Memories of Teaching Self-Portraiture

 Photo © James Friedman from "Self-Portrait with Jewish Nose Wandering in a Gentile World"
In teaching photography, I used to give students the assignment of creating self-portraits. Since I made my first self-portrait as a five year old and during that moment of looking into the lens of a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera found a lifelong passion, I thought it could be helpful for students to confront the camera so they would better understand how their subjects felt as the objects of their photographic attention. 

 Photo © James Friedman from "Self-Portrait with Jewish Nose Wandering in a Gentile World"
       Photo © James Friedman from "Self-Portrait with Jewish Nose Wandering in a Gentile World"

I was surprised by the passionate responses from students regarding self-portraits. There were students who thought the idea loathsome from the outset and never did a single self-portrait. Other students who initially refused to do the assignment grew to love doing self-portraits and continued making them after the class, workshop or tutorial was completed. What to me seemed a comfortable and exciting way to photograph was frightening and repugnant to many students. The idea of seeing themselves in photographs and having their classmates scrutinize their self-portraits during a critique session was agonizingly painful for a number of students. For some, their inability to look through the viewfinder while making self-portraits and the uncertainty of how the pictures would turn out caused unending anxiety. The loss of control and not knowing beforehand the outcome of their work were central to their rejection of the assignment. During the analog era, I loved the idea of not knowing how my self-portraits would look beforehand and relished the surprising and unpredictable photographs I often discovered on the contact sheets after the film was processed. But I learned that many did not share my view.

 Photo © James Friedman from "Self-Portrait with Jewish Nose Wandering in a Gentile World"
 Photo © James Friedman from "Self-Portrait with Jewish Nose Wandering in a Gentile World"
As I write this, I am reading a note I saved from a student in a long ago class that read, “Jim, why did you make us do self-portraits in our class?” As a photographer who embraced self-portraiture, students’ reticence and, at times, hostility toward this assignment were useful for me to experience and helped me become more flexible in my approach to teaching. Most importantly, students’ opposition to this assignment forced me to be more objective in relating to students and in devising assignments. And, it made me consider the reasons for my devotion to self-portraiture. Was I committed to doing self-portraits because I was a narcissist? Was it because I was intent on creating an archive of photographs that documented family, adventures, personal growth, mystery, death, relationships, fictions and the aging of a guy from the American Midwest? An intriguing thought emerged from this process: should I have become an actor instead of a photographer?

Photo © James Friedman from "Self-Portrait with Jewish Nose Wandering in a Gentile World"
 Photo © James Friedman from "Self-Portrait with Jewish Nose Wandering in a Gentile World"
Photos and Text © James Friedman


mrurbano said…
a great article and fabulous images
Nadja said…
Your self portraits are fantastic, really very cool.
My admiration.
I was a student with a life long fear of camera's, but after a self portrait assignment I started doing them more and more and never stopped since.
Every beginning photographer should try it, I think.
If even only to, as you say, know better how it is to be in front of the camera.
I'm still a beginner in model photography, but I think the self portraits learned me a lot about working with models.
And I don't think you have to be narcistic for it.
After all, isn't learning about yourself, learning about other people, too?
Thanks for sharing your work!
Barb said…
Count me as one of those students who loathed your self-portrait assignments,but grew more comfortable taking them as time passed. I'm back in the "loathsome" phase again, lol. Anyhow, great blog today, and love the photos, esp. the hat lady and that cute little boy. ;)
Vale said…
Very cool images
Anonymous said…
Great shoot. Let's see the 'kissing' portfolio. Larry B
br said…