How self portraits allowed me to find my inner artist

  • man-woman-holding-hands-sunset-silhouette-melissa-bissell

On the wall in my bedroom is photo of a man and woman, framed and dwarfed by immense trunks of ancient pines. They stand quietly, slightly apart, eyes locked, hands grasped, as the sun begins its descent, marking the day’s end. 

The couple is in silhouette. Their age and identities are unknown to the passing viewer.

But I know these people. I made this is portrait of me and my husband. And in 23 years’ of Father’s Day photos, this is the first without children in the frame. 

It has been a journey for us to land here together, no small children flanking us.

And parallel to this transition has been my journey into self portraiture. Each of these life events has added to the shape of my life in beautiful, difficult, and unexpected ways.

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A friend’s suggestion

The story began 12 years ago. I indulged in a weekend away with my most cherished college friends.

We were all young mothers. One friend was a practicing trial attorney, the other an up-and-coming visual artist. My job was stay-at-home-mom.

We sipped cheap red wine while nibbling on good cheese and chocolate, exchanging stories of motherhood. While my friends shared tales of lives intertwined with work and family, my stories largely revolved around my children.

I was keenly aware that my life offered no separation between work and family. During the conversation one of my friends gently suggested, “Maybe you need to find something you can do that doesn’t focus on your kids. Something just for you.”

I was a bit taken aback initially.  I know my friend had only good intentions. After all, we had dreamed lofty dreams upon graduation from our progressive college.  And those dreams didn’t include wading in the monotony of homemaking.

Spending our days food shopping, endless rotations of laundry, chaperoning children to and from school, T-ball games, ballet class, and Brownies.  In college we didn’t think about battles over homework, bedtime routines, or child anxiety. Why would we?! We had a large world full of big possibilities. We just had to choose which opportunities we would take.

And yet there I was. And maybe you are there, too.

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The push and pull of motherhood

It’s absolutely necessary to clarify that I love being a mother. I have found great joy in raising a family. But I haven’t loved everything that being a mother entails. If we are being honest with ourselves, none of us do.

There is tremendous pressure placed upon the modern mother.  Many of us feel the need to be everything to everyone and to do it all with a smile.

Social media has turned the heat on even higher for the young mothers of today’s generation. We are, quite simply, exhausted. Whether we work outside the home or in, we are all on call 24/7. We are always under the heavy cloud of “mom guilt”. It is easy to lose ourselves in all of it.

My photography journey begins

A few years after our girls’ weekend, I purchased my first DSLR camera.  I bought it because I wanted to take better photos of my children ages 14, 12 and 7. They were busily engaged in their favorite activities of dance and sports.

I was desperate to make images that reflected this time in their quickly moving lives.  For the next few years I happily immersed myself in mastering the art of photography.

I loved being creative and having a way to document my family’s special moments with more than just a snapshot. The years passed, and the number of digital images on my computer skyrocketed into the tens of thousands.

I was able to capture countless memories. Baseball games, concerts, dance recitals, summer vacations, family get-togethers, and holiday celebrations. My hard drive wasn’t the only thing that grew…so did my children!

It didn’t take long before my images were filled with the eye-rolling faces of teenagers. I loved photography more than ever before. But my subjects, the reason I invested in this photography venture, had other plans.

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Finding new subjects

I needed a new challenge. I loved my documentary work, but I could sense that something was missing for me in creatively.

At 49 years old, established in a marriage of 24 years, and with my children moving into adulthood, I enrolled myself in a summer workshop. I had high hopes that it would push me out of my comfort zone and give me creative direction.

The instructor, hearing my frustration over not knowing what to photograph for the assignments, encouraged me to give self-portraiture a try.  I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. Facing midlife, and an endless list of self-criticisms, I had more reasons than ever to stay out of the frame.

Technically I had no idea how to make a self-portrait! I’m a documentary photographer, and setting up a self-portrait was completely foreign to me.  However, I relish a good challenge. And since even my dog was disappearing when my camera came out, I had nothing to lose.

The first attempts

The results from my first self-portrait session were underwhelming. However, I declared the session a success because I rose to the challenge of putting myself in the frame.

I worked with a small, hand-held remote to trigger my shutter. The process of putting myself in the frame was slow and tedious.

After a month or two, I lost steam. The joy of a challenge was overwhelmed by the frustration.

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Recognizing the need for me

My self portrait journey would be reignited when I uploaded our holiday photos. The images were filled with twinkling lights, sparkly paper, and joyous grins and laughter. But something was something missing – me.

This certainly was not the first holiday season where I wasn’t represented in photos, but it hit me particularly hard this year. I was there but I wasn’t. My absence left an eerie void and made me immeasurably sad.

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A new motivation to be in the frame

Seeing the need for a solution, I resolved to dive back into self portraits. I made a goal to complete a personal project creating at least one self-portrait a week.

I wish I could say I created beautiful, artful images with this new drive. But I didn’t. I felt awkward, struggling to make sense of where my hands should fall and what my expression should hold.

I didn’t always like the images I created. However, I did love the process of creating my portraits.  Each portrait I made held a bit of my heart and soul within it.

Using an interval timer wired to my camera, instead of a hand-held remote, the technical challenges of creating a self-portrait diminished. Setting aside 30 minutes a week, I turned my camera around and put myself in the frame. Later I would sit at my computer and edit each image so it perfectly matched my vision.

As I let the technical rules and negative self-talk slip away my cup was filled with the creative goodness I had been yearning for.  It didn’t happen over night, but after nearly a decade of pursuing photography I began to feel like an artist.

I now had something that was truly just for me.

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Finding community

I joined an online group devoted to women and self-portraiture. We supported each other through the challenges of putting ourselves in the frame. We shared our work and encouraged each other to be better. It made all the difference in keeping me on track.

In this safe space we did more than show each other our images. We shared our personal stories, and in doing so, our vulnerability.  Having a place to show up was as crucial to my journey as the new technical and artistic skills I was incorporating into my work. Gradually, along with the self-portraits, I shared pieces of my life.

The more comfortable I felt putting my art and my words into the world, the bolder and more creative my work became. Through self-portraiture I began to connect with other artists.  The connecting point with each woman was vulnerability.

Valuable friendships were formed and fostered in a way that wouldn’t have happened without the hard work of making self-portraits. We are all different in ages, stages of life, geographic locations, and cultural backgrounds. And yet we connected over a passion for photography, and love of art.

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Thinking outside the box

The creation of self-portraiture is challenging. But don’t panic! There are countless ways to put yourself in the frame.

A self-portrait can be so much more than just a headshot. In fact, self-portraits don’t need to include a face…or even a physical body!

They can be made up of light and shadow alone. You can blur your image using motion and slow shutter speeds. Or try introducing multiple exposures to create something unique. If you give yourself permission to break free from the rules, the possibilities for your self-portraits are endless.

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How self portraits have changed me

With each self-portrait I‘ve created during the past year, I understand more about myself and what I want my life to look like. My family will always be the most important part of my world. But I am better at loving them when I take care of myself, too. Giving myself space to create just for me makes me better.

My self portraits allow me to create from a special place within. They have connected me to a community of artists. And they have allowed me to be truly present in the photos and memories I create for my family.

There was a time I couldn’t envision my husband and I standing quietly together without the persistent chatter of little voices. What would we do with all the quiet? I know now.

The journey continues, it will meander and intertwine with new adventures, creations, and growth.  Through it all I will take my camera and turn it toward something beautiful: me.  I encourage you to do the same.

About the Author:

Melissa Bissell makes her home in the beautiful Berkshire hills of Western Massachusetts. She and her husband of 25 years have two adult daughters, one teen boy, and a crazy, lazy labradoodle. Passionate about documenting life from an unscripted perspective, Melissa creates honest storytelling images, rich with emotion and connection.

13 Comments

  1. Aimee Jan 31 2019 at 4:52 pm - Reply

    Loved reading this Melissa!

    • Melissa Bissell Jan 31 2019 at 6:19 pm - Reply

      Thank you Aimee! And thank you for taking the time to read it!!!

  2. Marisa Kraft Jan 31 2019 at 9:57 pm - Reply

    This is outstanding, Melissa!!! I love hearing about the art from your perspective. I was nodding as I read because you articulated things that I, too, feel but have never been able to put into words. You are truly talented and I am so grateful to have met you on this journey!

    • Melissa Bissell Feb 03 2019 at 1:30 pm - Reply

      Thank you so much for reading Marisa! And I am so glad to hear that it is a relatable article. You know I am a big fan of yours and so happy to be traveling along this journey with you!

  3. Christopher Hall Feb 01 2019 at 1:14 am - Reply

    Loved reading this. I have just started a self portrait project (it’s not easy) and this is just the encouragement I needed.

    • Melissa Bissell Feb 03 2019 at 1:29 pm - Reply

      Thank you so much for reading Christopher! Self portraits are challenging, but very worth the time and effort! Good luck and I’d love to see what you make!

  4. Melissa Bissell Feb 01 2019 at 6:47 am - Reply

    I’m so glad you found it inspiring! Thank you so much for taking the time to read it!

  5. Kelly Anderson Feb 01 2019 at 10:25 am - Reply

    Wonderful article, melissa. I’m at the beginning of that journey and feeling awkward in front of the camera but every now and then I’m getting one I like and the process is really enlightening. Is it weird that I feel slightly conceited or guilty taking pictures of only myself? And why is that? It’s also giving me more empathy and sensitivity for the fact that my kids and family are constantly with a camera in their face and realizing how awkward they may sometimes feel.

    • Melissa Bissell Feb 03 2019 at 1:28 pm - Reply

      Hi Kelly! Thank you so much for taking the time to read! I’m so glad to hear that you found it inspiring. So in answer to your question, I think how you are feeling regarding guilt over taking photos of yourself comes from a much deeper place. I think most of us feel that way when we work through self-portraits, or even just taking any time at all to focus on ourselves! And we worry that the world will see us self-absorbed. Women, and especially moms, have many societal messages targeting them that our self-worth is wrapped up in our children. I think our families are the most important parts of our lives but that doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice ourselves for them, in fact, as a parent now of older children I feel very certain that my children are secure in knowing that I love them deeply and completely, but that my life does not revolve completely around them and that makes them happy. So I really do think that not only is working through self-portraits a gift of time to ourselves, but truly it is a gift to our children. we are better parents and partners when we acknowledge that we need to give to ourselves as well as to our loved ones. I’d love to follow your journey too!

  6. Amy Feb 01 2019 at 1:13 pm - Reply

    Beautiful article, Melissa. I loved reading about your journey as an artist and photographer and how self portraits became a part of your work!

    • Melissa Bissell Feb 03 2019 at 1:20 pm - Reply

      Thank you so much for reading Amy!

  7. Iris Feb 01 2019 at 8:44 pm - Reply

    That is such a powerful article, Melissa. And I am in awe of your self-portraits. Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us.

    • Melissa Bissell Feb 03 2019 at 1:30 pm - Reply

      Thank you so much for reading Iris!

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