kyle Thompson’s work. This project revitalized my love for those raw and revealing moments when a photographer turns the camera on themselves.

Visit the Your Shot story “Self Portrait” to see the final chosen images.

This article originally published on June 9, 2014. It has been updated.

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