Friday, April 15, 2011

Self Portrait

"The self portrait has captivated artists and photographers for centuries—with good reason. In making a self portrait, you become, simultaneously, the subject and the object, the creator and the creation, the hunter and the hunted. Certainly, many artists have practiced it for self promotion and self aggrandizement. But self portraiture can also be a tool for introspection and self exploration. Of course, it may simply be a record of your physical appearance at a given time and place, if such a thing as a simple record is possible."  Excerpt from an Art Textbook

Self Portrait   April  2011

What do you see?  Does a picture really say a thousand words?  I have been judged by my appearance on many occasions in my life.   I have judged my own appearance on more than one occasion in my life.  I've gained weight.  I've lost weight.  I've had a hair style I didn't like.  I've worn clothes that made me feel confident.  I've worn those magic boots that make me feel kick ass for the day.  I've changed my mind ten times as I've peered into my closet hating everything I see.  I've bothered to ask someone how I look when I've already decided I don't like what I see in the mirror. 

We focus on our appearance.  It is a part of our identity.  It is the first thing that others know about us.  It is the first place we are judged by others.  Our appearance can be something we embrace or fear.  As much as a self portrait can be a study of introspection, it also can be an opportunity to step back and look upon what others may see.  It is not the same experience as when we look into a mirror.  When we look into the mirror, it is too easy to look away or change what we see.  A self portrait is a moment captured.  A work of art.  An emotion expressed.  A message left for interpretation.

The beginning of knowing someone usually comes in interpreting the first impression.  We look upon others and begin the story.  It seems to be something that we do, even if we are not aware.  I have always attempted to go through life accepting those I meet without judgement.  I like to know more of the story.  Sometimes the outside package doesn't tell the whole story, or the real story.  How many times do we find ourselves caught up in the moment, making assumptions and without realizing, an impression is formed. It is a natural human reaction to prepare ourselves or protect ourselves for how we are to relate.  How we see ourselves and carry our posture in front of others can help us find our way into relationships; or leave the wrong impression.  Sometimes, if we are patient, what we find on the inside leaves us in complete surprise.  For some, the outer mechanism of body language and appearance is a camouflage of defense.  Still, it can also reveal the inner psyche of struggle or strength. 

When I was a child, I learned the lesson, "don't judge a book by it's cover" when I met a girl in my class that for all outward appearance, seemed conceited.   For a time she seemed rude and overly confident as she turned her back to me ignoring my obvious attempts to communicate.  I simply wanted to ask her to play and find out if she would be interested in being friends.  I quickly formed a negative attitude when she seemed cold and distant.  One day as she turned her head and her hair blew over her shoulder, I noticed a strange contraption on her ear.  It was then that I learned she was deaf.  Suddenly, my impression of her changed with one detail.  We became good friends.  Play mates.  I learned how to communicate with her.  She taught me that what you see at first, isn't always the whole story.

When I became sick with cancer and began chemotherapy treatment, my body quickly changed.  It was difficult for me to accept as each day I looked into the mirror and saw the ugly changes treatment had shaped.  My diagnosis of breast cancer brought a shift in my perception of self.  It was not just about my breasts or the culture of sexualization that shaped my thoughts.  I looked even deeper inward as the outer me began to fall apart.  Cancer began in that part of my body, but it changed a greater whole.  Others treated me differently. 

I have since seen many photographs and projects demonstrating the truth about breast cancer.  Each one is different.  Most I have seen so far, express the disease process sharing the changes surgery and treatment have shaped.  Upon my diagnosis, I found an urgency to pick up my camera.  As a photographer, it is rare that I am featured in my family pictures.  My comfort zone is behind the lens looking outward.  I asked my husband to take the camera from me before I began treatment.  Trading places, he understood.  I wanted my young sons to have recorded memories of time spent together as life stood unchanged, for that moment in time.  I knew that as time marched on, without the assistance of photographs, my sons would one day struggle to remember what life looked like before cancer took hold.  One day, memory would not be enough.

I was diagnosed around Mother's Day, May, 2009 with stage 3, metastatic breast cancer.  I found a hard lump in my left breast after a sore arm and chest pain prompted me to do a self exam.  For months I had been suffering pain and swelling and had undergone treatment for cellulitis.  My tumor was a large grade 3 rapidly growing high risk type.  Tests revealed that my cancer had metastasized and immediate treatment and surgery was imperative.  The treatments left my body bloated, scarred and weak.  My long thick hair was gone in two days.  It has not grown back the same and continues to thin on my current medications.  In the past several months, I have been recovering from all of my treatments and surgeries.  I have been working hard to take back my health and build strength.  Chemo and radiation were effective, but also caused alot of damage.  My heart tissue was scarred by radiation and my heart capacity pumps 50% less than it did before treatment.  I breathe much harder to get the oxygen to my muscles now.  With each hard breath, I am determined to keep moving.  I have a new identity as a survivor.  Currently in history, there is no cure for cancer.  I do not know what the future holds.  My past has shaped me.  I live in the present.  Survivorship is a fight, not a free ride.  Life is a gift.

I decided to get my first tattoo in July of 2010 to celebrate getting through radiation, surgery and chemo.  Cancer has been one of my hidden dragons.  It hides within.  The Chinese words mean Dragon Slayer.  I never thought I would be someone who would get a tattoo.  And now as it rests on my shoulder,  it is hidden from me unless I turn back and look into a mirror.

See what you see in this portrait.  I have learned to see that my strength has been built by my weakness.  What is hidden from my own eyes is what makes me whole.

Leave comments and expressions.


  1. Thanks for this beautiful post. I'm so sorry to hear about the damage to your heart. I can relate to the tattoo story - I am in the midst of my treatment right now, and I've begun to think about getting a tattoo when I'm done. I never thought I'd ever consider getting a tattoo!

    I have a self-portrait on my blog, from after my mastectomy:

  2. I've never thought about the fact that cancer began in a part of me but has changed the greater whole. Beautifully put. Thanks for sharing.


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