• June 9, 2014

The Un-Selfie: Taking Back the Self-Portrait

Marie McGrory

The selfie: on a slow day, I probably see twenty while skimming social media. Other days, I am sure that number is in the hundreds.

Recently on Your Shot, National Geographic staff photographers Mark Thiessen and Becky Hale ran a Self-Portrait assignment. I can’t say I was particularly excited about the assignment at first. The advent of the selfie had left me with some misconstrued ideas about how unoriginal it is to turn the camera on yourself. A selfie is one of the easiest images you can take—after all, many people have a camera lens facing them every time they check their phone. Selfies are a way to show off a new haircut or your favorite outfit. They are a way for a group of people to take a photo without having to talk to a stranger.

Picture of a woman posing like a scarecrow on a clotheshanger
At one point, the self-portrait became more than just a portrait of myself. I started to look beyond what I saw inside the mirror, searching for my one and only identity. I noticed that while trying to showcase our multiple selves, we tend to peril our individuality, and it becomes more and more difficult to embrace our uniqueness. I called these multiple selves “shadows.” Doppelgängers. Perhaps things we want to be but we’re not.
Photograph by Felicia Simion, National Geographic Your Shot
Picture of a man birdwatching
Me birdwatching.
Photograph by Roine Magnusson, National Geographic Your Shot

Whether shot at arms length or reflected in a mirror, selfies have become such a common image for me to see each day that I almost forgot the beautiful and vulnerable place from which they originated. Of course we saw some pretty classic selfies while editing the assignment. And they too have their time and place. But by week two of the assignment, I was beginning to feel reinvigorated by a phrase I had left out of my vocabulary for far too long: self-portraits.

Picture of a woman holding an old photograph of herself
30 years ago I reveled in my youth and beauty. 30 years ago I bought my first camera and took a self portrait, feeling powerful and new. 30 years ago nobody told me that age comes with a kind of aching grief for the loss of your youth and beauty. 30 years went by so fast, but I still feel like that young girl inside.
Photograph by Katrina Kiefer, National Geographic Your Shot
Picture of a woman resting with her son
A moment caught with a self timer one afternoon with my son.
Photograph by Amanda Dawn O’Donoughue, National Geographic Your Shot

Self-portraits are not selfies. They are beautiful and revealing. The good ones are extremely difficult to make. After sifting through thousands of these images, I was astounded to see that the final edit was, essentially, faceless. I didn’t need to see someone’s face to learn about their essence—Ocean’s battle with cancer, Katrina’s struggle with aging, Amanda’s four-decade love for baking.

These images reminded me of why I loved studying self-portraits during my first photo classes in high school. They are about artists, showing themselves in the way they want to be seen—revealing something deeply personal, illustrating something they cannot explain with words.

Picture of a woman's shadow over a swimming pool
I noticed the beautiful shadows on the wall of the pool while it was being drained and had to insert myself into the scene.
Photograph by Tytia Habing, National Geographic Your Shot
Picture of a baker lying on a table with dough on her face
My eight-year-old eyes couldn’t believe it when the first loaf I baked emerged perfectly from the oven. Just like in the book I had checked out at the library. Forty years later, I am still enamored with bread and the process of making it.
Photograph by Amanda Starling, National Geographic Your Shot

All of this reflection started quite a discussion in our office about self-portraits that we have loved—Janna remembered Maynard Owen Williams’s reflective self-portrait and Coburn shared Cindy Sherman’s Untitled 96. In recent memory, I took interest in Kyle Thompson’s work. This project revitalized my love for those raw and revealing moments when a photographer turns the camera on themselves.

Picture of a woman shaking her head with her hands in front of her
Sometimes I experience a disconnect, a sense of confusion as to who I am as an artist. This mentally clouded state is emotionally draining. I enter into a state of isolation, brought on by my own uncertainty. This photo was inspired by my own lack of confidence in my artistic abilities—both the development of my own style and the meaning behind my photography.
Photograph by Taylor Chan, National Geographic Your Shot
Picture of a figure sitting up out of their own body
This is one of many intimate self-portraits taken in 2011 during my battle with Stage IV Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a blood cancer. While undergoing chemotherapy treatments hoping for a cure, self-portraiture/photography was my personal choice of weapon used to fight and to heal. The image depicts my awakening to my new reality and uncertain fate. Today, I’m happy to say I am cancer free!
Photograph by Ocean Morisset, National Geographic Your Shot

Visit the Your Shot story “Self Portrait” to see the final chosen images.

Marie is a photo editor for Your Shot. She looks at every photo submitted—most days it’s between 5,000-7,000 images. Follow Marie and her occasional selfie on Instagram.

There are 48 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. marion granger
    September 5, 2015

    It is interesting to me how self-portraits could have influenced the trend of selfies, but to me, a self portrait is a more abstract, sometimes disconnected photograph of the self that holds some sort of higher meaning. When i look at selfies, often the higher meaning is simply that the taker is bored, or that they are trying to show off the hot girl next to them.

  2. Carly O’Neil
    January 27, 2015

    Self-Portraiture, as a model in the photography world, already- was a way to be able to trust that the final concept was in fact in MY control. Once I moved past that phase of being happy with the perfection of a single frame, I found that a word wasn’t quite what I was looking for, and found cinema- in which I could speak a sentence. Spent a year teaching myself the medium (digital) in order to be able to vocalize more fluidly- and perhaps less banally than where the “selfie” has lead us: I didn’t want my own exploration of myself to be misconstrued as the typical narcissitic curiousity, but as more of an honest search- a dialogue.

  3. Diana
    November 30, 2014

    Check out my self-portrait project. Every day since 1999. http://youtu.be/RBPYDIzEbYk

  4. Lida del Monte
    November 30, 2014

    Fantastic creation of art and thank you very much with this article, means a lot to me…

  5. Cindy Bishop
    November 25, 2014

    To Nancy Wood. Isn’t art in the eye of the beholder? Your comment is not only sophomoric, but narrow minded as well. An interesting and thoughtful self-portrate is one of the hardest things to do.

  6. james green
    October 7, 2014

    as he said every pic dosen’t need your face to be a dope picture and everything that yoju take pics of dont have to be there physical body it could be shadows and his pictures inspired me and gave me no doubts in being ready o take my own portraits

  7. Hanadi khayran
    September 16, 2014

    this is really deep, actually its something great to love thing in your life and use it to fight your pain and our sadness
    the last photography really touched me, i liked how he used his passion and what he love to fight with cancer

  8. Victor
    August 13, 2014

    Forgive me if this is obscure and feels unrelated, but I can’t help but think:
    “These are much better than our ideal little Facebook profiles.”

  9. Susan,San Francisco
    June 26, 2014

    My heart travels to past to reflect how a pictures can change one’s perspective. I am inspired by these pictures to pull out my camera and see myself in a new way. Thanks

  10. Ocean
    June 26, 2014

    I’m honored to be included in this article. Thanks to all of you for your comments and special thanks to Marie McGrory for writing the article and including me in it.

  11. Sumit
    June 21, 2014

    Beautiful collections! Inspiring

  12. Mary Feezel
    June 21, 2014

    This comment may come as small consolation to Katrina, who is mourning her (physical) lost youth, but our spirits remain young and beautiful forever, even as our bodies age.

  13. Brian Ewart
    June 21, 2014

    My-self taking a long-shot of a man on a water-cliff also taking a long-shot out to sea over the cloudy storm horizon was an amazing shot to capture

  14. June Jacobsen
    June 21, 2014

    Very interesting. I recently made a book on blurb.com entitled ’60 Years’ – a retrospective, mostly black and white photos, many self-portraits, no selfies – as I don’t own a smartphone. As a portrait photographer I’ve been engaged in setting up photos mostly of thousands of clients (over 30 years) but occasionally of myself as well. I assembled many of them in one little (7×7) volume to give my children when I’m a bit older. They’re not aware of the book at this time. I agree with the gal (imaged above) – ageing makes you do things that perhaps never occurred to you before.

  15. Meezer3
    June 21, 2014

    I have never taken a selfie..yet. I resist the urge to do it because to me its just to revealing of my aging and sliding down that slippery slope we all are on. I can empathize with Katrina Kiefer, above, when she talks of the then and now. We all look with longing behind us, and a selfie reminds me to much of what lies ahead. Selfies are for the young. Self portraits, well that’s quite another thing… 🙂

  16. nancy wood
    June 19, 2014

    Over-reach. Sometimes people feign art, (sophomoric).

  17. Fanny Moreno
    June 17, 2014

    I can say that every picture has its own importance and great meaning for the photographer. Many of them moved me strongly, specially the one taken by Ocean Morisset, not only because the special effect created with his motion which made me remember my own reborn, as I’m also a cancer survival (right breast cancer) and while I was having surgery (it happened 19 yrs ago) I felt my spirit going up from the operation table, and I saw myself, while at the same time any worry or doubt about my cure went way; so, when I woke up I knew that there was nothing wrong in my body any more. I was never sick, although I had radio and chemotherapy for about 8 months. I neither need a pain pill killer. I’m going to be 20 next October although my real age is 68.

  18. Felipe Martínez
    June 16, 2014

    Great photo from Felicia Simone, but what is wrong with it ?
    Want a clue ? Look at the shadow of the top of the jacket. It is over the shadow of the string, and look at the shadow of the right arm. The shadow goes down while the arm goes up !! Optical Illusion ?

  19. Benita
    June 16, 2014

    Stunningly beautiful. This was a reminder to add this as an assignment again for my students and show this work as inspiration!

  20. Riccardo Cocchi
    June 16, 2014

    I like the creativity of single photographers,really eccellent photos

  21. Dave Passafiume
    June 15, 2014

    I am a locomotive mechanic and couldn’t take a picture like those if my life depended upon it. My wife is the artistic one in our family. Thank all of you who can take pictures with such interesting composition and sharing them with the rest of us!

    June 15, 2014


  23. Veronica Bingham
    June 15, 2014

    I felt a definite connection with both the portraits of Katrina Keifers ageing and taylor chans sense of disconnections . sadly l’m just too scared of what l may find if l were to do something like this for myself. But these 2 hold a special place for me… 🙂

  24. Katie MacMillan
    June 15, 2014

    Oops.. As I strive to see further inside. Reaching for further perspective of myself, who I am and what is next. I continue through life changes and had not realized how I was using occasional captures of myself, or my shadow in my quest to fulfill life. Great work everyone!

  25. Katie MacMillan
    June 15, 2014

    Beautiful and thought provoking. I realize that some recent photography is me trying to see further inside if me as I strive to fugure

  26. Eugenia Lamont
    June 15, 2014

    Littledarling, your comment makes me so sad. Go for it, take your camera and find your beauty. It’s there and you and your camera will find it, just be patient and have fun while you’re at it 🙂

  27. Bobbi Murphy
    June 15, 2014

    Wonderful, unique and definitely not selfies.

  28. Suzanne Kemp
    June 15, 2014

    I especially was moved by Katrina’s self-portrait on aging. Life and time do seem to go by so quickly leaving a disconnect between how we look and how we feel inside.

  29. Ed Holloway
    June 15, 2014

    Beautiful work! I wish I had such imagination.

  30. Bridget Maglic
    June 15, 2014

    These are all wonderful! I was especially touched by Katrina’s wonderful depiction of herself. The photo, her comments… Although she is beautiful in the portrait, her current beauty and vulnerability shines through.

  31. Mark Storey
    June 15, 2014

    Fascinating. Stirred lots of personal reflection, thinking about the current image I would use to capture where I am now as a person and as an artist.

  32. Angela B
    June 15, 2014

    beautiful and humbling

  33. Michel Gauthier
    June 15, 2014

    Great Photos…when can I get the book?

  34. littledarling
    June 14, 2014

    I’ve never selfie or self-portrain before because I’m a ugly girl. So sad.

  35. Stoneyjy3on
    June 11, 2014


  36. Rachel
    June 11, 2014

    I looked at these over & over. Kudos to all, beautiful !

  37. Abdelrahman
    June 11, 2014


  38. nitesh poojari
    June 11, 2014

    good realization, but it also shows that beauty is temporary which never waits for anyone and its better to use our time in other important work than to wasting our time in beautifying our self.

  39. Madhumita Sil
    June 11, 2014

    All da selfie are very inspiring.jst lov it

  40. Jennifer Dingess
    June 10, 2014

    These are fabulous!

  41. Ben
    June 10, 2014

    Great stories and shots

  42. Jack
    June 10, 2014

    LOVE this! Have you checked out the #antiselfie Movement? anti-selfie.com

  43. Mahru
    June 10, 2014

    Artistic way of self- realisation. ……
    Great work!!!

  44. paranoiasnfm
    June 10, 2014

    Love it!

  45. Maria
    June 9, 2014

    very inspiring!! a different point of view on what a selfie could be, thanks!

  46. Kelly Myers
    June 9, 2014

    Simply inspiring!

  47. Victoria Elena Smyrniotis
    June 9, 2014

    These are beautiful and so thought-provoking. I agree, the best self portraits don’t necessarily need to have the person’s face in them. The emotion behind them comes through regardless.

  48. Felicia Simion
    June 9, 2014

    Such beautiful words.
    I’m honored to be included among these thought-provocative self-portraits. Thank you 🙂

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