selfies as an art

By Joel Ivan Thomas.

Taking your own self-portraits is a valid form of modelling for photographer, model, and designer Lisa Eisert.

When you’re taking a selfie, you’re essentially acting simultaneously as photographer and model. You’re undertaking a creative process to construct an object that is being exhibited on a digital space.

93 million selfies are taken a day, according to Google. This was in 2014, but I’m sure the numbers haven’t dropped any lower. Like many forms of youth expression, selfies are often met with grumbling criticism, with the idea that young people capture their own image to “constantly seek approval.”

In 2018, The New Yorker released an article titled The Truth About Selfie Culture, in which the writer, Michele Moses, proposes that selfie culture is not so much a symbol of millennial narcissism, but a symptom of a larger issue, which is that young people have inherited a crumbling world and to cope, have to believe in themselves as “special and amazing.”

This attitude has filtered into unrealistic parental expectations, Moses believes, resulting in feelings of constant inadequacy among youth. To fight this, young apparently people want to create careful representations of themselves, to take the perfect selfie that hides the fact that we will never be good enough.

I’m not going to lie and pretend that every article on selfies is negative - there has also been a surge in selfie positive articles over the last few years. After all, what’s wrong with capturing memories, outfits, feelings? What’s wrong with wanting to feel special? People have been taking photos of themselves since 1839. Surely this photographer wasn’t accused of attention-seeking or trying to justify himself in his space.

And why is it laughed at to represent yourself in a digital image, particularly by older generations? What differentiates our image being captured by our own hands with our image being captured by another photographer? When does a portrait stumble across the line between selfie and art?

Lisa Eisert (@lis.jaa) is a twenty-year-old photographer, graphic designer, and model from St. Gallen, Switzerland, based in Berlin. Along with working with professional photographers, she often takes her own portraits, taking control over her image and what it communicates, rather than being a “canvas” for someone else. I talked to Lisa about her self portrait work and what it means to her:

Joel: You essentially started modelling by taking self-portraits, right?

Lisa: Yeah, I guess I didn’t want to do just selfies. I saw other cool photographers doing cool stuff and I thought I could do that on my own.

J: Is that still a selfie?

L: Yeah, it’s a stupid word. Selfie. It sounds very boomer-like, if you know what I mean. It’s still a self-portrait.

J: So how did that turn into modelling for others?

L: I guess, when I have cool concepts or take cool pictures of myself, other photographers can see what I can be used for as a canvas. And modelling is also about the personality you present. It doesn’t matter if you don’t think you look like a standard model if you can show people that you can display a vision.

J: So you’re crafting an image and curating a brand, then showing it to photographers, and they think, “I want that brand to be a part of my image,” right?

L: Yeah, or they see their brand working well with my brand. They kind of see that I’m the right model for that project because our styles work together and we have the same picture in our head. I think it helps a lot to have a model who knows how to take pictures or how to have a vision.

J: What do you like about taking self-portraits rather than being photographed by someone else?

L: It’s entirely my idea. I have the whole say in it — I’m the art director, I’m the makeup artist, the photographer. With modelling, often you’re just a canvas and someone else puts their idea on you. I like how it is more intimate. It’s something you can’t recreate with different people working together. Of course, you can also produce something really cool when a lot of people work on one project. But when I’m doing all of this with myself, I’m creating something that’s so intimate and so me, and no one else can recreate that.

J: So you have a better understanding of how you want to present yourself than anyone else?

L: Yeah, you get to learn a lot about yourself. You notice special things, like how one eye is smaller than the other one, or your left nostril is bigger than the other. But that isn't something bad. It can be bad if you concentrate on it, I guess. But it just helps to learn your body better, to have this clear image of you. When you’re always in your head and you never see the outside perspective, it can help to clear the asynchronicity.

J: So it’s also an exercise in understanding yourself?

L: Yeah. An exercise to understand yourself on a physical level and also on a mental level. You know, this is my aesthetic and this what I find cool and this is what I like.

J: Is there more freedom in it than being photographed by someone else?

L: Of course. It is a bit more restricted, also. It’s sometimes quite hard to take photos of yourself with no one there, and also the money, the set, isn’t there. But it gives me more freedom to do whatever I want. Maybe it’s not only about photographing myself but also about photography in general, in that I have an idea in my head and I want to do it. It’s easier to do it by myself first and maybe in the future, I can use this concept that I know works for me, and I can put it on other models or something like that. It’s more of a convenience to test something out on myself because I know what I want and I know what my vision is.

J: Can you take me through the process of how you conceptualised the blue photos you took. What did you want to get out of it?

L: I don’t think there was much of a concept behind it. I just thought, let’s paint myself blue because I always have red nails and I thought it’d be a cool contrast. I wanted to do something else that wasn’t just a blue background or something. Maybe it’s also an accumulation of inspiration. I archive things I’ve seen. It’s not a wild concept, to be totally blue I guess.

J: But of course it’s not all about being blue. You took the photo and you stylised it in a certain way. Do you think it will be a launchpad into something else?

L: Yeah maybe. I’m trying to figure things out and when I see things that are interesting I try to recreate it in a certain way from a technical perspective. It’s more about that.

J: For other people who want to experiment more in self-portraits, what would you recommend?

L: I guess try to recreate something. Look through the things you like. When you see something cool, you can do a catalogue or a Pinterest board and put it all together into one thing and try to create something yourself. Just have fun, I guess.