Exercise 1: Constructing Identity

Coursework 1.2, Creative Arts 1.2 Creative Arts Skills, Creative Arts BA (Hons), Project 3: Questions of Identity

In today’s digital age, self-portraits are ubiquitous on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. As people present themselves through these mediums, various forms and styles of self-portraiture emerge, catering to diverse audiences and intentions.

Kinds of self-portraiture:

  1. Candid selfies: These spontaneous shots aim to capture the subject in a natural, unposed manner.
  2. Posed selfies: Carefully staged photographs often highlight physical attributes or showcase an individual’s style or outfit.
  3. Lifestyle photography: These images focus on the subject’s hobbies, interests, and daily activities.
  4. Travel or adventure shots: Images highlighting the subject’s experiences in different locations or engaging in adventurous activities.
  5. Professional portraits: Photographs taken for work or career-related purposes, showcasing the subject’s professional identity.

Constructing the portrait and intended audience:
Self-portraits on social media are constructed using various techniques such as filters, lighting, and angles to enhance the subject’s appearance or convey a specific mood. They are often tailored to the perceived preferences of the intended audience, which could range from friends and family to professional contacts or potential romantic interests. The choice of platform also plays a role, as the target audience may differ between platforms.

Revelations about the subject:
Self-portraits can reveal much about the subject, such as their personality, interests, values, and self-image. They might also offer glimpses into their social life, relationships, and professional aspirations. However, it’s essential to remember that these images often represent a curated, idealised version of the subject’s life and not the whole picture.

Effects on viewers and authors:
The widespread use of self-portraits on social media can positively and negatively affect viewers and authors. On the one hand, these images can inspire creativity, promote self-expression, and foster connections between people. They can also be a source of validation and self-esteem, as positive feedback from viewers can boost the subject’s confidence.

On the other hand, constant exposure to idealised self-portraits may lead to unrealistic expectations, social comparison, and feelings of inadequacy or envy. This can negatively impact mental health, causing anxiety and depression in both viewers and authors. Additionally, the pressure to maintain a curated online image may lead to inauthenticity and a distorted sense of self.

Self-portraiture on social media platforms is a complex phenomenon that offers insights into individual identity and self-expression. While it can foster creativity and connection, it’s essential to be aware of its potential negative consequences and the often curated nature of the images presented.


In Adam Gopnik’s article, he discusses the cultural significance of the selfie and its role in the broader context of self-portraiture. It questions whether the selfie is a transient phenomenon or a powerful form of self-expression that has altered our perception of ourselves. By examining a show of photographs at the Ricco/Maresca gallery, the article seeks to address this question.

The article argues that the urge to capture oneself in photographs has always existed, as demonstrated by the Photomatic selfies from the 1940s and 50s. These informal self-portraits were a way of documenting moments of happiness or self-exploration. The author suggests that the difference between traditional self-portraits and selfies lies in the ease and omnipresence of phone cameras, which has led to the promiscuity of the self.

The article highlights the work of a young artist, Kaia Miller, who creates manipulated self-portraits and talks about herself. Her creations are seen as a form of self-accounting, diary-keeping, or journal-making, demonstrating that self-showing is not necessarily selfish. The author concludes by suggesting that Kaia Miller’s art is a testament to her being at peace with and embracing her time, indicating that we will see more of her work in the future.

In conclusion, the article posits that selfies are not merely narcissistic expressions but can serve as a means for self-exploration and documentation of one’s experiences, indicating that the phenomenon is likely to persist and evolve over time.

Other self-portraits

Here are some examples of self-portraits by artists who have used unique and unconventional methods, going beyond traditional painting:

  1. Yayoi Kusama – “Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away” (2013) Kusama’s immersive installation uses mirrored surfaces and LED lights to create a seemingly infinite space. The viewer becomes part of the artwork, experiencing a self-portrait in the context of an endless universe.
  2. Marina Abramović – “The Artist is Present” (2010) This performance art piece by Marina Abramović took place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Abramović sat silently in a chair for hours each day, inviting visitors to sit across from her and maintain eye contact. The audience became part of the self-portrait, as their reactions and interactions with the artist revealed aspects of her persona.
  3. Ana Mendieta – “Silueta Series” (1973-1980) Ana Mendieta created self-portraits by imprinting her body in various natural environments, such as sand, mud, and grass. The resulting “earth-body” sculptures explored themes of identity, displacement, and connection to nature.
  4. Sophie Calle – “Take Care of Yourself” (2007) Sophie Calle’s multimedia project, “Take Care of Yourself,” was inspired by a breakup letter she received. Calle asked 107 women from various professions to interpret and respond to the letter, creating a collective self-portrait that reflects her emotions and experiences through the perspectives of others.
  5. Gillian Wearing – “Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say” (1992-1993) In this photographic series, Wearing asked strangers to write a personal thought or message on a sign, which they then held for a photograph. The artist included a self-portrait in the series, holding a sign that reads, “I’m desperate.” The series explores notions of self-representation, vulnerability, and public versus private identity.

These unconventional self-portraits demonstrate the versatility of the genre, pushing the boundaries of traditional self-representation and inviting viewers to engage with the artists’ identities in new and unexpected ways.

Questions and reflections

  1. How are these self-portraits similar or different to the self-portraits widely circulated on social media? The unconventional self-portraits mentioned above are generally more conceptually driven and focused on exploring themes such as identity, connection, and vulnerability. They often involve more complex creative processes and techniques compared to typical selfies on social media. While selfies on social media primarily document an individual’s appearance and experiences, the self-portraits by these artists push boundaries and provoke deeper thought and discussion.
  2. In what ways can self-portraits communicate ideas of identity? Self-portraits can communicate ideas of identity by showcasing the artist’s physical appearance, emotional state, cultural background, and personal beliefs. They can also express an artist’s struggles, achievements, or personal growth. By exploring different aspects of their identity, artists can challenge stereotypes, question societal norms, and reveal the complexity and fluidity of human identity.
  3. Is there a difference between a self-portrait and a selfie? Yes, there is a difference. A selfie is typically a casual, informal photograph taken with a smartphone or other handheld device, often shared on social media. A self-portrait, on the other hand, is a more deliberate and considered representation of oneself, often created using a variety of artistic media and techniques. Self-portraits tend to explore deeper themes and ideas, while selfies usually focus on documenting a specific moment or experience.
  4. How do we construct visual identities? Visual identities are constructed through various elements, such as appearance, clothing, body language, and the environment. These elements can be manipulated and combined to create a specific impression or convey a message. Artists may intentionally choose certain visual elements to emphasize aspects of their identity or challenge viewers’ perceptions.
  5. What do our representations say about our culture, society, and the wider world? Our representations in self-portraits and selfies can reveal aspects of our culture, society, and the wider world, such as values, beliefs, and norms. They can also highlight issues related to body image, self-esteem, gender roles, race, and social hierarchies. By examining these representations, we can gain insight into the factors that shape our identities and the ways in which we perceive and interact with others.
  6. What are the ethical concerns or considerations you might be aware of in making work about identity? Ethical concerns and considerations in making work about identity may include:
  • Respecting the privacy and consent of individuals depicted or involved in the artwork.
  • Avoiding cultural appropriation or stereotyping.
  • Considering the potential impact on marginalized or vulnerable communities.
  • Acknowledging the power dynamics between the artist and their subjects.
  • Ensuring that representations are accurate and authentic, avoiding manipulation or misrepresentation of an individual’s identity.
  • Being mindful of potential triggers or sensitive topics that could cause harm or distress to viewers or subjects.



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