Self-portraits that challenge social stereotypesNot all self-portraits or selfies are self-absorbed, they can be a tool for powerful self-expression.
A man sprawls on the floor as he enjoys the cast of warm light passing through the window in his room. However, it's not his face that the observer will lock their attention to, it's his bare bulging stomach which blocks the view of his upper body entirely.
This is a part of photographer Karma Tshering’s photo series titled ‘I’M (IM) PPERFECT ME’(sic), in which he has a collection of self-portraits, seemingly embracing his body—mostly his bulging belly—although it may not come under the definition of a ‘perfect’ body that is popularised in contemporary social media and popular culture.
Many describe self-portraits and selfies to be narcissistic, arrogant and sometimes cocky. While the history of self portraiture is as old as photography itself, with the advent of smartphones, selfies are mostly defined as a presentation of perfection but with a precarious sense of self underneath. But some photographers in Kathmandu, like Tshering, have been exploring self-portrait photography to tell stories about emotional well being, individuality, gender stereotypes and sexuality. It has become a medium of an artistic outlet to express their standpoints on social stereotypes, portraying images that are just the opposite of what selfies or self-portraits have come to be popular for.
“Self-portraits allow photographers to express and discover themselves,” says Tshering, 26, who remembers being part of many jokes where the tickling humour usually was about his plus-size body. “It shares an introspective narrative and it’s personal.”
Tshering’s photograph where he is lying down lazily on the floor gives a vibe of a homely lethargic afternoon but the image also imbues discomfort. And, perhaps, that is because it expresses the trauma of body shaming just as it is.
That emotion of unsettling discomfort is exactly what he is trying to achieve through his photographs, says the photographer. “Not everybody understood what I was trying to say with my photographs but those who did, could understand my frustration and suffocation,” he says.
While it was society’s hesitation to accept his body type as ordinary for Tshering, the discriminatory experiences during menstruation was what inspired another photographer Jyoti Shrestha for her Red Period series.
The photo series available on her Behance account, unlike Tshering’s carefree portrayal, explores the feeling of desolation, fear and suffocation.
Shrestha’s photographs feel painful and obscure and the series definitely is not focused on emphasising aesthetic appeal. She uses red-filters to showcase her exposed skin, depicting the emotion of being a woman and how they are made to feel uncomfortable when they are on their periods. However, the use of red flower in one of the photographs feels like a metaphor to describe periods as a beautiful cycle that continues this very world.
In one of her mug-shot, Shrestha captures herself in a shouting posture, and one can feel the emotional strain she is seemingly drenched in at that moment. In another, her eyes are closed, as though she is reflecting on gender discrimination endured by many like her.
“It wasn’t easy to capture myself, I felt uncomfortable in front of the camera but I somehow knew that the story would be more powerful if I am the subject of my own story,” says Shrestha.
When a photographer decides to be the subject of their own photographs, the story carries more depth and intensity, says Shrestha. “It’s not as easy as it looks. To work on the narrative, you have to align your memories,” she says. “The process is introspective and I had to really push my limits.”
Shrestha continues to dabble with self-portrait photography, and her Instagram account is peppered with her mug-shot, which shows her desire to rebel against the discrimination and her reassurance for the person she is today.
When asked if she sees selfies as different from self-portrait photography, she says the question pertains to the intention of the photographer. “It depends on their purpose, what they are trying to say—not all selfies are trying to say something but some do, and that sort of makes it artistic for onlookers,” says Shrestha.
Tshering agrees with Shrestha saying the photographs in his series are the highlight of the various emotional breakdown and the changes he went through while documenting himself.
“I felt better after expressing myself, it felt like coming in terms with my insecurities,” says Tshering. “Now I think I am at a better place in my life where I am comfortable being me.”
Bunu Dhungana, a visual artist believes that the selfie culture should be taken seriously. Unlike Shrestha and Tshering, she believes that selfies, of any kind, reflect aspirations and oftentimes it tries to define how people want to be seen.
“It is a reflection of the photographer, the selfie-taker, so, I think we cannot overlook selfies. They are self-portraits even if it shows subjects pouting or adding photo filters,” says Dhungana.
Dhungana’s self-portrait series ‘Confrontations’, which was also part of Photo Kathmandu exhibition 2018 showcased what it means to be a woman who is not married in a patriarchal society. Her series was put up in Khapinchhen, Patan and had been reviewed as a powerful narrative of patriarchy.
However, during the exhibition, she had also received comments such as, “Isn’t the series too private to be public?”
She shares how some local women had commented that the exhibition seemed offensive towards men. “They said we have to live among men and we shouldn’t offend them. But I explained, that was the very crux of the exhibition, we shouldn’t have to pretend to be who we are,” says Dhungana.
Her photo series was showcased again in the recent Dali International Photography Festival 2019 in China.
Although Dhungana had always felt comfortable in front of her lens, initially she had tried to execute her photo series with someone else as the subject. “But I realised what I wanted to portray was my feelings and my experiences which the other person probably must have never gone through,” she says. “It was my story that I had to tell.”
In one photograph of the series, Dhungana’s face is covered with red-tika, a red decor used by women to signify they are married—the visual renders goose flesh as it perfectly interprets the pervasiveness of patriarchy—how it tries to define women and their choices. Photos portraying her interaction with her mother as to why she needs to marry also tells of how society thinks of an unmarried woman; her mother’s questions of why can’t you be like other women brings socially acceptable gender roles to the forefront.
Dhungana believes her story worked because it candidly stated the reality of patriarchy. “We live in a society where everyone wants to believe everything is okay; nobody wants to talk about things, about emotions, discrimination. We are always pretending,” says Dhungana. “But in front of the camera as a subject, that was exactly what I was unravelling.”
Even though these self-portraits are challenging social construct and taboos, it has also been a strong medium to self exploration, say photographers. For Shrestha, who began her photographic journey with self-portraits, it became a therapeutic experience.
“While doing Red Period series, I had to look into my past and revisit the experience of discrimination I had faced,” says Shrestha. “The outcome was my raw emotion captured on these photographs.”
It has also built a space to encourage people to talk about personal wellbeing and oppression they feel in society. Shrestha says after having shared her story, she feels more liberated.
These self-portraits are meant to break the brackets of social typecasts, showcasing diverse lifestyles, beliefs and ideas through their social platforms, say photographers.
“Self-portraits lends more freedom for expression,” says Tshering. “They are unrestrained and maybe that’s why, interesting and powerful.”