Self-Portraits as Therapy: The Healing Potential of Photographing Yourself
While I may have publicly used the term ‘self-portrait therapy’ before, I have never spoken about the vulnerable origins of my self-portraits.
As a young woman, I was full of insecurities, full of ideas about what I needed to change or fix to be beautiful. I did not see the innate beauty I had within myself. That only now I know we all have within ourselves.
So, I started putting myself in front of my own camera. And it was a painful journey, seeking acceptance from the outside while not realizing it must come from within.
Initially motivated by a deep wound, I soon found out that self-portraits have a therapeutic quality to them. And they became a big part of my journey towards a healthier self-perception.
Many other artists in this genre equally use the term ‘self-portrait therapy’ – because we have all experienced what it can do to you. Art can heal you.
What Does “Self-Portrait Therapy” Mean?
Self-portraits can be either understood in the photographic or painterly sense. The history of painted self-portraits goes way back and artists have used them for centuries to express hidden parts of themselves. But I’d like to specifically speak about self-portrait photography as a way of healing.
By stepping in front of your camera, alone, with nobody else, you enter a very intimate space. The facade comes off. It’s only you and the camera. You are watching yourself.
In this sacred space, hidden parts of yourself may come up that you did not even realize you had within you. You may experience strong emotions, you get to explore different identities.
Shared with the outer world, self-portraits can also become a way of communicating things that have been left unsaid and feelings that are hard to express otherwise. Entering this level of vulnerability with yourself can transform you. That’s why many artists speak of their self-portrait practice as therapy. It’s a practice of turning pain into art.
Let me share with you how I experienced it.
Finding Self-Love Through Self-Portraits
Self-portraiture means you need to look at yourself. Really look at yourself. Honest. Raw.
As a portrait photographer, you will know that every person, no matter how physically attractive they are considered according to whatever current beauty ideal society defines, will have ‘bad’ angles. While often we have an appreciation of other people’s beauty in front of our lens, many people struggle with seeing the same in themselves.
And it truly shows how self-love, acknowledging your own beauty, is an inner process. It does not depend on what you’ve been given outside. In fact, I have spoken to many people, especially women, whom I have perceived as mind-blowingly beautiful. However, they were ridden with self-criticism and insecurity.
When taking self-portraits, or any kind of portrait, there will be shots that are not flattering. As a self-portrait photographer, you need to go through those photographs. You need to look at them. At yourself.
Start Accepting Yourself as You Are
And you need to accept that all those perspectives are part of yourself – the ones you label ‘beautiful’ just as much as the ones you label ‘ugly’. You know self-portrait therapy starts working when you find ways to come to terms with your looks. In a space where there’s nobody else present to judge you, you will find that reality depends on how you judge yourself.
It took me years of looking at myself until I was able to look in the mirror and smile at myself. Without critiquing. Full acceptance.
A big part of this self-love journey was definitely photography, like for other women, too. It has helped me to see the beautiful sides of myself and it has let me come to terms with the rest.
The girl who so desperately wanted to be beautiful has finally realized that she already is.
Releasing Emotions in Front of the Camera
Emotional expression has always been difficult for me. More a thinker than a feeler, I valued my rational outlook on life. That did not mean I didn’t experience emotions, however. I just didn’t know how to deal with them.
Stepping in front of the camera gives you space to explore how you feel. Photography is closely tied to emotion, and with yourself in front of the camera even more so. Often, starting without a concept in mind, unexpected things will come up.
There were few times where I have started to cry. Other times, I have started to run, filled with a joy I didn’t know I had within myself.
Self-portrait therapy is a way of coming into your body. Moving your emotions through the body and releasing them. The times I have taken photos of myself in a low moment and left feeling considerably better are plenty.
And it can be just as healing to share the art that comes from it – often, the art that touches us the most is the one we see ourselves in. Through sharing your deepest self, you allow others to connect with you on a deeply human level.
In the end, art is a way of letting each other know: Hey, you are not alone.
I have always been drawn to photos depicting solitude and vulnerability. Fighting to overcome my own feelings of loneliness, I felt comforted knowing that I am not unique in my experience. Grown from it has been an appreciation for solitude, but without feeling isolated from the world.
Self-Portrait Therapy as a Way of Exploring Identity
Especially when taking conceptual or surreal photographs, self-portraits can become a healthy way of escapism. You can try different roles, dressed up or not, and take yourself into distant fantasy lands. Becoming part of a fairy tale or fighting your biggest monsters, visually.
While growing up, I was devouring books. There could never be enough. I lived to slip into those beautiful, imaginative stories. I discovered self-portraiture when I was 19, but my child-like self that desperately wanted to live in a story was still there.
Through conceptual self-portraits, I crafted a place where I was at peace. A home that was truly my own. And the possibilities were endless: Learning how to use Photoshop, I could make things fly. I could make myself fly. I could meet giant fairies and take myself to distant lands.
But even if your images are not all fantasy, you can get to know so many different sides of yourself by taking photos of your face and body. It is through taking on different roles that you truly explore your own identity. Freely. Safely. Because, again, there is nobody else watching.
The results of your self-portraits do not have to define you – they can simply be an exploration of who you are, who you are not, who you want to be.
Identity is something we craft ourselves and I think self-portraiture impressively shows in how many directions we can go. If you let go of the limitations you put on yourself, you truly can be anything you ever wanted to be. Realizing this is also a real-life lesson is when self-portrait therapy has finally brought the message home.
Redefining Yourself Through Self-Portraiture
So, why am I sharing all of this with you? Because I truly believe that we can lift each other up by sharing our journey and what has helped us.
If you’re a photographer and you’ve never taken photos of yourself, I encourage you to try it. And even if you have never held a professional camera – any modern smartphone will allow you to set a timer and start taking self-portraits.
Don’t get scared away from it because I used the word ‘therapy’ and that sounds kind of intense to you. Just allow yourself to be. See what happens. And don’t forget to have fun.
Self-portraits have changed so much for me. They have allowed me to learn portrait photography without needing a model, allowed me to experiment with new techniques and styles and they have helped me to grow as a photographer.
But most of all, self-portraits have helped me to grow as a person. That’s why I strongly recommend a dose of self-portrait therapy to anyone. You don’t even have to show anyone – just do it for yourself.
You might find things that surprise you, maybe even redefine you.
Disclaimer: Of course, I don’t recommend taking self-portraits as a replacement for actual psychological therapy. If you are struggling with your mental health, please know that it’s okay and important to seek professional help. Sending you love.
About the author: Anna Heimkreiter is a photographer and world wanderer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Heimkreiter’s work on her website, Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram. This article was also published here.