Recovery: Mobile phone self-portraits.
The objective of the Recovery project was to adopt the mobile phone camera
as a device to record a series of narrative images that document my recovery
after a heart operation in 2005. Van Alphern (1998, p.24) observes that the:
“vision of the individual subject who had the experience becomes the bedrock of
evidence”. In the case of the Recovery project, such evidence is born from my
personal experience. These digital images provide a visual record of the changes
in my appearance as my health slowly improved over a twelve-month period, but
they also played a vital role in aiding my recovery by providing evidence of my
journey to wellness.
The portability of the mobile phone meant I was able to review these images at
anytime. On days when I was feeling unwell, I would scroll through the images
looking for evidence of my improvement in health. The mobile phone presents a
convenient method of capturing and storing a series of self-portraits that can
easily be reviewed on the screen of the mobile phone at the point of capture.
Each day that I captured a self-portrait, I looked to the small screen of the mobile
phone for evidence of any improvement in my health. Like a looking glass, the s
mall screen of the mobile phone reflected back my face, and over a long period of
time I watched and searched for any physical signs of the face of the person I was
before the onset of the illness.
My decision to create a small booklet to house a selection of my self-portraits was
based on a need to recreate the intimate nature of the viewing process on the mobile
phone. I also wanted to give the viewer an opportunity to view and compare these tiny
images in similar fashion to how I had interacted with these mobile phone self-portraits.
Images captured on a mobile phone camera are not afforded the same prestige as images
created by photographers using conventional stills cameras. Sturken and Cartwright
(2003, p.13) observe that: “a photograph is perceived to be an unmediated copy of
the real world, a trace of reality skimmed off the very surface of life”. But in a
post-photoshop era that has arguably eroded the truth-value and the social status
of the photograph, the digital image stands as a malleable visual document, rather
than a fixed media object. Instead of the truth belonging to the image, it is now the
maker of the image who must be trusted by the viewer.
Employing the conventions of the documentary photograph to convey the story
behind this collection of mobile phone images, these illness narratives are presented
as a linear photo essay that recalls the key turning points associated with the various
stages of my recovery period. Rather than adopt a highly stylised aesthetic for the
self-portraits, I have opted for a less formal process. Each image is presented as a
frontal portrait and is captured in a manner where no particular time, place or
lighting conditions were imposed upon the production process. I believe that the
frontal portrait can be adopted as a narrative device to reveal the subject of an image
in a similar way that a reader would open a book and reveal the words for all to see.
The frontal portrait opens up the subject to public scrutiny; the sitter has no place
to hide and nowhere to run as s/he is forced to confront what cannot be hidden from
the viewer. The images include a wide variety of background information and varied frame
compositions. Each image was taken at a time which was considered convenient, rather
than adopting a systematic approach to the overall aesthetic and production phase.
Brison (1999, p.39) observes that: “survivors of trauma frequently remark that they
are not the same people they were before they were traumatized”. The changes in my
physical appearance provide the viewer with a series of visual and narrative cues
surrounding a theme of transition. The intent for this series was not to pre-empt
or drive the narrative in a set direction. This collection of self-portraits is best
approached as an exploration of a personal narrative that has been captured as
it unfolds before the subject.
Challenges associated with this project include the limitations resulting from
the cheap plastic lens and poor image quality of the 2.0 mega pixel camera
embedded in the Nokia 6680 mobile phone. These technical limitations place
restrictions on the print size of mobile phone images. In order to convey a
temporal shift in the narrative, I have selected images that I believe best illustrate
a continual change in my appearance over an extended period of time.
Van Alphern (1998, p.1) notes: “experience is something that people have,
rather than do: experiences are direct, unmediated, subjectively lived accounts of reality.
They are not traces of reality, but rather part of life itself”. The photographic self-portrait
is a mirror, its reflection transforming its subject from self to the other.
The sitter becomes the object of investigation, as he/she is both the viewer and the viewed.
The captured moment stares back in silence waiting for a voice to fill the void, for the
subject can no longer be heard and is now reliant on the witness to decipher the narrative
codes and give voice to the story.
The self-portraits by photographer Nan Goldin provided much inspiration
for the Recovery project. As a photographer myself, I have always admired
Goldin’s ability to disengage from her ego as she turns the camera lens onto
herself, capturing pivotal moments in her life. Goldin presents the viewer with
a series of turning points, as seen in her self-portrait Nan one month after
being battered, that punctuate a narrative that sees Goldin playing the role of
both artist and subject.
In her essay ‘In / Of Her Time: Nan Goldin’s Photographs’, Sussman (1996, p.37)
observes that: “what is striking about these photos is her brutal self-examination.”
Goldin uses the camera as a tool for the production of narrative images that build
a bridge between herself and the viewer. The subject becomes story, and the story
the subject. Goldin achieves this by creating narrative images that use limited picture
elements to construct an intimate study of the human form. Her images enable the
viewer to see under the veneer of the photograph and catch a glimpse of the fragility
that is the human experience.
Brison (1997, p.21) notes: “In order to construct self-narratives we need not only
the words with which to tell our stories, but also an audience able and willing to
hear us and to understand our words as we intend them”. It is hoped that the viewer
of this work will gain some insight into the journey I have undertaken, and a greater
understanding of the narrative potential of the mobile phone and the self-portrait.
The mobile phone was both a tool to document the recovery process, and its images
a means of confirming and aiding my recovery. But the mobile phone is also a portable
shrine of remembrance, a device capable of storing personal narratives in the form of
images, video, audio and text messages that can shape our understanding of the past,
present and future.
Brison, S J 1997, ‘Trauma Narratives and the Remaking of the Self’ in Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present, Ed. Bal, M, Crewe, J, & Spitzer, L, Dartmouth College Press, University Press of New England, U.K.
Sturken, M & Cartwright, L 2003, Practices of looking: an introduction to visual culture. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Sussman, E 1996, ‘In / Of Her Time: Nan Goldin’s Photographs’ in Goldin, Nan Goldin: I’LL BE YOUR MIRROR, N, Armstrong, D, & Holzwarth, H (eds), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Van Alphern, E 1998, “Symptoms of Discursivity: Experience, Memory and Trauma”, in Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present, Ed. Bal, M, Crewe, J, & Spitzer, L, Dartmouth College Press, University Press of New England, U.K.