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Your Authentic Self

Dear SeeingHappy Community,

Irving Penn was a master of portrait photography and his gift was his ability to capture the essence of his subject. I recently saw the Irving Penn Exhibit at the de young Museum in San Fransisco and was blown away.

© 2024 Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Penn would thoroughly research his subjects before their studio sessions, engaging them in conversations until their defenses lowered. He often placed them in minimalistic settings, occasionally even enclosing them physically. For instance, one setup featured corner-shaped walls that constrained the subject, while another involved a simple backdrop with an old carpet draped over scattered boxes.

All of his portraits were set against the most simplistic walls he could find. His studio setting was consistently minimalist, as can be observed notably in his series “Small Trades”:

Penn’s portraits were also black and white as if to add to the minimalism in the frame by subtracting color as well as anything of interest.


We can learn a great deal from Penn’s portraits when taking portraits ourselves, but what about self portraits?  What essence do we aim to convey? In our Phlourish program, we have an exercise where we prompt participants to capture a photo that embodies their “authentic self” in just two minutes. This could be an unfiltered selfie, a picture from their camera roll, or something closely tied to what’s important to them. Crucially, this task must be completed swiftly, allowing minimal time for reflection.

We’ve assigned this exercise to various groups in different settings and encouraged them to share their authentic self photos with the group. Initially, we were concerned that people might be hesitant to share these images and expose themselves to the group, especially in environments like Zoom with strangers or in a classroom. However, people did share, and it was always enlightening to witness the depth of insight this simple exercise could elicit. One recurring theme during these shares was happiness: “this photo captures a moment of happiness for me,” “my dog brings me joy,” or “this reminds me of a time when I felt truly happy.”


Is this significant? I liken our social media presence to choosing clothing — we dress differently depending on where we’re headed, whether it’s dressing up for a wedding or dressing down for the gym. There’s no harm in this; it’s about adapting to the occasion. However, we each have our unique style, and straying too far from it can feel uncomfortable. We also understand how we dress in the comfort of our homes.

We’ve assigned this exercise to various groups in different settings and encouraged them to share their authentic self photos with the group. Initially, we were concerned that people might be hesitant to share these images and expose themselves to the group, especially in environments like Zoom with strangers or in a classroom. However, people did share, and it was always enlightening to witness the depth of insight this simple exercise could elicit. One recurring theme during these shares was happiness: “this photo captures a moment of happiness for me,” “my dog brings me joy,” or “this reminds me of a time when I felt truly happy.”

Is there a comparable analogy here? Can we be true to our authentic selves while presenting curated images on social media that reflect the image we wish to convey while still preserving enough authenticity to safeguard our well-being?

I’ve always found it intriguing that in some parts of the world, there are limitations on who and when you can photograph. I wonder if this caution stems from the ancient belief that a photograph captures a person’s soul or essence.

What story would your authentic self-portrait reveal about you? While SeeingHappy doesn’t typically take selfies, we’re curious about what an authentic photo would signify for you. Share a photo tagged “Authentic Self” and describe the insights you gained from capturing that moment
.


 

Your Friend,

Mandy Seligman


Mandy Seligman

Mandy Seligman is the founder of SeeingHappy, a nonprofit whose mission it is to promote wellbeing through photography using positive psychology. She is a psychologist who believes that we can all benefit from using using positive psychology at every stage of life.

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