I spent a few hours this afternoon, while watching the first two episodes of Strange Empire*, Storifying the first 173 days of my #365feministselfie project. It was satisfying in that tedious-repetitive-task sort of way, working backwards through that many Tweets until I got back to day one. A lot has happened in our lives since March, as a lot happens in anyone’s life over the course of nearly six months.
While I worked on this cataloging, I thought about the photographs and what their creation and publication has come to mean to me and my circle of friends and family over the past half year. Many of you have commented on how much seeing these daily snapshots gives you an ongoing sense of connection. Four of you have been inspired to embark on the project of chronicling your own daily lives visually, thoughtfully, in ways that have come into dialogue with my own photography and the self-portraits of others past and present.
Earlier in the week I finished reading a forthcoming book, Surface Imaginations: Cosmetic Surgery, Photography, Skin by Rachel Alpha Johnston Hurst (McGill-Queens University Press, 2015). There is much to chew over in this dense little study — review forthcoming in Library Journal — but one thing I found dissatisfying was Hurst’s analysis of photography as “mere image,” signifying loss. “An unconscious brush with death,” the photograph creates a visual representation of a moment that is no longer — depicting subjects who may already be lost to us, or someday will be. In relation to cosmetic surgery, Hurst argues, photographs provide evidence both of former (implicitly flawed) pre-modified bodies as well as idealized visions of future (post modification) embodied selves.
She goes on to argue:
Photography alters the way we remember, and hence the way we relate to our bodies. Since a photograph connotes the visual past, present, and future all at once, a picture of our face or body cannot stand solely as a representation of a past moment but instead is compared with what has been, what is, and what will come to be (76)
Perhaps because I have been a diarist, letter-writer, blogger, a chronicler of the personal, for much of my life, I think of photography much differently than this. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say I find it unexceptional in this regard. Before candid photography came into widespread use in the late nineteenth-century, individuals were no less comparative and introspective (whether critical or congratulatory) about their past, present, and future selves. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century diarists were myriad and would keep line-a-day diaries that they might review at the end of a year and sum up their own shortcomings or signs of growth.
Autobiographical documentation is a dynamic endeavor, a conversation with the selves you have been from the moment of the present with an eye toward the self you hope or fear (or both) becoming in future. Self-portraits are, in this regard, embedded as much as any other form of self-documentation, in the broad sweep of a life and the culture(s) in which that life is lived. I can’t say I look at photographs of myself in the past and think of death and loss any more (or less) than when I look at my adolescent diaries or college planners or childhood drawings. We are time-bound, as humans, and I actually appreciate rather than seek to erase the passage of time across the multiple forms of self-chronicling.
One of the things I have actually enjoyed about this #365feministselfie project is the opportunity it gives me to see how I am growing up and older, growing into — and now through — adulthood, undeniably ageing.
As we all do.
To me, the photographs in this selfie project have grown to be the visual equivalent of my former diaries — visual, rather than verbal documentation of my life moving through time and space. As a person who works so constantly in the medium of language, it’s actually been restful to compose visual rather than verbal self-narratives this year. Perhaps I’ll keep exploring this mode even after the 365 days have passed.