As many of you might have already
noticed, I am not very constant on blog entries. This is partly because I am
very busy with the whole project, which is good news. Partly it is due to
obtaining authorisations to publish people’s self-portraits and stories.

My article on Milan’s prison San Vittore
will be published soon. It has taken a long time to get authorisation from the
Ministry of Justice, but we have it at last! Fiorella Minetti and I have just
finished the project with women inmates and we are deeply moved by the results.
These women have done a wonderful work in many ways.

On the other hand I have slowed down my
writings because I have received some criticism from two therapists on my
approach lately with collaborative self-portraits, that is, those
self-portraits people take in my studio following my directions on the
expression of emotions. I consider criticism an opportunity of growth and
thought. So that’s where I have been, thinking and using criticism to evolve.

These therapists have questioned my
interpretation on the pictures, not from direct experience but from what they
read on my blog and website. They say that in my writings it seems as if I
consider my interpretation as the only possible one. I understand it might seem
so, because usually, it comes from a sort of “vision”. I don’t always “see”
something clearly, but sometimes I am so struck, moved, enthusiastic, that I
can’t see anything else, because this vision tells me about the greatness of
the human being. I am an artist, not a therapist, and people who come to my
studio know this. I always tell people that there are many possible
interpretations. I use the word “self-therapy”, because I have used this method
to work on myself, with extremely positive results on my self-image. I am
giving a method to people, so that they can decide whether to use it or not on
themselves as self-therapy, but I am also involving them in an artistic
project. The idea is that art is therapeutic, but you are the one who decides
how to use it on yourself. It is not my goal to push anyone to do it. People
can come to me for an artistic experience only. It’s up to them.

I know I would have less problems if I
didn’t use the word “therapy”, but I haven’t found a better word yet. A
philosopher-counsellor friend suggested me “self-representation”, but this word
does not contain the concept of feeling better, raising one’s own self-esteem,
solving inner troubles regarding self-image, which is what the self-portrait
has helped me and many others to do, not only with my method. I am not the only
one who has used the self-portrait as self-therapy. There are hundreds of
artists, ancient and modern, young and old. I am not the only one who has built
a method to use the self-portrait for therapeutic purposes. But I feel I can
give something new to what has already been said and done, and part of it is my
artistic project and my vision.

A work of art can be interpreted in many
ways, and I don’t intend to say that my vision is the ultimate truth. There is
no objective truth in art. My interpretation is an attempt to inspire the
person to see beyond his or her “real life”, a suggestion to widen their field
of vision. It is a creative response to the photograph so that other emotions
and intuitions might emerge, be expressed. It is an imaginative vision,
detached from reality. It is very far from any kind of diagnose: I am not a
doctor or a therapist. I am the “mad” artist who possesses the
freedom of vision. At the same time, the work of art has been produced collaboratively.
My studio and my directions involve the participant in a journey into his or
her own emotions, and I have done this more than 200 times with more than 200
hundred different people, as part of my artistic project too. This means that
when I see the photographs, most of the times I immediately see the one I would
choose, the one that speaks to me as the artist, as the creator of this shared
experience. Most of the times there is one photograph that strikes me and moves
me deeply. Of course the person could choose other pictures of himself or
herself, and we often discuss this, but the works can also be part of my
overall project, and I propose the participant my vision so that he or she
decides whether to be part of it or not. Then, they will take the pictures home
and do whatever they wish with them. They belong to both of us. They might
authorise me to use them into my artistic project or not, but in any case I
will be happy to have inspired them to use the self-portrait in an imaginative
way and even happier if they start their own artistic project.

My critics say that in my writings it is
not clear what the subject says of the pictures, that often I do not mention
their opinion. This is sometimes true, because most of the times the subject,
when asked what he sees in the pictures, talks about what he (or she) does not
like of himself. Of course this is important in our private conversation (not
in my published writings!), but I always stimulate people to have a positive
and imaginative vision, a vision that is detached from himself/herself. I love
to help people see icons, heroes, characters which are universal to every human
being, in their self-portraits. And most people seem to love this. I think many
of them appreciate the fact that this is not therapy, we don’t really dwell on
their psychological aspects, but only acknowledge emotions as part of an epic,
which might give them an interesting insight on their own life. Some people
have been shocked at my interpretation (or the group’s), saying that it matched
perfectly with their actual situation. I do not ask them anything about their
lives. I only give them a positive vision or stimulate them to imagine
themselves as characters in a story, helping them to look at their own image in
an imaginative way. They will take this vision home with the pictures and they
will use it as they please. I think this helps people dream, to see their
identity as something complex and multiple, with many different possibilities
of choice, and possibly, to unite contrasting aspects in one image. This has
been confirmed by some participants, and by some therapists I have worked with.
But what’s most important is that they will surely realize that they can
produce works of art with their most difficult emotions. This is very
empowering.

I am actually beginning to gather some
information from participants on the effects of the experience in their lives,
in the way they see themselves and in their public image. Some people have
already told me that the idea of perceiving a sort of “higher self” (which I
will try to define below) in images that they were initially rejecting as
disturbing, has struck them positively: my interpretation touched aspects they
knew they possessed, and in many ways, feeling this inner “presence” made them
feel empowered and peaceful, improving their self-image consistently,
regardless of the fact that they knew my interpretation was one of many, and it
was not an essential truth. G. told me that she took my interpretation as a
gift, like a fairy tale, which is not reality, but it might be used as a
symbol, as a source of inspiration. She said “I do not know if I am the
Goddess, but this helps me perceive myself as a complex human being, with many
aspects and potential to discover, and it suggests me that imagination is a
very inspiring tool to use on oneself. We are not only what we see, we are much
more…and this makes me feel free from my daily negative thoughts, and younger!
Moreover, connecting my identity to ancient history or myths makes me feel
inspired, more rooted and less lonely because I’m feeling I am one with others,
I am part of a bigger community: the human species…”

A.S., another participant told me “I like
the idea of having a “higher self” and I feel a part of me is wiser, and guides
me. Cristina’s interpretation struck me, because what she said corresponded,
symbolically, to my life right now. It actually helped me see my life in a more
positive way, and have a glimpse of possible solutions to my problems”.

What exactly is this “higher self” I
mention all the time? I usually read the I-CHING (or I-KING), the 3000 year-old
Chinese oracle. It often talks about our “inner wise man”, as that part of us
who can guide us if we listen to him. Maybe westerners would call it
“conscience”. From Wikipedia: “Theosophists believe that all human beings in
their “Higher Selves” are immortal, but their lower personalities are
often unconscious of their eternal Spiritual Nature and that their physical,
emotional, and lower mental components will decompose and perish.”The “higher
self” is similar to Freud’s Super-ego, in the sense that it is like a father
figure who takes care of our more childish selves, but it is also a spiritual
being, which Freud does not mention.

Rudolf Steiner does not use the words
Higher Self, but he talks about the “Ego”, as the spiritual body of the human
being (other bodies are etherical, astral, physical), which reincarnates in
different bodies or lives on earth to complete its spiritual evolution. The
Indian Vedas’ concept of “atma” (soul) inspired Steiner’s vision. Steiner
explains, in “Scientific-spiritual Anthropology Vol.I” his interpretation of
the first commandment: “I am the eternal Divine you feel in you”.

Ronald Holt says that “Whatever is
written on this subject will never be enough to satisfy the human mind. The
only time we feel true satisfaction is when we fully experience love and spirit
for ourselves.”

It might be easier to understand (or
accept) the concept if we talk about our “Creative Self”, the part of us who
guides the creative process. Michel Tournier states that “the self-portrait is
the only possible image of the creator (of that image) in the precise moment of
the creation (of the image)”. Thus, it is the portrait of our creative self.
Creative self, to me is our “divine self”. Of course all this might raise
further criticism, and I don’t intend to prevent it, but I don’t think I have
to justify my work. I don’t pretend to convince everyone of its value. My work
is for those who believe it’s useful and interesting for them to experience.

Someone asked me if my daughters know
what I’ve been writing about them for all the world to see, and if the
protagonists of my blog agree with my ideas. The answer is yes, of course. I
will never write anything about somebody without his or her consent, and I will
never publish somebody’s photograph without his or her authorisation. People
who have worked with me know this. Someone said I should say this in my blog,
so here it is.

This criticism has been very useful, because
now I am working more on keeping in touch with participants also after the
session, and asking them their thoughts on the photographs and on my
interpretation, or other ideas they’ve had about them. I am really interested
in what people will tell me, later on in time, about the pictures, their
feelings about them, their choice and if they have changed the way they see
themselves. An example of this is Andrea, in the article “the seeker”.

On the other hand I hope that one day my
critics will come to my studio and try my method, so that they can better
understand my approach. Then, most of their questions and doubts will certainly
be clearer.

My self-portrait above was taken in Rome,
during the Photography Festival in May (I’m preparing a new blog entry on the
Rome Festival). I asked some of the participants to take their clothes off and
some accepted, so I took mine off too, for solidarity. I love to see myself so
lost and naked, so vulnerable. To me, vulnerability can be a quality, not a
defect, in today’s society. As the mystic and poet Rumi once said: Sell your
cleverness and buy bewilderment. Cleverness is mere opinion, bewilderment is
intuition.
Vulnerability is essential in life, and it can be a source of
strength because it means that you are flexible, ready for change and open for
others’ influence. Vulnerability also means that you can be hurt. Life hurts us
anyhow, so why should we try to avoid this? I am stronger if I know how to use
that pain. If I weren’t vulnerable, I wouldn’t have done 20 years of
self-portraits and created this method. I am not afraid to say that critique
hurts. But I am also very happy to have people’s feedback on my work and I am
very thankful to my critics!

Anyhow, I think this photograph has an
ironic quality too, my gaze and expression make me laugh, although I didn’t
mean to be funny!

Dear readers, your comments, feedback and
critique are most welcome…. Especially those who have tried The Self-Portrait
Experience in my studio!