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Self Portrait Series

"A hotel room is a primed canvas that can stir sensations while leaving enough space for creative reveries."

Words by ELISE WOUTERS

A self-portrait offers a space to dream in, a moment beyond time. When I position the camera and turn my gaze onto myself, I enter a world entirely of my own making. Within the frame, I can play with the borders of reality. Each photograph becomes an act of self-creation. 

In this way, making a self-portrait has an almost alchemic quality; it carries the air of a theatre performance. I select the setting, manipulate the light, arrange the props, and enter the story as both its director and active participant. By inhabiting the scene with my own body, I have utter freedom and complete control. It is this balance that allows for an intimate visual narrative to take shape.

American artist Francesca Woodman took hundreds of self-portraits during her short life, often shooting in abandoned houses, derelict spaces and other artists’ studios. In her diary, she described this journey of self-expression as something akin to ‘inventing a language.’. Many of her images depict her as a blurred shape, a nude outline in motion, almost merging with the peeling wallpaper or disappearing into a mirror. Her work highlights the physicality of self-portrait photography. Woodman succeeded in not just capturing the self, but also the essence of the setting, everything that touched the moment, down to the air that enveloped her. Part of the strength of Woodman’s work lies in her ability to converse with her surroundings to bring her daydreams to life.

“Woodman succeeded in not just capturing the self, but also the essence of the setting, everything that touched the moment, down to the air that enveloped her.”

In his ‘Poetics of Space’, French philosopher Gaston Bachelard echoes this idea of place playing a key role in our ability to daydream. Like a shell, a room offers a space of solitude, a contained creative retreat that ‘shelters daydreamers’ within its walls. In return, Bachelard argues, the room seeks ‘to be possessed’ by its inhabitant, as their imagination fills and infuses the space with meaning. This dialogue between space and self – between the room and the person it holds – lies at the heart of a powerful self-portrait. In my own work, I am drawn to photographing in settings that evoke rich, sensuous experiences, since they encourage conversations that extend beyond the self.

A hotel room, in particular, can be one of the most evocative places for daydreaming. It is a room you can wear lightly. You can slip in and out for a couple of nights. You do not have to worry about the pots or the plumbing or the changing of the sheets. There is always space on the nightstand and a pen on the desk. A hotel room is a primed canvas that can stir sensations while leaving enough space for creative reveries. Hervé Guibert, French writer and ethereal self-portrait photographer, said that in order to ‘mark one’s temporary belonging’ in a hotel room, one either has to make love in it or photograph it straight away. Since I travel on my own, I follow the latter advice, and my camera becomes my closest confidant – a witness to my fleeting presence. 

As soon as I enter the room, I immerse myself in the space: I listen to the fabrics, and taste the colours of the changing light. I linger with the elements that resonate and speak my visual language: the robe, the curve of the vase, the way my lipstick leans against the bathroom mirror. I select a flower from the garden as a bookmark. The impressions of my day return to me in glimpses – the abandoned chair in the street, the man selling single cigarettes, the fragrant melon I bought from the market. From there, I weave my own world into being. 

“My portrait emerges slowly and in soft focus on Polaroid film, which, by morning, has faded into a muted palette like a distant watercolour memory.”

 

At Mona, the echoes of the old textile factory lead me through the afternoon. I feel held by the swaying motion of folding linens and silks. My silhouette moves lightly through each room, swept up and carried by the city breeze. When I capture my mirror reflection on a roll of Kodak stock, I only make minute changes between each frame, so that the 36 images feel like stills from a silent film. The repeated click and wind, click and wind of the analogue camera rings out like a sewing machine. 

By night, Shila takes me by the hand, and guides me through her lush gardens, past the hallway of mirrors and the paintings, into her furthest corners. A line from a poem reverberates in my mind like a prayer. It returns to me everywhere, in the bath, between the sheets, along the dial tone of the rotary phone. I try to picture the way it would sound along a lover’s skin. My portrait emerges slowly and in soft focus on Polaroid film, which, by morning, has faded into a muted palette like a distant watercolour memory.


“I linger with the elements that resonate and speak my visual language: the robe, the curve of the vase, the way my lipstick leans against the bathroom mirror. I select a flower from the garden as a bookmark.”

The process of taking a self-portrait feels as precious as its end result. In those few seconds before pressing the shutter button, when all elements align and I am suspended inches above the final image, I experience an almost ecstatic reverence. Every nerve ending sparks into life. Although creating a self-portrait can be a form of self-representation or escapism, for me, it is always an extension of the self. It is a broadening pursuit. A moving towards. Like a hotel room, a self-portrait is a space that holds potential. If photography transcends language, then the self-portrait must be its most sacred utterance, and, perhaps, the hotel room can be its chapel for the night. 

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