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Unpacking the use of persona in queer self-portraiture
Photographer Ralph Steiner once said that every portrait is a self-portrait. The hand of the image maker is equally as present in a portrait as the likeness of the person whose portrait is being made. Producing a self-portrait is perhaps the most direct way to control one’s image, and the conversation between the maker and the subject themself.
But, there’s more to self-portraiture than image control: there is also space for your image to be distorted, manipulated, explored, and played with. For many queer artists, self-portraiture offers a space to do all of these things, largely through the use of persona.
In queer self-portraiture, the use of a persona is a place where artists cross the frame into the image and plays with different presentations through costuming, makeup, staging, and other aesthetic choices. Though their body is what’s being photographed, the resulting image is only partially a representation of the artist. It is also a representation of a character, a trope, a stereotype, an idealised form, or something else entirely. Photography as a medium was largely developed as a tool to depict truth, but queer artists quickly realised that it could also be used to bend and abstract the truth to tell a compelling story.
An early adopter of this practice was the early twentieth century surrealist French photographer Claude Cahun. Cahun was a visual artist and writer who documented their experience of gender in both text and photographs, alongside their romantic and creative partner Marcel Moore. Both Cahun and Moore assumed masculine monikers in their artistic practice and explored androgyny in their presentation both socially and artistically. Though Cahun and Moore collaborated on the majority of their images, Cahun’s body is almost always the one present in the frame. Together, the two created a vast body of work that implored visual and linguistic cues to question the validity of social and cultural norms.
Treating Cahun’s early self-portraiture as a survey, we can see clearly across their catalog a variety of gender expressions from hyper masculine, to demure feminisation, to straight androgyny. In their writing, Cahun explains their own gender as ‘neuter,’ and neither masculine or feminine. Largely, Cahun’s self-portraits are seen as defiant of rigid structures of gender in a quickly evolving psychosexual landscape in France. Their imagery borders on cheeky – perhaps their most well-known photo finds Cahun wearing a self-made t-shirt that reads ‘I Am In Training, Don’t Kiss Me’ with a decorated barbell balanced across their lap. Their legs are crossed, their chest is smooth, and their makeup is playful and effeminate. At a glance, it’s nearly impossible to tell how Cahun wants us to read their gender in this photo.
If Cahun and Moore’s creative career is read in stages, their self-portraiture was an early-stage experimentation in defiant action. Later, Cahun and Moore would develop this drive toward defiant action into a multi-year performance art piece and campaign to persuade German soldiers occupying the Channel Isle of Jersey during World War II to defect from the army. This performance was a continuation of their exploration in persona, as their primary action included leaving satirical notes criticising fascism and the Nazi regime signed by an ‘unnamed soldier.’ Again, Cahun and Moore found themselves assuming a character to challenge rigid, and in this case violent, political structures.
Over the next several decades, other artists would begin to explore the use of persona in their self-portraiture to defy gender norms as well as larger social conditions developed under colonialism. Samuel Fosso, a Cameronian Igbo photographer, assumed the identities of iconic Black cultural icons and fictional tropes alike in his self-portraiture. Fosso’s work both celebrates and critiques aspects of Pan-Africanism and the development of a popularised West African culture in the latter half of the twentieth century. It simultaneously upholds and challenges cultural myths.
Fosso’s self-portraits see him crossing gender lines, using his own body as a canvas to recreate the visage of famous Black men and women – from Angela Davis to Mohammad Ali. Incorporating self-portraiture, iconography, and performance in his photography, Fosso’s images are artefacts of myth-making. By centring his own body in the image, he finds a transitional plane between auto-fiction and self-portrait. He steps into the narratives of his characters, real and imaginary, and plays inside of social archetypes. He celebrates the liberated woman of the 1970s, adorning his body with vibrant colours, makeup, and jewellery. In some photos, Fosso’s assumption of these characters renders him almost entirely unrecognisable.
Fosso began making images when he was quite young, establishing a photo studio and professional practice at 13 following his mother’s death. Though it was common practice to begin making studio portraits of children as young as three months old, Fosso was not afforded this experience by his father [throughout his childhood, Fosso’s father believed investing in studio portraits of the young boy would be a waste of money – a response to Fosso’s early health and physical challenges that left him partially paralysed].
Fosso’s earliest photos are self-portraits, as he explored his own image and identity and built his own sense of self while establishing his personhood in the world. These portraits are a record of Fosso’s existence as a young, queer Cameroonian man living in Nigeria in the 1970s – a history that would not exist without his own impulse to make images. This imperative is what informs his later work, as well.
Across the continent, Zanele Muholi’s work began taking shape in ways similar to Samuel Fosso in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Muholi’s early life was marked by the experience of growing up in an apartheid state in South Africa. As an image maker, Muholi spent much of the early 2000s photographing queer and trans Black South Africans who were still experiencing the reverberating effects of colonial and racialised violence.
Later, Muholi’s work shifted toward self-portraiture, as they began to unpack the direct impact that living under apartheid perpetuated by white colonisers had on Black South Africans. Turning away from photographing others, Muholi recognised the challenges of visibility and the inherent dangers related to being photographed and recorded as a member of a vilified and othered community. Instead, Muholi turns the lens on their own body. As they assume personas in their self-portraiture, they tell the stories of people who may not be able to comfortably lend their own image to a photo.
Like Fosso, Muholi assumes characters and identities in their self-portraiture to express defiance to challenge Western standards of Black identity, including gender expression and sexuality. In Muholi’s self-portraits, their gaze is strong. It holds the viewer in place with them, not asking but demanding to be seen. To Muholi, creating these images of resistance to colonial harm and anti-LGBTQ violence is imperative in establishing a legacy of healing for future generations. Through this photographic documentation, Muholi is creating an archive to count and prove their existence and the existence of other queer Black South Africans. In their work now, Muholi’s body is principally the one in-frame in their photographs, but their body is in many ways a stand-in for the experience of a larger group of people, many of whom are no longer around to have their photo made.
Image makers like Cahun, Fosso, and Muholi offer an understanding of self-portraiture that is ultimately queer: it positions the body in defiance of gender-based expectations. These expectations are often rooted in colonialism and white supremacist culture, and are antithetical to queer safety and visibility. Stepping into personas and characters offers a space to centre identity and myth-making in resistance to rigid power structures.