Stefano Ferrari’s collaborative self-portrait in my studio. 

The photographic self-portrait as psychological investigation

By Stefano Ferrari

I teach psychology of art in a university visual arts department and a few years ago I published a book on
the relationship between the self-portrait and psychology[1]. It gives me a
certain odd pleasure today to find some of my ideas, developed in a purely
theoretical context, applied in such a practical way in Cristina Nuñez’ use of
the photo self-portrait. But it is clear that her method, which she developed
entirely independently and strictly in relation to her own personal and
professional experience, overlaps to some extent with my ideas and to some
extent borrows freely from them. A happy and fortunate encounter for both of
us, which, without taking anything away from our specific careers, testifies to
the fertility of interdisciplinary relationships.

A good place to begin, then, would be where Cristina and I differ, quite apart from our backgrounds
and spheres of work. I start from the question: what is the defining
characteristic of the self-portrait (not only photographic) from a
psychological perspective? I then go on to try and show how first and foremost
it concerns the problem of our relationship with our image and therefore with
the formation and the feeling of self. Although my work does not exclude the
potential reparative function of the self-portrait, my approach remains
essentially speculative, focusing on the more problematic aspects of the
self-portrait from an artistic, historical and theoretical perspective.

Cristina does not ignore these aspects, her focus is rather on the use of the
photographic self-portrait as a means of self-interrogation and analysis, but
also as a way to feel better about oneself and have better relationships with
others. Watching one of her workshops, I have the impression that the
effectiveness of her method is due in large part to the strength of her
personality and undoubted professional expertise. A powerful personal charisma
combined with an extraordinary capacity for empathy. Cristina always seems to
be able to understand and hear what the images are saying, and she tries to
impart this heightened aesthetic sensibility to the participants.

Without going into detail about her quite articulated programme, I would like to dwell
briefly on a few of the theoretical implications of using the photographic
self-portrait for psychological inquiry.

As I mentioned, at the root of
everything is the rather complex and controversial relationship with our image
as we perceive it. This brings in the dynamic of the mirror, of which the photo
self-portrait is a special instance. According to established psychoanalytical
tradition, it to do with the process of formation of the self. Thus the
fascination and effectiveness of the self-portrait is related to the problem of
identity, which it reproposes over and over again. In effect the photo
self-portrait, precisely because of its ease and transparency, represents a
concentration of the original relationship with the mirror. As if, posing each
time in front of the mirror as if for the first time, we may discover some new
facet of our identity and at the same time build a different one, recreating
and inventing a new one on each occasion. In its simplicity, which digital
technology has made even more immediate, the photo self-portrait, with its
incredible and automatic rapidity, also has a uniquely serious function. And
Cristina rightly stresses this aspect. Taking one’s portrait is an act which
cannot be taken lightly. However much we may appear to be fooling around and
showing off, the truth of the matter is that we are all powerfully affected and
changed by this irreversible gesture.

 Indeed, it is precisely the simplicity
of the act that makes it so powerful, so solemn – a concentrated solemnity that
is therefore even more powerful.

As Cristina correctly suggests, the snap of the shutter gives form and consistency to that magic moment of the child’s
identification with his image in the mirror. As Lacan explains: in a sense,
releasing the shutter is the mechanism by which one realises and captures one’s
identity, otherwise fleeting and transient like the mirror’s reflection. In
reality constructing our identity does not end with that first identification
with the image in the mirror: the problem recurs continually at each turning
point in our lives. Though we can never repeat the radical original experience
which first shapes our identity, the self-portrait, especially
photographically, give us an apparently artificial but actually very real
possibility of re-experiencing that original process, of re-actualising and a
way completing it. In this sense every shot repeats that crucial moment of
primary identification with the mirror’s image.

For Cristina, the solemnity of the photographic self-portrait is linked to its visceral character, to a
“gut feeling” as she would say. It is as if this solemnity, the
radical commitment involved, is experienced above all on a physical, rather than
psychological or cerebral plane. What she means by this is that the practice of
the self-portrait evokes above all profound emotions and memories, moving
something powerful in our “guts”. In other words, our relationship with our
identity and with everything this involves depends not only on the body and its
image, but the way these are physically felt. There is a precise link between
the way we see and feel the body as the outward form of our identity and the
way the body itself reacts and presents itself to the eyes of the world (our
feelings shape the body no less than the body shapes our feelings). I am
reminded of Alexander Lowen’s bioenergetics: what we feel and how we feel
inside has an affect on the outside world in terms of image and posture, just
as our body and behaviour reflect our identity which thus coincides with the
way we feel the body. In this sense the self-portrait also represents a
powerful physical experience, where the physical and the psychic are very
closely linked.

The exercises Cristina proposes also bear a relation to
certain late 19th century experiments in hypnosis and in particular one known
as the “objectification of characters”, which also had something to do with the
dramatisation of the emotions. These psychologists noticed not only that the
body as a whole responds organically and coherently to each of the poses the
subject is asked to assume, but that there is a precise correspondence between
the poses assumed and the emotions actually felt. For example, Charles Richet
noted that “Positioning a limb in a certain position and giving the body a
certain pose generates corresponding feelings”.[2] I believe Cristina can fully
confirm the accuracy of this observation.

Deciding to take a self-portrait, rather than an act of self-analysis, is first and foremost a decision to escape
from the randomness and unpredictability of life, to express, as Cristina says,
“the natural urge to affirm one’s existence”. Through the camera one becomes
master of one’s existence in the world. It is an act of self-affirmation and
control: “I am, I am this and I want to be this again and again, shot after
shot.” It rejects the passive acceptance of the image (that’s how it is and I
can’t change it), conditioned by the intrusive gaze of others, often perceived as
a burden and a judgement. Instead, by taking one’s own picture one asserts
one’s right to freedom: the subject chooses to be protagonist, to reverse this
condition. “I construct my own image and I control it, regardless of what
others think.” It’s an illusion, of course, but an illusion that partly works,
precisely because it changes the attitude of others to our image and therefore
to ourselves. The virtuous circle created by this act of self affirmation
depends precisely on the self-portrait’s ability to involve the other, who in
turn feels compelled to look inside himself with the same intensity. In this
sense every self-portrait is also our own self-portrait, and its practice
encourages understanding and closer relationships between people.

Naturally we have to take into account that the practice may reveal something about us we
did not know, beyond our intentions and outside our control. (Indeed this
aspect is fundamental from the therapeutic standpoint). But if this occurs
through choice, following our own programme, on a stage where we are the
director and the actors, in a sense the discoveries we make are predictable and
hence more easily acceptable. We may get some surprises, but they will
nevertheless be foreseeable. In any case, the function of the self-portrait is
also to familiarise oneself with one’s darker side, the unheimlich which may
emerge. In my book I deal specifically with these defence mechanisms:
projection onto the outside and liberation from the negative aspects of the
self and its traumatic aspects, their objectification, processing and, in the
best case, reintrojection of the parts of the self thus purified.

In these workshops, however, what characterizes the dynamic of the self-portrait is the
very fact that it is a workshop, i.e. a programme of practices and exercises
that is not decided by the individual, but with which one must comply. One has
to work with others, conforming to the dynamics of the group and following the
rules and schedules of a space that is materially and psychological other. But
it is precisely this special “space”, common to any art therapy class, which
contains within itself the potential for healing. It serves as a kind of
protected laboratory in which we can test emotions without feeling completely responsible
for them, in that everything takes place in a preordained theatre. The workshop
is therefore a transitional space, a sort of practice room where the subject
can open up more easily, free of this “preventive negation” which
allows deeper emotions still to emerge.

In this case the cathartic aspect is
heightened by the fact that the workshop protocol requires the participants to
perform their exercises not only in the lab, but as a kind of
“homework” in a setting of their choosing.

The self-portrait, although suggested, becomes a powerful act of self determination, protected and
filtered by the awareness that the process is part of a project not entirely of
one’s own making. At the end of the day it is a game, an exercise, a fiction
with which one chooses to conform. But for Nuñez, this does not prevent many
people from learning to use the self-portrait as a sort of daily or regular
hygiene (rather like a diary), with which one learns to habitually control and
process one’s emotions.

Another important feature of the workshops is the
powerful dramatic component (which owes something no doubt to Cristina Nuñez’s
background in the theatre). For example, knowing in advance that each
self-portrait, taken in solitude, will be read and discussed by the group, has
an influence on its execution and accentuates the performance element and the
way it is staged. At the same time, as we have seen, the self-portrait – every
self-portrait – is always strongly influenced by the gaze of the other:
foreseen or fantasised, desired or feared, it always represents the true
“Mirror of the Self”. But, as Cristina suggests, the practice of the
self-portrait always reserves a special private space for the subjectivity of
the individual who, in the triple role of author, subject and spectator, can
achieve a closer and a deeper self understanding.

 A fundamental concept,
which Cristina borrows from my work and on which she rightly insists, is that
of the “plasticity of the self”, which in many ways is consubstantial with the self-portrait,
and the idea and possibility of self representation.

This idea is to be understood first of all in the technical and functional sense, in the way the
self-portrait involves a form of acrobatics. It obliges the self to split into
two, to view itself as an object other than itself (this presupposes a
disidentification with the mirror’s image, which according to Lacan is the
origin of the formation of the self). But it also forms the basis for the
richness and multiplicity of the self and its various masks. Each of these
masks belongs to us and requires to make itself seen. Thus the practice of
self-portrait becomes an opportunity to test the “plurality of lives” which
Freud speaks of as man’s need to experiment with multiple identities. The idea
of plasticity alludes to the fact that, notwithstanding the acrobatics and
multiplications (which could be the sign of splitting personality or loss), the
self remains essentially one, always in control and directing these processes.
If this were not the case, the self would not be able to portray itself at all:
it would remain divided, cancelled out by its own mechanics. Above all
reiteration would be impossible, whereas instead this not only occurs but is
often felt as a kind of coercion. (Indeed, the continual urge to portray
oneself suggests that the healing process is incomplete, that each time
something is left over for the next. The fact that one can repeatedly portray
oneself without losing pieces of the self along the way demonstrates that it
must be sufficiently plastic and structured to tolerate such tensions.)

One of Cristina’s assertions which at first left me a little puzzled, is that the
photo self-portrait enables everyone to be an artist and to produce art.
Cristina insists strongly on this point. I think I have begun to understand
what she means by this, and I am partly in agreement. Think about what happens
when we write privately about the self (in a diary, letters, autobiographical
notes, etc.). Even the most innocent and most unsophisticated outpourings tend
towards literature. In effect, describing and representing our emotions obliges
us to adopt literary and stylistic strategies that belong to the realm of art
and as such allow us to communicate and to share. With the self-portrait, to
the extent that it is used as an expression of what we are or feel ourselves to
be, something similar occurs, a process of decision and elaboration that is
akin to art. Cristina invites her students to select and gradually discard a
number of images until they arrive at the one that is most representative, the
self-portrait that focuses and synthesises the whole process and best
communicates its truth to others.

This selection or distillation of the image
is a central feature of the artistic process. It also corresponds to the formal
dynamics of the Super-ego, which observes and judges according to stylistic
standards, in two phases: first, when I am taking my portrait, I imagine how I
might appear and alter my behaviour accordingly, with a calculated strategy.
And above all afterwards, when I am required to choose the best picture, the
most representative.

Indeed in her workshops Cristina, as an artist herself,
teaches her students to examine and analyse the images on a formal level, and
tries to impart a certain sensibility that properly belongs to the sphere of
art and aesthetics. In this sense each one can effectively become an artist or
at least aspire to being one. This is exactly where art and therapy cross
paths: there’s is a potential correspondence between the therapeutic effect of
the self-portrait and its artistic value. At any rate, this is what I have
always maintained: if art is a form of therapy, it is so to the extent that it
remains art, independent of any clinical practice which inevitably operates on
a different level.

[1] S. Ferrari, Lo specchio dell’Io. Autoritratto e psicologia, Laterza, Bari-Roma 2002.

[2] Ch. Richet, Les démoniaques
d’aujourd’hui, “Revue des deux Mondes, 1880, 37 (Ital. trans. in S. Ferrari,
Psicologia come romanzo, Alinea, Florence 1987, p. 158).