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  • Elizabeth Weinstein

Instant Portraits: Portraiture in the Age of Selfies

With my students at Urban Promise, we spent five weeks exploring portraiture across expressive mediums. We used poetry and performance, contour line drawings and watercolors, mural arts, mosaic techniques, Theater of the Oppressed, journaling and photography. Through working with (self) portraiture, I aimed to teach my students the value and the power of self representation. Creating a self portrait offers artists an opportunity to define themselves on their own terms--it is a chance to flip the script and share yourself with world in the ways you see yourself. As high schoolers in the age of cell phones and selfies, my high schoolers, it seemed, were quite familiar with the art of portraiture. They, and myself for that matter, are of a generation that take selfies as an act of regeneration and self-care, a moment-to-moment flash of the self before your eyes, an opportunity to check in with the present moment and share this moment’s version on yourself with the world.

On our last day of class, I introduced the medium of photography in as our final and most literal exploration of self-portraiture. I created a small photography studio in our classroom—a backdrop, a chair, some dried eucalyptus and other props for self expression—and invited the students to take turns photographing each other using a Polaroid camera. I reminded them that the relationship between photographer and model must be reciprocal—each party sharing an artistic license in the creation of the image. The students, one by one, stepped into the chair to allow themselves to be photographed. The more comfortable they were with the assignment, the deeper they dove. Some draped fabric over their face and hair, others wrapped their bodies in spools of yarn, covered themselves in colorful blankets or stood behind the backdrop and pressed their shadowy figures towards the light. Others chose to take photos of different body parts—feet, arms, backs—while still others took “jail portraits”, staring into the camera with a fierce directness. As the photos developed, I asked students to write one word at the bottom of each photo that defined them. What they wrote, in one word increments, came across as brutally honest and so deeply hopeful. What emerged was a body of work that is spell binding and deeply telling of these young people’s emotional and creative lives. In the age of “selfies”, I believe we can turn to young people’s portraits as deeply creative expressions of self and representation.

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