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!