Before I Turned 30, I Found Myself in Film Self-Portraits

Self-portraits are such throwaway photos these days that I was hesitant about doing anything creative with it. One day, I decided to just try it out.

In 2015, I thought about shooting a year-long diary project in film to mark the end of my 20s. I was inspired by a fellow film photographer who documented the last days of his 20s and turned it into a self-published photo book. He gave me his blessing to carry on with my plan, under one condition: I must use a film camera with a date stamp function throughout the project. I didn’t expect part of the project would involve pointing the lens at myself, and in the process, knowing myself better while learning about self-acceptance.

Before I jump into the thoughts and motivations behind my photos, it would be good to examine the various realities surrounding creative self-portraiture. A good number of these ventures are undertaken by women who find themselves on a journey of self-acceptance. Others find freedom while immersing themselves in the worlds and stories born of their imagination. Faced with these realizations, I found that the self-portrait isn’t meant to be the shallow abomination of attention-seekers and narcissists; it’s a legitimate tool for self-expression and storytelling.

A Case for Selfies

The self-portrait isn’t an invention of recent times; the first staged photograph was a self-portrait shot in 1840. Female photographers from decades past, like Vivian Maier, Diane Arbus, and Ilse Bing also took self-portraits. In traditional art, the self-portrait goes even further back. Artsy stressed how women have used self-portraits for centuries to assert their place in the art world, citing the book of Frances Borzello:

“In her excellent book Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self Portraits, Frances Borzello tracks the story of female self-portraiture through the ages. She notes the singular importance of this particular genre for women as a ‘way to present a story about herself for public consumption,’ a rare break from the typical objectification of the female form as depicted by the male artist.”

It was shortly after the smartphone era took hold that we saw selfies — as they came to be called — spread like wildfire. They have since become so prevalent that it’s easy to hate or disregard them. AOL called it an epidemic. In this narcissistic era, researchers say millennials are expected to take over 25,000 selfies in their lifetime. On top of that, a whopping 1,000 selfies are being posted on Instagram every second. It doesn’t help that a 2014 TIME report declared Makati City, the financial hub of the Philippines (where I’m from), as the selfie capital of the world.

I’m Not Alone in This

Despite the reasons that should discourage me from making anything remotely creative out of self-portraits, I’ve always found that I’m not alone in this, especially in the film photography community. Throughout my years of writing about outstanding photography projects and film photography then and now, I discovered a good percentage of them were shot by women. They range from the conceptual to deeply personal — far different from the ilk that plagues social media today. Perhaps one of the best-known of these female photographers is Cindy Sherman, who relied on self-portraits for visual stories that depict herself as different characters. It remains a common approach to creative self-portraiture, and appealed to me. It’s easy to get lost in the idea of slipping into different personas, each with their own stories of our own making.

Fast-forward to more recent times where I found inspiration in the work of Polish photographer Kamila Kansy, who I interviewed about her emotive portraits created under the name Laura Makabresku. Recently, she has been shooting more self-portraits, a good number of them with her husband.

Making Peace with Myself Through Film Self-Portraits

The last year of my twenties was turbulent and transformative. The pressure of being “someone” was starting to get to me. I was leaving toxic personal and professional relationships, and chasing the independence that I was putting off for a long time. But to confront all of this, I needed to be comfortable with myself first — including my creative identity. Having started to explore portrait photography at the time, I was learning how to come up with stories that could be told through the expressions, auras, and body language of my models. But when I started the photo diary project, it forced me to be introspective as well. What was daily life like for me? Where did I go? What did I do? Who was I at that particular point in my life? These no longer involved made-up stories and make-believe worlds; it was me taking a slice of my own reality for posterity. Self-portraits made sure that I could remember and also revealed that it was all me.

Looking at all the self-portraits I took those years back, I am reminded of the version of me experimenting with many things. Traversing the delicate balance between exposing myself while retaining some sort of anonymity. Eagerly documenting the passing of days, no matter how simple or mundane. I eventually continued to shoot self-portraits even after the photo diary project was done, curious about what I could do with my film SLR cameras. A lot of them were failures but I also learned what I needed to do should I want to do it more seriously.

“But to confront all of these, I first needed to be comfortable with myself — including my creative identity.”

I found comfort and inspiration in discovering the work of all the wonderful female film photographers who contributed to the first issue of She Shoots Film, which focused on self-portraits: so much so that I took part in it. To this day, I consider the issue one of the best compilations of self-portraits as a creative outlet ever made. While I haven’t shot a creative self-portrait in a long time, it’s something I want to pick up again to supplement my portrait work. There’s a lot of creative self-portraiture out there that inspires me outside of the realms of the influencer and the Instagrammable. It makes me curious about what aspects and realities of myself I’ll discover next.