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  • Writer's pictureJo Sutherst

Informing Contexts – Self Portrait

“I think that’s why so many portraits work when they’re difficult: we believe we’re presenting ourselves one way, but the camera always reveals something more vulnerable, despite our best efforts.”

– Katy Grannan (Denes, 2005)

A tradition of photographers taking  self-portraits is as old as the medium of photography itself.  I, like many, do not like to have my photograph taken.  Yet having your photograph taken in this age of the digital camera and iPhones, is part of everyday life.  So why do I run for cover when someone wants to take my photo?  Why do I hide at the back in a group shot? Or pull faces and act the fool if a camera is thrust in my face?

Yet, I have taken selfies and posted pictures online (just not very often).  There is so much deliberation before I publish a picture that it hardly seems worth the effort.  I am generally acting the fool (or dressed up at school) in these pictures. Figure 1 below shows the extent of images I have posted online since 2014.

Figure 1: Sutherst 2014 – 2017

“It’s of me, but it’s not me. Portraiture can be interpreted as a kind of betrayal,but in fact it’s fiction.”

– Katy Grannan (Griffin, 2016)

As part of my exploration of performance of subjects in front of the camera, I decided it would be a good move to photograph myself.  In preparation for the shoot, I shot quite a few selfies with my iPhone.  Each one I critique and dislike. At Format 2017, I forced myself to upload one to Facebook and Twitter (figure 2). Even this image I cropped to see less of me and more of the chair I was sat in!


Figure 2: Sutherst 2017

On the day of the studio shoot, my stomach was leaping on the way.  A crazy response and totally irrational.  Thinking about it I realised there was a fear of the unknown.  I have not stepped in front of the camera in the studio for a shoot before.  Sure I’ve had my photograph taken, but this was different.  I allowed the makeup artist to put a base layer on my face to reduce shine in front of the camera. No other makeup was applied or required due to my plan to wear various of the masks I have.

My stomach was still leaping around.  I had told a few people I was having the shoot done and was completely aware that it would be embarrassing to me to have to show (and publish) an unflattering photograph of myself.  I am a very confident person, but know that my impression of myself is not matched by the way I look in a photograph.  I don’t need to see images that show my double chin or chubby cheeks.  I know I have those, years of taking replacement steroids for Addison’s Disease have made sure of that.

But of course, the photograph would not tell the whole story of me.  It is a mere snapshot in time.  It would be nothing more than a 2D flat image of me, and just a representation of me at that.  You cannot determine my personality completely from the image.

With help of the makeup artist / studio owner, Alley Stallard, I began the process of capturing a self portrait that would be used in my portfolio.  I wanted to create an strong, intense image that captured my vulnerability and how uncomfortable I felt in front of the lens.  The image I chose to include from the shoot is below in figure 3.


Figure 3: Sutherst / Stallard 2017

There is an honesty and rawness about this image that I like.  Surprising eh?  I can view the image objectively in terms of my body of work.  Doesn’t mean I have to like what I see.  The lighting is deliberate to create a 3 dimensional view of myself.  I don’t have much of an expression; I am thinking about how much I am disliking the process.  I am also concentrating on how my mouth will look in the picture.  I am keeping it slightly open to relax my face.  I am conscious of keeping my eyes open for the shot.  It is these distractions and the distraction of the mask I am wearing that make it easier for me to get through the shoot.

This image sums up and underpins what my body of work is about.  Being in front of the camera is a performance.  I was having to perform for the camera in order to get the shot.  I was totally aware that I needed this shot for my portfolio. This image expresses my intent and is an objective representation of the subjective me.  I can see myself as others might see me.

My self portrait is engaging and shows just one side of me.  Technically the image is strong; the choice of the mask for the prop, the plain t-shirt and dark backdrop ensure that the visual weight of the image is on the subject.  I don’t need to like the image to appreciate the place it has in my practice.


Figure 4: Jo Spence and Rosy Martin. Photo Therapy. 1984

The portrait itself has elements of Jo Spence’s work through the honesty in my eyes (figure 4). The image of Spence portrays uncertainty and fear.  It a re-staging of her mental state before her operation for breast cancer. Her image is very powerful and full of honesty and sincerity.

Spence’s work is very open and she was an incredibly brave photographer who documented her battle with cancer and leukaemia. Her work included a lot of role play and narrative to portray her message.  I have the utmost respect for her work and can hope that I can become more open in future self portraiture work.

Moving forwards, I will keep taking images of myself and I will keep using them in my bodies of work.


Denes, M. (2005). Interview: Melissa Denes meets photographer Katy Grannan. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 22 April 2017].

Griffin, J. (2016). View from the edge: Katy Grannan’s photographs at Somerset House, London. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 April 2017].

Figure 4: Spence, J. and Martin,R. Photo Therapy. 1984. From (2017). Uncertain States / 08. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 April 2017].

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