What is a self-portrait?

About the photographic analysis of the own self


I presume the most of us have shot a selfie with our smartphones before. At the beach, at dinner with friends, before the start of a concert or a football game, with the partner in front of a red sunset, on vacation or in the morning with our first coffee on the desk.


Look sharp, stretch the arm holding the phone as far from your face as possible, ignore the distortion induced by the wide angle of the camera lens, smile or grimace into the camera, maybe throw a filter overhead and bada bing, post the picture on Instagram or discard it into some holiday file.


Some love it, some hate it.

It’s like most things.


Is a selfie a self-portrait?


There is no line between a self-portrait and a selfie, as I read in the book “Das Selbstportrait” (in english: “The self-portrait”) published by the Rheinwerkverlag. I support their description of a photographic self-portrait which says that a conceptually thought- through self-portrait is something else.

A self-portrait doesn’t want to be a memory, it wants to express something deeper, more internal. It wants to tell about personality and atmosphere.
Something living in ourselves, wanting to come out, is working its way to the surface. Our attitudes, our fears, our thinking-knots, parts of our personality... because it’s easier to weave a story in art than to talk about it.

Or maybe because we like slipping into roles we otherwise wouldn’t ever be.


It is a kind of play.


Our very own story

It’s our very own story that looks for the surface.
We ourselves can tell it the best.

That’s why we don’t hire a model, that’s why we plant ourselves into the picture.

Because we ourselves know best what we want to tell and what’s the way to do that.

A journey to self-reflection and the subconscious


An important part of developing my pictures is self-reflection. It guides me to perceiving the inner stories that emerge with my moods and feelings.


In the book “Das Selbstportrait”, Marlena Wels writes: “Es ist (...) ein großartiger Weg, um sich mehr mit seiner eigenen Gefühlswelt auseinanderzusetzen und sich selbst besser zu verstehen. Man befasst sich stärker mit seinen Emotionen, Blockaden und Situationen und dessen Auswirkungen, was einem dann hilft, sich weiter zu entwickeln.“ (S. 173)


That’s how I feel it too.
And when looking at my pictures, I realize that subconscious matters lead my journey too and they uncover parts of the story that I didn’t even plan. That is what’s making work even more interesting, because there’s coming light into the dark which isn’t always possible when just using my consciousness. I really like that combination.


Conceptual self-portraits aren't snapshots


They require groundwork.

Self-portraits with concept usually don’t arise spontaneously. There’s a longer process behind it. Something that’s been working for a while, a picture that inspired me, a thought that came around over and over again...


The process of developing a picture ...


... proceeds through multiple steps.

  • A picture looms in front of my inner eye, an idea, I’m seeing something that inspires me, there’s a topic I want to implement

  • carefully listening to my own motives, my feelings which are bound to specific thoughts or moments: the process of self-reflection (This step doesn’t always proceed aware. It can happen that something just appears and I follow its lead).

  • perceiving the inner pictures emerging after the reflection

  • a brainstorming list

  • perhaps research for pictures with e.g. similar light conditions or colours

  • mood-board

  • a rough sketch into one of my notebooks

  • the question: what do I want to tell?

  • Thoughts about the realization: is there a place where I can photograph? Do I

    possess a matching picture for the background in my photo-fund? Do I want to build a matching diorama (dioramas are little buildings, like doll-houses, that you can furnish to photograph and use as a background... I will write about them in another article)

  • Thoughts about light, perspective, colour and atmosphere

  • Thoughts about clothing and requisites

  • Do I need stock-photos to use?

  • Photo-shooting and arranging

  • creative editing with Photoshop: releasing, merging, adjusting, blending, colour, light, atmosphere, painting, textures


As you can see, this work can require several days to weeks.
The implementation of my ideas is another process that proceeds not only through planning but also intuition.

Not rarely does the result differ from the first sketch (not only in quality :) or something completely different comes out (that I will also talk about in another article).


The desire to express my inner matters

For a long time I was very self-conscious and reluctant when it came to matters concerning my introspection and the expression of my inner world.

Photography opened a path for me to understand myself AND tell others about me without having to find the perfect words.

Processing inner litigations through art can be a really beautiful, occasionally exhausting but also light and humorous way to deal with your own shoals.


Motivations to develop a self-portrait can be diverse.


A selfie or a snapshot can be an expression of the inner self and a self-portrait can be a memory.


Talking for myself:


Composed self-portraits want to tell stories


Stories based on my inner pictures, emerging when I try to feel myself or reflect a situation, when I am listening to myself or being caught up on an inner problem.
Stories that are fun listening to, watching, feeling, perceiving, smiling about, thinking about, stories in which you can find yourself.

Stories that inspire to go into reflection yourself, to get creative.
Stories that help me seeing clearer, being more aware of myself.
Stories that help you to maybe listen. To your own inner world.

There you can find the great plethora.


Do you have experiences with self-portraits?


Thank you for reading this.


See you next time, Andrea



Heinemann, Linders, Wels, Wulff (2021). Das Selbstportrait. Das eigene Ich fotografisch in Szene setzen. Rheinwerk-Verlag



Andrea Friederichs-du Maire




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