That’s Not Me! Not Every Intimate Portrait is a Self-Portrait

I have been working with a talented young photographer whose images are intimate, sensitive, and honest. Documenting women through long form projects she gains the trust of the people she is photographing, and is consequently given access to the most private areas of their lives. Interestingly when she shows the work or when the work is seen on social media it has repeatedly been misunderstood as being self-portraits.

The first time this happened I was surprised, the second and third time I was inquisitive. Why was this happening? Serendipity stepped in at this point as I saw online two bodies of work both by female photographers similar to the work my student was making. The images were self-portraits, and dealt with issues of self worth. They were brave and powerful images that asked questions around the pressures society places on young woman, which when seen as self-portraits deal with an internal dialogue to address a universal debate. Created within the parameters of the self-portrait from a photographic perspective, they had a sense of repetition of image making, not a criticism, but a subjective observation. The work my student is making is not confined by such practical parameters, and therefore far more experimental in approach, so much so that with reflection it is clear that her images could not be created as self-portraits. However, those that commented on them had leapt to the assumption that they must be self-portraits based upon there levels of intimacy.

I think that this raises an interesting issue around our expectation of the photographer to ‘get close’ physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

A level of trust must be formed to create intimacy within photography. I recently wrote about a perceived lack of personality within some work and a lack of intimacy and connection with the people being photographed I think that these aspects are connected.

There is no lack of personality in the student’s work, in fact I am aware that her work has made photographers seasoned in looking at work, emotional, even tearful. The connection is not only between the photographer, and the person being photographed, but between the image, and the viewer, which is some achievement.

Perhaps we have become unused to seeing work that evidences such intimacy and therefore we can only imagine that it could be attempted, and achieved through a documentation of the self. Not a fact, but a thought process that seems to have some currency to me.

There are many papers being written and published currently concerning the impact that Covid has had on the global psyche, and how it has promoted a sense of introspection. Such introspection has been evident within the photographic medium for longer than Covid has been affecting all of our lives, but during a period where the opportunity to photograph others outside of our immediate social circle has been severely restricted it is clear that a desire and need to photograph the self has come to the fore. The issue with that is whether or not the ability to become close to others when telling stories is lost.

Intimacy requires empathy to take place without exploitation taking place. A reality that photographers have not always been successful in understanding and responding to.

There is no doubt that my student has been empathetic in her image-making. Her personal life experience informs her work just as every photographer’s does and should. However, I also wonder if the work had been created by a man if the same assumptions concerning them being self-portraits would have been reached? I have seen no work that deals with the same issues in the same way created by a male photographer. Is this because women photographers are braver in addressing issues of intimacy and adopting the self-portrait, or is it because the issues being addressed are not those that man are facing?

I rarely give concrete answers in these ‘think pieces’ as I have none, reflection is the purpose of writing them. You may be in a better position than me to suggest answers, based on your own experience or research. You may have not observed what I have, and now want to start looking for the kind of work I have highlighted. I don’t know, but as with all trends we are not aware of them before we start seeing them. What I am always interested in is why they begin.

*The student’s work referred to in this article can be seen at:

Image: © Sophie Jeffrey

Dr. Grant Scott is the the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018

© Grant Scott 2022

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