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As someone who has always felt the urge to take pictures of myself, I don’t have a ready answer.
For the longest time I felt shame for this urge to see myself through my lens. Blame it on the Christian ethos of original sin that shaped my early life, but this habit of posing for my own camera felt like an exercise in vanity. Up until the Instagram era, I rarely, if ever, shared my self-portraits with others.
There is one self-portrait from 2001 that I printed and gave to a friend, but the image is out of focus, blurred and impressionistic like a Monet, and you’d never know I was sitting in the windowsill of the Rodin Museum in Paris basking in the June afternoon light. It’s the perfect non-self-portrait.
Since then, I have come to understand that my human experience is shaped by mental illness: depression. Understanding and accepting this diagnosis was the first hurdle, and required me to eschew more palatable labels like “over sensitive,” “the creative temperament,” and that Dr. Phil standby “just feeling sorry for yourself.”
The most acute moments of depression sail on the wings of despair like an albatross pumping her ancient wings. The wind makes you squint and you wonder if the ride will ever end. In my experience, the most painful symptom is the inability to enjoy basic social interactions. In my late 20’s and early 30’s, how often did I stand around at parties faking my mood while the back of my brain recalled happier times when I used to enjoy talking to friends, meeting new folks around town, taking joy in the shifting night landscape of a city or a friend’s company?
My hiatus in taking self-portraits, from 2007-2011, coincides with a dark chapter in my emotional life that’s at odds with what I was accomplishing on the surface. By November of 2011, I had a burgeoning small business, professional faculty over my creative skills, a body in excellent physical shape, and a mental landscape that threatened to fracture at any moment. All that I had was built on the intense manic spells I suffered through, and all that I had achieved seemed to teeter in the strong winds of my illness.
Around this time, in December of 2011, I downloaded Instagram. I thought it was just another app that offered filters for your iPhone photos. My second Instagram was a self-portrait as I walked to a party. Within an hour an old boyfriend that I was fond of left a comment. I felt connected: connected to another and connected to myself in a way I had not felt in a very long time, and in a way that was less public (at the time) than Facebook. In those early days of Instagram, it felt like a club for the sensitive, over-observant nerds.
I threw myself into Instagramming, relishing how a filter would transform an image, how textures and colors and light were celebrated or muted with the tap of a finger. And in the midst of this exploration I included plenty of self-portraits and it seems in some way that this app helped me to see myself in a way that kept my depression at arm’s length.
Through Instagram, I came to understand that my urge to take self-portraits was akin to cutting. That is to say, through the years I turned to self-portraits much in the way sufferers of depression use cutting. I took self-portraits to feel alive, to disassociate from the pain and confusion in my brain, to see myself in this moment now, alive, pulsing with life, beautiful and vibrant, exquisitely calibrated for my own perfection.
By late August of 2012, Instagram was my lifeline to a thriving creative life. The pictures speak for themselves. There I am traipsing through the empty dunes of Provincetown’s famous salt marshes. I could barely believe what I was capable of expressing to the world, and then, plop! my phone tipped over on its tripod into the Atlantic and I had just enough time to send my last few pictures to a friend’s gmail before the phone shut down forever.
For about 2 days I was lost to myself. And then I realized what was next: to shoot in this spirit with my professional camera. Instagram had prepared me to take this pursuit seriously, to listen to my most primal instinct to create, and what followed was an extraordinary period of personal exploration painstakingly documented for myself, and perhaps for the larger conversation I desired to be a part of.