In a selfie-obsessed age, are self-portraiture and performance helping us to connect with and embrace our bodies? Three photographers take us behind the lens.
Selfies permeate our screens. They fluidly shift between carefully considered portraits to swift shots on Instastory and subliminal and deliberate spaces between. Post, capture, post. Beneath this apparent simplicity is a world of meaning, exposing recognition, resistance and remembering. For a generation attuned to smartphones, these images are central to modern digital and visual culture. Their relationship to portraiture, art and performances of the ‘self’, that is central to the name ‘selfie’, is complex. Unravelling the significance of these images illuminates how we make sense of our bodies and their place (or lack of place) in our world.
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In an expansive conversation in her New Doornfontein studio, American photographer Ayana V Jackson expresses the extraordinary experience of seeing her artwork in the residences of private collectors. There, it exists outside the carefully curated space of her gallery shows, where her work is in conversation with itself, and is instead placed in dialogue with other artists’ pieces. I wonder, now, what it means to discuss her work alongside that of South African photographers, Neo Baepi and Tarryn Hatchett, while simultaneously thinking about the way we use selfies, selfportraiture and performance to think through our identities and bodies in contemporary culture and everyday interactions.
The way that these women use photography differently reveals how one medium can extend in multiple directions, open to many interpretations. What connects them, beyond gender, is a sense of disruption, which is in some places quieter, in others deliberate and also somewhere in between. All three are aware of the power of photography, having chosen a life behind a lens, and in some ways, in front of it, too. Hatchett grew up believing she’d live in front of the camera, studying acting at Wits University. She abandoned it for the creative freedom that photography allowed. ‘I loved that if I had an idea, I could go out and shoot immediately,’ Hatchett says.
It’s an immediacy that Cape Townbased Baepi connects to. ‘I got my first polaroid camera when I was about nine and loved, more than anything, that I could use to photograph my friends and family with an instant result,’ she says. Both of their work deals extensively with portraiture – framing the way other people are seen, and occasionally turning the lens on themselves. ‘I hold that part of photography very close to my heart,’ explains Baepi. She references the importance of school photo days, which were often among the only documentation of our lives as young black and brown children. ‘I wanted to wield that kind of power too,’ she says. Jackson’s work deals most explicitly with power – connecting the historical and the present. Her work reclaims, reframes and resists the historical ways of seeing and thinking black female bodies through photographing herself as characters in specific narratives: creating rich, carefully researched and constructed images, while making space for continuous questioning.
‘It’s not that this particular video or this particular photograph is supposed to now completely transform how you think about the archive, or how you think about a woman’s body, but perhaps it is intended to make you question what you know, and then express that to someone else who sees something completely different, and then you argue it out and come to a third space,’ notes Jackson. Because images have a profound effect on us – whether we are being photographed, taking pictures, or viewing the images that saturate our world with ideas and politics – they invite us to see ourselves, and see each other, in particular ways. This process allows reimagining, recognition and questioning to seep through dominant ideas that seek to limit the full expression and celebration of our bodies as being as diverse and distinct as our experiences of them, and their meaning in the world. Images can be a way for us to dialogue with our selves. While Jackson locates her work as performance, rather than selfportraiture, she says: ‘I’m beginning to feel better about myself through this work, in a way… through engagement with these characters… there is this courage; there is something that is happening in my own inner self, inner world that is also being affected by the work.
I’m still not ready to call them selfportraits or, by extension, selfies.’ Perhaps t h is recog n it ion is something similar to how black and brown women feel, gazing at her work in galleries and on digital screens. We see it in conversation with our own bodies and histories, and attempts to reclaim our images and ideas of self in online spaces and outside of them. If there is one type of portraiture that we are extensively engaging in and trying to make sense of right now, it’s the selfie. ‘Selfies are the most fascinating thing of our generation. It is the modern, very accessible selfportraiture. The space that somebody enters when they start taking selfies, and what motivates them, is very interesting for me,’ says Hatchett, who compares the creation of selfies with her own engagement with self-portraiture: ‘There’s preparation, it’s giving myself the time of “How do I want to represent myself?”, “What is the identity?”, “What essence am I portraying in this shot?”…
Whether people are conscious of it or not, I think that goes through their head with selfies.’ Part of the beauty of selfies exists in the way they appear to give some degree of power and agency to their creators. ‘You don’t need anyone to say: “OK, you are good enough; I’m going to take a photo of you”,’ says Hatchett. It’s a sentiment that resonates with Baepi, too. ‘More and more we see the narrative of beauty being taken back into our own hands, instead of this concept of beauty that has been sold to us.’ And Jackson agrees: ‘I think there is something beautiful when women celebrate themselves for themselves. I think that’s generally healthy, particularly for black women to see themselves as beautiful, especially when that version of beautiful has been societally disqualified.’ Our conversation is quickly complicated by questions of agency, power and the male gaze that are not easily resolved. Can we own our bodies? How does patriarchy have power in our construction of our selves?
Can we create an aesthetic of resistance that avoids or complicates the pitfalls of the way we have been seen for centuries? These questions permeate our considerations of our bodies in conversation with time and space. ‘I would never shame a woman for finding herself or her body empowered,’ says Jackson, simultaneously observing that the patriarchal framework that society has been built on complicates this process. Race, gender and class – among other factors – deeply shapes it too. These tensions continually emerge in think-pieces, tweets and status updates, and these multiple truths can exist at the same time. ‘Our story is too complex to come up with a universal of how blackness should be expressed, how “womenhood” should be expressed, how black “womenhood” should be expressed,’ adds Jackson. Baepi’s work is, in many ways, connectedly in pursuit of alternate, more complex narratives that resist universal ideas. Her imagery explores youth culture through runway, event and portraiture photography that creates an intriguing time-capsule archive of a specific portion of millennial South Africa. ‘I do take care when photographing other people, especially black femmes and queers. I am very deliberately documenting us from a source of joy as opposed to pain, which is how many of us are consumed.’
There is much work to do as we journey towards the freer future that we seek to create, and photography, in all its forms, including selfies, has a role to play in this transformation of how we see, experience and imagine ourselves and our bodies in different contexts. ‘I’m having a conversation with people,’ says Jackson. ‘I’m allergic to the idea that I’m leading an army of women through my work. I’m not – I’m in conversation with a mass arena of women on all sides of me with my work, and that baton can be passed at any given point, and I’m picking it up from them as well.’ Sharing images online can be a way of amplifying the conversations we have with ourselves, our bodies and each other. Through comments below someone’s selfie, photos shared on WhatsApp and Twitter feeds, and interactions with work on a gallery wall, there are reflections of ourselves that are increasingly challenging the ideas that haunt our bodies, cloaking them in constricted clothes. Jackson, Hatchett and Baepi’s work is a reminder that we can create alternate images that speak in our own language – the one our bodies understand and live daily, even if they exist between a whisper, stutter, scream and chorus. As poet Warsan Shire says: ‘Document the moments you feel most in love with yourself – what you’re wearing, who you’re around, what you’re doing. Recreate and repeat.’
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