Aug 24, 2011

Possible Instructions for Seeing Oneself


Every time he saw a photograph of his own face, he felt self-conscious. He didn’t know how to describe the feeling exactly; in fact he still doesn’t know that. But he was sure of one thing: he had to see them all He wasn’t worried about the photographs in his possession, they’d been properly classified and archived. It was worse with those taken by others, they got away from him all the time - regardless of whether they’d been taken by his friend, who’d just brought them freshly printed from the photo lab, or were displayed on the small backlit monitor of a stranger’s digital camera. He looked for any excuse to look at photographs of himself. Especially those that included his face. He could not get rid of the urge to examine the coloured grains or pixels. He was aware that at such moments he could be accused of narcissism – after all, if we see someone staring fixedly at their own portrait we consider it suspect - but he saw something entirely different in the act: the opportunity to find the key to who he was. Yet he was not dumb enough to think that he could actually discover his own self through a photograph; he sought something else: to find out who he was in the eyes of others.

Initially he collected all his photographs in several box files. He had everything in them: his family, friends, pictures from trips, photographic documentation of his work. When selecting pictures from negatives he allowed himself to be guided by the emotional bond that tied him to a given photo, or by its aesthetic qualities. Subsequently he would have them enlarged and printed 13 by 18 cm in the nearest photo lab. He didn’t get any contact prints done; he had no money for that. He used only the cheapest possible viewing and selection aid: daylight. He arranged the prints in temporal sequence. Over the several years during which he assembled his archive, he was unable to come up with a more sophisticated form of presentation.
          Everything became simpler from the moment he started electronically scanning the photos and taking pictures with a digital camera - especially because of the lower cost of creating pictures and archiving them. He could store the photos on the hard disk of his computer and open and examine them on the monitor – backlit by artificial light – whenever he wished to do so. Even so, to begin with he tried to continue with his previous system. Perhaps because he felt remorseful and wished to do justice to the many hours of work he’d dedicated to his archive over the previous years. In the end he had so many portrait photos that he gave up and stopped enlarging and printing them. He was no longer able to select the right ones. For that reason he decided to scan the remaining positives and store them in the form of binary code.
          He had all his photos stored in two locations; in the folder entitled Photographs on his external hard disk, where he maintained the linear system of classification, and on his computer in the iPhoto program, where he had already allowed himself to give way to the possibilities offered by information technology, dividing the photos into three groups. The first contained those taken in studios or in photo booths; the second consisted of self-portraits; and the third of head shots taken by third persons.

He tried to find an ideal expression for his face. He was interested in how a particular picture had been taken and in the gesture the photographer had managed to capture. Or, to be more precise, the gesture that he had made to induce the person with the camera to press the shutter-release, and which part of that gesture the person with the camera had selected. He formed an exact idea of the grimace he needed to make in order to achieve the desired effect.
          This worked for some time, but he gradually stopped doing it. He got the vague feeling that through constant repetition the objective of his efforts would come to light. (To change the expression on his face and keep the new expression unchanged until the photographer would be able to compose the picture, focus and push the capture button). He understood the ridiculousness of such behaviour.
          He started favouring the photos in the third group. Especially those taken when he’d been unaware of being photographed. He felt that those were the only ones where he was able to catch a glimpse of how he actually behaved and what was interesting about him.
          
He opened the folder with the photographs he’d downloaded onto his computer just a moment ago… his girlfriend’s birthday celebration… mostly pictures of him and his friends… he looked at the familiar faces… one after the other… at length and carelessly… his gaze slid down to the eyes… or, to be more precise, to the two black pupils in the centre of variously coloured irises… again and again he tried to focus on whole persons and on recollections from the previous evening… in vain… all he could perceive were the same two dots in the middle of variously shaped faces… he was fascinated by them… he imagined what it might be like to be in the space behind them… he thought about whether at some time in the future he would have the opportunity to take a look there… and whether he would even want to… again and again he looked at the eyes in the photographs.