ISSUE Magazine

Self-Aim: On self-portraits and photography with Syahir Mohd Soffi

What initially drew you to photography, and how long have you been doing it? Have your motivations remained the same?

I bought my first (and current) DSLR about four years ago; I was traveling to Europe with friends for the first time, so I had purchased one to photograph my trip. There, I met two photographers when I was in Paris – Markus Bollingmo and Tommy Ga-Ken Wan – whose beautiful portraiture inspired me to dabble in photography myself.

I continued to take photos when I returned to Melbourne, mostly street photography, which I suppose was an extension of photographing my travels. I loved the idea of street photography but I found asking strangers on the street to pose for a photo too unnerving. So I started aiming the camera at myself instead.

Your use of make-up in your photos as costuming seems to both obscure your real face and enhance it — one could say all make-up works like this. You also use decorative elements like glitter, flowers, fabric and bold colours. How much of it is aesthetic or is there a larger message in your usage of it (considering people often think make-up is solely for women)? When did you discover it/start using it in your self-portraits? Do you use it outside of your photography at all?

I discovered make-up about five years ago, before photography. I suffered from acne (still do), and my then-housemate lent me her foundation for my blemishes. It’s amazing what a little foundation could do to a young man’s self-esteem! I realized that I not only loved playing with make-up, I was actually quite good at it. It became my creative outlet. In fact, my initial self-portraits were aimed more at documenting my make-up artistry; in a sense, those photos were by-products of a youth and his newfound vanity.

Later, I shifted my creative focus towards photography, and make-up became a form of costuming for my photos (to which you had rightfully pointed out). A way of creating different personas, delivering different ideas with the solitary subject I otherwise had for my self-portraits. The glitter, flowers and other decorative elements are, to me, just natural extensions of my make-up.

I don’t think there’s a deeper meaning behind my make-up, though. It sometimes causes a bit of a stir, especially amongst more conservative folks, which is entertaining, but that’s not my main aim. My make-up is very much a part of my personality, part of my love for androgyny, for theatrics. What I wear in my photos I do generally wear in my day-to-day life.

Some of your self-portraits take the self-obscuring into a bit of a violent place. In a few of your photos especially, you engage with your eyes in a visceral way. Is there a reason for this? You’re currently studying medicine – is there any overlap there in terms of how you view the human body?

I am obsessed with eyes. They’re one of the first things we notice when we meet someone, and they’re very telling of a person: people are described “bright-eyed”, “shifty-eyed”, or ”doe-eyed”, for example. When someone’s identity is to be concealed, their eyes are pixelated or blacked-out. They also give us vision, one of the senses that would cause most of us a great deal of anxiety to be without. Eyes are so important to us, and yet they seem so fragile, so easily harmed, further amplifying the anxiety associated with them. I try to evoke emotions through my photos, and this primal anxiety surrounding the eyes is one of my particular favourites.

I don’t think there has been much of an overlap between my photography and my career in medicine, at least not so far.

I sent you an article about “selfies” — you made an interesting statement about social media and how the self-portrait can be a tool. Are you interested by other people’s selfies/self-portraits? Do you have any photographers or Instagrammers that you follow or admire for their self-portraits?

Thank you for sending me the article! I think I said something along the lines of how people use self-portraits in social media as an “identity building” tool, to convince others (and ultimately, themselves) that they are as they appear in the photos: “If I appear beautiful, I must be beautiful.” That’s something which I myself am guilty of at times!

I do follow a number of photographers on Flickr who started off their photography careers with self-portraits, in the form of 365 projects, where the photographer attempts to take a photograph, usually a self-portrait, every day for a whole year. My favorites include Kyle Thompson, David Talley, Alex Stoddard, Brian Oldham and Brendon Burton, to name a few. They’ve taken self-portraits to an exponentially whole new universe, and have driven me to become more conceptual with my own photography.

I’m glad you mentioned 365 projects. There’s been an ongoing, long-standing practice of treating one’s life as a kind of record-keeping project. I’m thinking of things like Noah Kalina takes a photo of himself everyday for 12.5 years. Do you see your self-portraits as a record of your life/current mindspace? Would you continue taking them as you get older, something to show your kids kind of thing?

I don’t see my self-portraits as a record of my life, at least not anymore. As I mentioned before, my photos were initially a way of documenting my make-up. Now, they’re more for conveying images from my thoughts to others, a way of evoking emotions in others. Having said that, I would love to one day show my kids (if I end up with any) my photos and say, “Hey, guess who that is?” if only to see how they react. Whether or not I’ll continue with taking self-portraits, who knows? It really depends on how my photography shapes up in the future.

What’s your set-up like when you take your self-portraits? Do you get any outside help? And sorry to be cliche, but what sources do you draw on to get ideas of what shot to take? Because essentially with self-portraits, you’re working with the same subject over and over – do you worry about keeping the portraits different and interesting?

I don’t usually get much help with my self-portraits. One of the reasons I still prefer self-portraiture is that it allows me to work in my own time, without needing to bother others, especially when I have to fit it in with a full-time job. I can spend hours on getting a particular image right, so I feel bad asking others for help! It’s just the camera, a tripod, some natural light, a suitable background and me. I do most of my photos at home: in my bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, or backyard – anywhere with decent lighting at the time.

In terms of preparation, it really depends on the concept I have in mind. I like putting elements in-camera, rather than adding it post-production, if I can get away with it. For example, in one photo, I glued pieces of thread onto my eyelids – which was more difficult than I imagined – instead of having them sewn shut digitally. Because of that, it can take some time for me to produce an image if I can’t find the right materials or technique to get it done, which can be very frustrating at times. Other times, I would piece something together with whatever I have at hand, or play around with images in post-production, and come up with something resembling a concept I had in mind, or in lucky instances, something entirely random.

I draw a lot of my inspiration from the photographers I mentioned before, as well as works from the Surrealist movement. The razor blade scene from ‘Un Chien Andalou’ by Luis Bunuel, for instance, resonates well with my obsession with eyes.

In terms of self-portraiture and its limitations, I find that the repetitive use of myself as the subject less distracting. It allows me to focus my attention on portraying different concepts better, to use myself as a canvas on which my ideas are transformed into images.

Could you briefly talk on what tools you use in your photography (cameras, software) and also a little bit on why you work with digital manipulation for some of your photos. Do you practice film photography at all?

I shoot with a Canon 1000D with a 35mm f1.4 Sigma prime lens, mounted on a tripod, for most of my photographs. I don’t own a mounted flash or any lighting gear, so I rely heavily on sunlight. I process my photos with both Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop: I catalog and process my RAW files with the former, and make further fine-tune adjustments with the latter.

Digital manipulation allows me to create images that are perplexing and downright bizarre, with the aim to confuse and unsettle the viewer. It allows me to do things that no amount of make-up or props would. Unfortunately, I never learnt to process film, and because of that, find that my limited ability to manipulate film limits my utilization of that medium.

Self-portraits can often seem like a medium of photography meant just for the photographer. Do you think about how other people will perceive your self-portraits? What would be something you’d like for someone to take away from this selection of your work?

I do hope my work causes some form of reaction in people. If a person looks at my photos and is curious or concerned or disturbed or simply uncertain of what to feel, then I think they’ve delivered on their purpose: to evoke emotions. There’s no deeper meaning – I just simply wish people would feel when they see my photos, whatever that feeling should be.

Thank you so much to Syahir for so graciously sharing his photographs with us, as well as for his thoughtful answers. You can find more of Syahir’s work on his Flickr.

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This entry was written by Syar and published on 14/08/2013 at 21:19. It’s filed under ISSUE14, Photos, Syar S. Alia, Visual and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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