On Seeing Yourself

A wet plate portrait of Malin James on glass beneath water. Wet Plate Collodian by Nicolas Laborie for On Seeing Yourself by Malin James

Portrait, Malin James. Wet Plate Collodian by Nicolas Laborie

I’ve been bumping up against my own self-image recently, which is a curiously exciting and unsettling thing. It’s been happening in several ways, some easier to define than others, but the overall effect is the realization that I don’t know myself as well as I thought I did, and that that is absolutely fine.

Being photographed by someone gifted is its own kind of gift – one that I couldn’t accept when I was a young, distracted thing. A gifted photographer can distil you with an odd sort of purity. If you’re lucky and the stars align, what you end up with are visual representations of various facets of yourself – shards of personality that often operate beneath your conscious understanding.

Black and white head shot of Malin James taken by Nicolas Laborie. For On Seeing Yourself by Malin James

Photograph by Nicolas Laborie

The self-image I’ve nurtured over the years is that of a controlled, measured woman. I don’t let down my guard unless I choose to and it’s rare that I do. Like most people, I wear a social mask and it’s that mask that I recognize in pictures. I rarely see the person who watches the world from beneath it represented on film. That’s probably why the images Nicolas Laborie took this past week-end pulled me up short.

The wet plate above is recognizable insofar as I recognize the interiority it caught – that particular mixture of nameless emotions is essentially my resting state. I’ve just never seen it on my face, not even when I look in a mirror. I’m not entirely sure how the wet plate caught it – maybe it’s just having to stay perfectly still for the exposure – but it’s the first time I’ve seen an accurate visual representation of my internal life.

Black and white portrait of Malin James taken by Nicolas Laborie. For On Seeing Yourself by Malin James

Photograph by Nicolas Laborie

The other three were taken after the wet plate and they do something a bit different. When I was younger, I longed for self-possession. When someone photographed me, I very consciously cloaked myself in imitation poise. The problem was that I always knew it was fake and I didn’t like seeing that gap between reality and aspiration caught on film.

As I got older and grew increasingly uncomfortable with what I saw in images of myself, being photographed stopped being a pleasure. It was too much of a personal minefield. Participating in Sinful Sunday has helped me enjoy photography again, but only to the extent that I control the image, and I rarely let down my guard.

But these are different. These are just of me being me in the moment because I no longer know how to be something I’m not. That’s why they mean so much to me.

Black and white portrait of Malin James taken by Nicolas Laborie. For On Seeing Yourself by Malin James

Photograph by Nicolas Laborie

The person in these pictures is the woman I wanted to be when I was a confused mess of a girl. I wanted to be calm and hungry and strong, so much so that I tried to pretend to be something I wasn’t and failed every time.

It’s magic to me that I became someone I could respect. I never trusted myself – I never gave myself a reason to – but the person I see in these pictures is someone I respect and trust. That’s why these photos are a bit of a revelation. In many ways, it’s the first time I can say that seeing myself on film is comforting rather than proof of the gap between my reality and everything I want to be.

To see more of Nicolas Laborie’s work, please visit his site, and follow him on Twitter. He’s brilliant. 

NB: I nearly didn’t write this post. Ironically, there’s still something uncomfortable about talking about myself, especially in what could be perceived as an arrogant light (and let’s face it, talking about pretty pictures of yourself skates that boundary uncomfortably close). Ultimately, the fact that the experience was so unexpected and revelatory in its way was the reason I decided to go out on a limb and write it. It was an amazing experience and I hope other people are able to experience something similarly positive in front of a lens.

26 comments

  1. I am speechless at these images and the effect of your words. What could be an exercise in vulnerability, shows your strength. I hope one day to find myself in an image.

  2. Wow… (Speechless) … Such a lovely and kind thoughts. Merci Malin.
    The truth is that it’s very easy to take a nice picture of a beautiful woman but what I’m always fascinated by is to capture the beauty rather than the woman. Not the aesthetic but the emotional response to shadows and light… Like touch and smell can hypnotise you.
    The best compliment here is not the picture for me but the reaction to it and the empowerment to your redefinition and revelation.
    Remember what I say on the day… “There is more than meet the eyes” and you are much more Malin.
    Happycomelucky if I may say something : in order to find yourself in an image … You actually need to lose yourself in it ! But like Malin losing yourself brings greater empowerment.

    It was such a privilege to be in your company and for gracing my lens xx

    1. I think you made it very easy for me to meet you in the lens. The depth of your generosity and focus pulled the same sort of energy out of me. It was wonderful and so relaxing, and that was all you. It was a real privilege to be in your lens.

      And Yes! I absolutely agree with you as regards what you said about losing yourself to find yourself. This is true in so many ways..
      xx

  3. Beautiful photos and it is satisfying as a reader that you discovered what the rest of us already see in your writing (or have the image of). You described it perfectly. Strong. Confident. Smart.

  4. Beautiful, Malin. Both the breathtaking photos and the experience you described in being photographed and in reacting to the final images. Thanks for sharing this experience with us!

  5. I’m so pleased you did write, Malin. I was blown away by the wet plate image, as you know. A portrait of feral lust, yet with a sense of vulnerability hinted at. Very Madame X, with the strap off the shoulder… the epitome of sex appeal in another age. I hope you do something special with it.

    In Nicolas’ hands the camera loves you. So glad to see more Malin, to know her a little better. And, there is nothing ‘arrogant’ about honestly talking about yourself and saying the photos are beautiful, as they surely are that, but also much more. Now you have the perfect Erotic Author’s Photo… for your next book jacket… so intriguing and mysterious. In the second one,I see a mermaid in the deep perhaps, beckoning to the sailors to join her… and what will they find when they do? The last pensive portrait brings to mind Tamara and the beauties she created.

    Glad you went out on a limb, and don’t worry about it breaking.

    1. It’s so true…I need to internalize that. The hesitation at posting it was the same impulse that makes it so hard for me to accept a compliment. At some point, it’s just better to stop worrying, I think. I’m not quite there yet though 😉

  6. I love these images so much: intimate and wonderful.

    I’m constantly fascinated by how little we see and show of ourselves (even TO ourselves), and I can’t imagine getting a photo that shows how I feel internally. I’ve no idea what that would look like.

    Ferns

  7. Wowsers – you have piercing eyes! As someone who’s freaked out about privacy and anonymity because outing myself could mean the loss of my job, I think it’s magnificent that you wrote and published this and are relishing these gorgeous photographs. Though the photos are stunning (you are stunning), I admire the sentiment even more – the act of embracing and loving yourself is a powerful experience… one I’m delighted you’re choosing to share publicly.

    1. Thank you, Jo! I know what you mean about needing to protect your anonymity. I was a YA librarian for several years and, while not quite the game changer it would be for a teacher, I was still really conscious of how being outed as an erotica / sex writer could lose my job. Even after I quit to write freelance, it took a couple of years for me to fully relax my guard. It’s a lovely feeling. I just wish the need for secrecy weren’t such a real and important thing.

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