Have you seen yourself lately?
That’s what I asked myself early on in the pandemic. Every day felt like I was slowly losing myself in depression I wore like a weighted blanket. No matter how many stories I wrote, words did not feel like the lifelong outlet I’ve relied on.
I had to find myself beyond isolation and create adventures in the confines of my studio apartment. I ordered a tripod and documented my days living alone with my dog. Sometimes I didn’t feel like it. I got dressed and took the pics anyways. It wasn’t a vanity project. It was a confirmation: I am still here.
Frida Kahlo knew the strength of representation.
‘“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best,” she said. “I tried to drown my sorrows, but the bastards learned how to swim, and now I am overwhelmed by this decent and good feeling. Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light.”’
After the killing of George Floyd, posting my portraits no longer felt right.
I’ve marched, written, cried, raged, and engaged in nonstop conversations. It’s not new. Much of my career is designed to witness, to speak truth to power.
I curated my Instagram stories to raise awareness and amplify causes. But I denied myself joy. After a few weeks, I brought selfies back. I was hurt and hungry for change. Still, I needed affirmation – not in the likes, but in the presence of myself.
Over the last week, black-and-white portraits of women, also standing in their light, flooded my timeline. Using #ChallengeAccepted, they tag a few women, inviting others to do the same. It’s a claiming of space to the real estate of 6 million posts and counting, doubling since I first noticed.
Instagrammers use challenges like these for everything from recipes and dances to toddler patience and pet moods. This isn’t the first black-and-white challenge, either. And #ChallengeAccepted first started in 2016.
It’s not clear when this latest iteration began. An Instagram representative told The New York Times it dates back about two weeks to a post by Brazilian journalist Ana Paula Padrão, who used an old hashtag #womensupportingwomen. How the latter hashtag led to the former is unsettled, but now both are used interchangeably, tagging more women to shine, too.
Others say the black-and-white trend started in Turkey, with #kadınaşiddetehayır, meaning no to violence to women, and #istanbulsözleşmesiyaşatır (a call to protect the Istanbul Convention, a treaty to combat violence against women). Each has around half a million posts. Some use #womensupportingwomen and #challengeaccepted.
The Turkey posts carry a weighty message. In Turkey, at least 474 women were killed last year. Much like #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName, posts highlight victims of violence. Self-portraits with messages of women’s rights in Turkey are in the mix, too.
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"Can't fade your memory, dim your light. You've made a difference" Here is only a small portion of our fallen sisters. While it is important to acknowledge the femicides in Turkey, let's make sure those women do not end up forgotten. Share their faces, share their names, share their stories. Be loud, raise awareness, make a difference. #istanbulsözleşmesiyaşatır #womensupportingwomen #challengeaccepted #mensupportingwomen #istanbulanlaşmasıyaşatır #kadıncinayetleri #kadıncinayetlerinidurduracağız #femicide #stopfemicide
Some feel the message of Turkey has been muted by the many challenges. A fact: What’s happening in Turkey is a microcosm of what’s happening across the world.
Violence against women is a global epidemic. You should care.
In 2017, 87,000 women were killed internationally, according to a United Nations report. More than half were murdered by a loved one or family member. In America, FBI data show that nearly 2,000 women were killed by men in 2017. Most died at the hands of men they knew. This year, in America, at least 25 trans or gender nonconforming folk were killed –– mostly Black trans women.
We don’t see their stories on the news. So we post their images. We craft hashtags. We #SayHerName and fight for accountability. We do that in Turkey, in America, and all around the world. We use imagery in tandem with our votes, our uprising, and by all means –– including #ChallengeAccepted. We share space. Uplift Turkish women.
As debates over Instagram hashtags like #ChallengeAccepted rise, I wonder, have you seen yourself lately?
You’re still a person, one who can educate yourself and fight for a better future. But the love you have for others is also for you. We can claim space for ourselves. And share space, too.
Critics are calling the black-and-white photo challenge selfish and lazy advocacy.
This is not a play for “All Challenges Matter.” It’s an argument against portraits of self labeled as conceit and ignorance.
Imaging is connected to power. Frederick Douglass, as the most photographed American of the 19th century, knew this. When you have the authority to represent yourself, it’s a liberation. When we have the capacity to amplify our murdered and oppressed sisters in America and abroad, it’s also resistance. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.
How can you love and see others, if you do not have heart and sight for yourself?
Girl Magic Meets, a Boston women empowerment collective, has been cultivating community through group photoshoots since 2016. Since COVID arrived, they’ve moved to virtually sharing thematic portraits of individual members.
“We believe creating self portraits is a beautiful way to discover a new way to see yourself and create something for yourself,” said founders Brenda Phan and Nancy Fields.
Visual artist Sharon Harper is tasking her photography students with self-portraits when they start class virtually at Harvard this fall.
“When you are presenting yourself, it gives you agency and authorship over how you are portraying yourself,” she said. “When you photograph yourself, what you are putting out there is an idea of yourself. When it’s your own idea of yourself, it can’t be trespassed upon.”
Women, including trans women, as well as gender nonconforming folk do not often have this kind of authority. We’re told who we are according to the patriarchy. In this way, portraiture is empowering.
You shouldn’t have to die to be seen. In a world that willfully ignores femicide and sexism, to affirm ourselves, to control how we are represented, is protest. The first function of sexism, is to strip a woman of her agency and the right to safely show up as herself.
“If I didn’t define myself for myself,” Audre Lorde once said, “I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”