Self Portraits with Strangers

‘Self Portraits with Strangers’ is an ongoing photographic series that I use as a form of exposure therapy for my social anxiety. I began this project because I have a deep desire to connect with people, but my fears have hindered my ability to do that. A professor of mine, Brad Farwell, said, ‘Sometimes good photography isn’t about the image itself, but the experience that the photographer went through to make the picture.’ I bring a portable studio with me to public parks and ask women who are strangers to me to collaborate on an intimate self-portrait. I use a pop-up backdrop to isolate us from our surroundings and to keep all of the images consistent. I shoot on a Hasselblad 500cm on black and white film, which is set up on a tripod and triggered with a pressure release cable. I get to know my participants, and we decide on a pose or action we can participate in together that will demonstrate physical intimacy and bring us closer together emotionally. I have already completed five portraits with strangers for which we have created a bond by braiding each other's hair, painting our nails, staring into the eyes of each other, breathing in synchronization, and reading our favorite passages from a book. Through this work, I will be exploring themes of intimacy, vulnerability, stranger connections, physical touch, self-portraiture, female and non-binary relationships, and female agency in art. 

There is a performative aspect in my photography as I am presenting myself to my camera and emotionally enduring something. Marina Abramovic is a performance artist whose work my own is in conversation with. Emine Saner, author of “Marina Abramovic: “I’m an artist, not a satanist!” pointed out that “Overcoming is an Abramović theme. From her earliest work, she has explored physical and emotional endurance, confronting fear and exposing vulnerability.” ‘The Artist is Present’ was a performance piece during which Abramovic sat at a table silently for eight hours a day for three months while the public lined up to sit across from her and share an emotional exchange of energy through eye contact. I am also interested in exploring the synergy created when two strangers meet and connect through non-verbal communication and the shared experience of making art. Not only have Abramovic and myself investigated similar themes in our work, but we also both use our art as a tool for self-liberation. Abramovic said in an interview with The Guardian, “I don’t do things I only like; I do things that are difficult. I am curious. Freedom is the most important thing for me. To be free of any structure that I can’t break.” (Emine Saner) I am breaking from structures that I mentally confine myself in and I am also a feminist artist and strive to break from societal structures. 

To make self-portraiture as a woman is a form of activism. I realized this while viewing the ‘New Woman Behind the Camera’ exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art  (2021.) The exhibit showcased female and non-binary photographers from the early 1900s who made advances in the field of photography but were overshadowed in history by their male counterparts. Many of the photographs were self-portraits that featured the artist’s cameras either through reflections or shadows. To see a woman in control of the gaze cast on her and to have it represented physically in the photograph inspired me to make the trigger release cable an active element in my images. My partners and I perform some sort of activity that allows us to be touching in a way strangers normally wouldn’t. If I am the one touching them, they will be the ones to trigger the camera. If they do something to me, say braid my hair, I will trigger the camera. This is to show the participation of both people. It is a visual demonstration of consent, and it makes us both equally the subjects and the photographers. 

I originally started this series with the intention of photographing myself with all types of people and my only desire was to overcome my social anxiety. However, after many attempts to include men in my series, I decided to focus my concept on feminism because of the responses I was receiving from the men that I encountered. Every cis man that I approached or that came up to me, made me uncomfortable with sexual or romantic advances. I was unable to create emotional intimacy with them because they perceived me as something to conquer and were not valuing me as a person or offering me any vulnerability. Laura Mulvey is a film theorist who coined the term “male gaze.” she defines the male gaze as a heterosexual male portrayal of women in media which sexually objectifies them and results in the egotistical empowerment of men and diminishment of women. She states in her book Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, that “Traditionally the women displayed (on-screen) has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium. In herself, the woman has not the slightest importance.” The sexist representation in media is a reflection of the male perception of life and exactly what I experienced in my original pursuit of this project.

The film Portrait of a Lady on Fire is another one of my inspirations behind creating a series on female agency in Art. It is the first film I had ever watched that was directed by a queer woman and the impact of the female gaze had me emotional and feeling for the first time that I was seen and represented honestly in cinema. Director Celine Sciamma goes against patriarchal norms and shoots with an intentional queer female gaze that rejects overt sexuality and instead leans into emotional intimacy, sensuality, empowerment, and equality (Film Fatals.) Sciamma deconstructs the myth of the passive female muse in her film about an aristocrat and painter falling in love through art. Marianne, the painter, first paints an inaccurate portrait of Heloise, the aristocrat, due to conventions and rules of art put in place by men. Heloise points out that her painting has no life or presence, so together, they make a new portrait where Heloise's personality can be felt. Heloise’s active participation in the image-making process and Marianne’s rejection of traditional male conventions is what makes the painting come to life. The artist/muse relationship becomes one of collaboration, not domination. A complete power balance is what I aim to achieve in my series ‘Self Portraits with Strangers.’