relatori (0).jpg

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.

While 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 characterises 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).