Once upon a time, Eleanor wrote an amazing post about self-portraits. In case you missed that post or failed to commit it to memory, she said:
"There was a time when I didn’t have the words to describe my grief even privately. In those early days, the only tool I had for self-expression was my camera. On the days when I felt really bad I would prop my camera up on a stack of books and take self-portraits, feverishly running back and forth between the shutter button and a pose, over and over again until I felt better. I truly don’t like being photographed, but it felt so satisfying to get my feelings out into the world without having to talk, describe, or explain. You want to know how I’m feeling? Look, this is how I’m feeling."
And in her essay “The Self-Portrait as Self-Therapy”, Cristina Nunez says:
“The expression of difficult emotions in the self-portrait is particularly therapeutic. Rage and despair often cannot be externalized, so we become accustomed to repressing them... by objectifying our ‘dark side’ in a photograph, we separate ourselves from what is painful and open ourselves up for catharsis and renewal.”
She goes on to equate self-portraits to a punching bag, explaining something similar to what Eleanor describes above:
“I take enraged or desperate self-portraits to release the tension and I come out calm and satisfied”.
Self-portraits have an amazing power to communicate things we cannot put into words and can help us to look at ourselves and others in a deeply personal and intimate way.
Enter the selfie, stage right.
You probably thought we were being all artistic and self-important today with our talk of self-portraits. Don’t worry, artsy-self-importance doesn’t last long around here.
Whereas Eleanor has thought and written a lot about self-portraits (because she is an amazing photographer), I am decidedly not a photographer and so I'm going to bring the conversation down a few notches. That's right, today we will be talking about an icon of teen existence, a cornerstone of Instagram, the most loved and hated social phenomenon since flash mobs: the selfie.
Selfies get a pretty bad rap. Here are just a smattering of headlines I have seen about selfies: Scientists Link Selfies To Narcissism, Addiction, & Mental Illness, Are Selfies a Sign of Narcissism and Psychopathy?, Science Confirms Selfies are The Worst, and How This Generation’s Obsession with Selfies Correlates with Mental Disorders.
I have to admit, I have not been immune to the anti-selfie hype. I am old enough that cell phone cameras were not part of my teen existence. I don’t “get” selfies and, like so many things we don’t intuitively “get”, it is easy to dismiss or vilify them #SelfiesAreRuiningTheWorld.
But I have been opening my mind a bit lately. I read all the anti-selfie articles linked above and, guess what? They are pretty lame. The “research” cited includes just one study picked up by a zillion outlets which found not that taking selfies causes the issues described, but rather that those who already suffer from certain diagnoses may be more likely to post selfies. The articles reeked of confirmation bias and many left me silently yelling, Correlation is not causation! But that is a rant for another day.
The more I thought about this and read research on the therapeutic value of photography and self-portraits, the more my personal distaste for selfies felt a bit misplaced. Hospital selfies have been attacked online as gratuitous and self-involved, whereas a major Hollywood movie about Frida Khalo—an artist who spent her entire career painting self-portraits to of her physical pain and her psychological anguish—was nominated for six Academy Awards. And let’s not forget Andy Warhol, who became a cultural icon taking selfies long before they were "selfies". Yet the internet isn’t full of articles slamming Warhol and Kahlo for being psychopaths or narcissists or ‘the worst’. So what's the difference? What makes an artistic, meaningful, valuable self-portrait and what makes a shallow, narcissistic selfie?
Ironically, some of the same sources who are quick to complain that no one is talking about death and grief are the first to write scathing critiques of the funeral selfie, the hospital selfie, or the grief selfie. And this is where I think we may need to take a step back and look at our own biases.
I love Frida Kahlo. I have found personal value in taking self-portraits to cope, and I've seen others do the same. And so, my thinking has begun to shift. Perhaps selfies are simply a new tool people are using to start the conversation around death, grief, and loss. If we want these conversations to exist, perhaps we need to be open to the many different formats those conversations may take. Two years ago, Twitter blew up with people attacking the funeral selfie. Even one of our favorite sites for social criticism, Jezebel, said of teens taking selfies at funerals:
What if we gave our duckfaced n'er do wells the obligation to engage with the real processes of death, to remind them that when someone dies that there is a real corpse and real grief left behind. Death is not an abstract concept. They could take part in a physical and emotional ritual beyond awkwardly lining up to file by an embalmed and made up body the funeral director has laid out under rose colored lights. No wonder these teenagers retreat to the bathroom to fix their hair and take a selfie in the mirror out of impotence and boredom. Our cultural traditions have failed them, and selfies at funerals are one of their only outlets to ritual and mourning in the age of the smartphone.
I get it, maybe that is all completely true. And maybe, just maybe, teens are using a format they are comfortable with (the selfie) to say to friends: Hey, something really crappy just happened in my life. I want you to know because I might need you and your support. When I was 14, I might have told my 3 best friends if my grandfather died—and I would have been limited to 3 friends for support. If I am 14 now and post a funeral or grief selfie, I tell all my friends—expanding my potential support and helping me open up in a safe comfortable space.
Same goes for the growing number of grief selfies popping up on death anniversaries, birthdays of people who have died, and other tough days. Maybe I don’t feel comfortable walking into school saying, It’s my mom’s birthday. It's going to be a crap day for me. But maybe posting a grief selfie captioned Missing my mom today. She would have turned 48. Happy birthday, Mom” is a way to express my pain, continue a connection to my mom, and let my friends know in a passive and non-threatening way what is going on with me.
Self-expression changes over time; music changes, art changes, writing changes. These changes come with criticism, skepticism, and pessimism. But just as there is public and private value in the self-portrait, perhaps the selfie offers us the same (and new) opportunities for communication, expression, and growth.
Does this mean it is never poor form to take a selfie? Of course not. A quick look at the short-lived, but much talked about, Selfies at Funerals page—as well as the the zillions of posts about poor-taste selfies —will quickly show that there are many selfies that will offend traditional decorum. Where I think we need to be cautious is that we don't assume because there are some questionable selfies out there, that there is no value in the dialogue these selfies can create.
I asked on Instagram if our followers had used selfies in a therapeutic way and I did a hashtag search to see where grief and selfies intersect. No surprise, there were many many examples. The more I scrolled, the more blurred the line between self-portrait and selfie became. It became more and more clear that it may be my own bias that was leading me to discount the value in a selfie, when a closer look turned up value I never expected. I started thinking, What are some selfie benefits?
Selfies can create a timeline of our grief. If you take selfies over time, like self-portraits, you can see where you were at a moment in time.
Selfies help us see growth and healing. Though this is a very literal version of this, selfies over time can let us see healing—yes, both physical and emotional healing. Here is a video of a guy who was doing a selfie-a-day project when his face was slashed; he kept up the project to document his healing journey.
Selfies can be shared with your therapist or support group. If you get into taking selfies or other self-portraits when you are experiencing difficult moments or emotions, these can be a great way to kick off a conversation with your therapist or support group.
Selfies can help us find gratitude. When we’re grieving, it's easy to focus on how miserable life is. Taking a good old traditional selfie in a moment that we are with friends, having fun, or doing something we love can be a reminder of the good that exists in the especially dark moments. Oh, and sometimes your big, doofy pit bull can help with gratitude in the midst of taking a self-portrait.
Selfies help us express grief triggers. Grief triggers are everywhere. They can hit us like a ton of bricks. In the moment, when you are an emotional mess or blubbering like an idiot, taking a photo can help you to observe the moment and yourself. In opening my mind to selfies, I found this great article by Doug Ronning on Selfie Self-Exploration, ideas for using selfies for self-exploration. He gives ideas for experimenting with selfies, and these are some of my favorites from the article:
- Emotional Selfies – Photograph or videotape yourself in an emotional state: anxious, sad, frustrated, amorous or lonely. These kinds of images can remind us that, even when deeply felt, emotions are chemical and temporary.
- Shadow Selfies – Carl Jung implored people to know their shadow: “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” Finding meaningful and contained ways to express your shadow can prevent it from coming out in more self-destructive or dangerous ways. And, as anyone who has dressed up as a monster for Halloween knows, it’s fun to express dark impulses. What forms does your shadow take?
- Archetypal Selfies – How do you relate to the elements: fire, air, earth, water? Is there an animal you feel a deep affinity for? A Goddess or mythic character that resonates for you? Find a way to capture the essence of these archetypal images in a self-portrait.
- Ancestor Selfies – Combine genealogy with self-exploration, learn about those who came before you and honor their place in your genes. Wear your grandfather’s fedora or your great grandmother’s jewelry. Dress in era appropriate attire for when they were your age. Find a way to exemplify the ideals you share with them.
- Visioning Selfies – Take a selfie inhabiting a role you want to take on but have yet to. Want to learn to play guitar? Take a photo of yourself holding one. Want to write a novel? Take a picture of yourself typing the title page. Want to make sandwiches to pass out to the needy? Take a photo of yourself making a sandwich. These can serve as inspirational reminders. Who knows as you strum, write, or make a sandwich, it may just segue into the act and move toward becoming a habit.
- Opposite Selfies – What do you consider opposite from yourself? If you are shy, imagine being outgoing. What would it mean to embody the ”opposite” end of the political spectrum? An earnest exploration of radical difference can lead to empathy and understanding.
Don’t forget to check out all the great self-portrait suggestions in Eleanor’s post on grief self-portraits. If you create or have a self-portrait you would love to share, please submit it to our PhotoGrief or tag us on Instagram @whatsyourgrief.
What do you think about selfies? Let us know in the comments if and how you are using self-portraits and grief selfies to cope.
We wrote a book!
After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.
You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books: