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What can a photograph tell you?

July 6, 2011

I started a fan page for my writing on Facebook. For my profile picture, I chose a self-portrait that shows a reflection of me, holding a cottonwood leaf, against a backdrop of our apartment complex’s parking lot. Then I asked Spouse to take a “better” picture of me, which he did, but I decided not to use it. On my personal FB page, I frequently swap out the profile pictures, which commonly depict plants or fungi or works of my art, but not me. So I may do something similar on my fan page.

But I started thinking about profile pictures, other photographs posted on Facebook, and identity. I don’t find most photographs of human beings all that interesting to look at because they don’t tell me what I really want to know, which includes: who are you? What (or whom) do you value? What portion of the world outside yourself matters to you? Where do you draw the boundaries of your social world?

I perceive myself as a web of relationships, but most of them are not human. The communities that mean the most to me are based on a kinship that goes much deeper than blood, and many of them include (in my mind at least) a strong sense of place.

A typical photograph of a human being, even if it takes place outside, does not show that person(s) as a member(s) of the community they are physically located within. Your eye goes right to the human being, and ignores the surroundings, because they don’t matter. Except to me, they do. To me, they aren’t background to my foreground; we are all part of the same gestalt.

A photograph that merely shows that I am a tall, fair-skinned-and-freckled middle-aged woman who wears glasses tells you nothing of any importance.

In those rare photographs taken by other people that depict me as an integral part of a landscape, I feel they are truly “snapshots” of me as I really am. To me, that is a meaningful portrait.

But I will continue to use photographs of plants and fungi as profile pictures because that allows me to highlight and appreciate the varying scales of my community. A photograph focusing on moss or mushrooms or tiny flowers with bees cannot really include my looming body. You already know I was there because someone had to take the picture. That’s enough of a presence for me.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Chad permalink
    July 6, 2011 18:54

    I hereby propose the adoption of a two profile photo system: one that accurately represents the person and one that accurately represents the person. There are two very different definitions at work there. One should show who the person is externally. It should not be a “MySpace” style photo that hides any body image issues. The second one could be a representation of the person on the inside. As an added bonus: parents could finally have an appropriate place for the photos of their kids that ignore the “Face” part of Facebook.

    Also, I enjoy that you use “Spouse” as a name.

    • July 6, 2011 19:46

      I don’t understand your animus to “MySpace” style photos (which I’m not familiar with). But you’re a photographer, so of course you want photos that “really look like” people!

      I like using “Spouse” because (1) it doesn’t indicate what gender my spouse is, and (2) ‘husband’ has all positive, desirable connotations, while ‘wife’ has no good connotations I can think of — the gendered language is very lopsided. Using “Spouse” is a minor way to subvert the kyriarchy. (Bet you didn’t see *that* coming! 🙂

  2. Dash permalink
    July 13, 2011 09:02

    Very late to leave a reply. Your post gave me much food for thought. In particularly, I found myself looking at pictures of authors on book jackets, a context in which they are obliged to produce a picture. Ursule Molinaro has some particularly nice and subversive author pictures. In one case, you have a picture of her hat in something close to profile. In a couple of others, she’s wearing a black dress and dark glasses and holding a string of lights in front of her. Her work is subversive, too, so it fits.

    • July 13, 2011 09:08

      Dash, it is lovely to hear from you, no matter When! Truly.

      Now I’m curious about Ursule Molinaro, whom I’ve never heard of. Esp since most author photos I’ve seen are kind of boring.

  3. Dash permalink
    July 13, 2011 09:03

    Oh gee. Should have included apologies for being late to reply, with explanation that it was because the post offered much food for thought. Also, “in particular,” not “in particularly.” Truly, I am literate, but apparently that needs to be taken on faith!

  4. Dash permalink
    July 13, 2011 11:36

    She is an incredible writer. But be careful. Her work can trigger for abuse of women. It’s good to have someone you trust look it over first.

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