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Self, 50mm at a time

I know I could enable the webcam of the laptop I’m using to write this and watch myself, but that would make me look distorted and unreal. And in this way I can’t see my eyes looking at themselves, or what I look like when I’m watching somebody, so the contrivance is biased and inaccurate. Plus, it’s invasive and makes me see myself from a disrespectful distance. No one looks at me or talks to me that close – it would be misleading, vicious, presuming, intruding, kitsch – so I’m not doing it – I’m curious and eager about the real thing.

I’ll put on a prime and place it in front of me. The results will be blurry because with the widest aperture available I won’t know what’s on focus. The lens multiplication caused by my cheap DSLR’s APS-C sensor makes it particularly hard: my 50mm becomes an 80mm. I can’t see myself – probably it’s focusing on a tuft of hair around the ears or the tip of my nose. The shallow depth is what I like most, so I’m not going to reduce aperture, even though I know that this is what keeps me away from good pictures.

Because it feels so much more real – even if physically my eyes aren’t bent like that. I watch selectively. That selection is exactly what I’d like to reproduce, even if it takes forever. I’m interested in seeing my eyes only when they look at you [1], I want to see myself the way you see me.

It’s not an amusement, or an obsession. It’s not a social rite: I’m not taking pics of my dog or my drunk friends dancing in the disco to tag them and show them to everyone. I arrogantly shun the white-washed-faces flashing in the dark. I don’t need to show I was somewhere (in an iPhone+FourSquare style).


I want to see the differences. I’m the person I know better, but I also am the only one who can never see myself except as an image – I’ll know what my eyes look like only if they are reflected by the mirror or the lens. And yet all these things that I do and feel and think and say every day must have changed me a bit, just let me check where that thing went: Look, a new white hair, a dimple, a line of laughter. I’ll run and check the camera in a fever, after I’ve finished. As if I was looking at a brown envelope sent to me by the private detective I hired. I want evidence. Hungrily, I’ll look for the days and the subtle variations in time and life and custom. I want to trace the geography of events. I have my small vanities. I long to know what my hair looks like. A mirror wouldn’t do – I can fake it, I can study my expression and try and look silly, or funny, or simply good, and that’s not what I want. I want to know just what I was like right now.

Photography is rapacious – it has the stupid presumption that the world is nothing but a set of pictures [2]. Subconsciously, I’m trying to (deceiving myself I’m going to) usurp what’s in front of me under the form of a token (“I saw this, it happened just before my eyes, and I’ll never forget it”). It’s the same when I take pictures of people. “You belong to me, and I want to remember you – for those future moments when I’ll think tearfully of you and miss you”. The thoughts of sadness are essential to the medium, if all photographs are memento mori.” [3] Pictures I take of my beloved ones are an elegiac act of love. I even remember quarreling in the past, reinforcing the you don’t love me argument saying “You never take pictures of me”. Unshakable claim!

Shooting pictures is a way to record what’s worthy of being documented. When I turn the lens towards my own self, I’m saying “I am important, I deserve to be recorded – I am/was here – I lived”. It’s a way to include myself in what I love (because you take pictures of me means you love me – for the same reason as before). It is a short circuit – an augmenting and protraction of my eyes, a clash of eyeballs. Its emotional charge means nothing to others. And yet I’ll go on shooting self-portraits. It’s insolent and completely insufficient, as self-expression. It’s my (half-done) way to say: This is what I am. Or, put more simply: I am.

[1] Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes
[2] “Le monde est fait pour aboutir à un beau livre” – S. Mallarmé
[3] Susan Sontag, On Photography

1 comment on “Self, 50mm at a time

  1. Pingback: Self, 50mm at a time | WP Unchained

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