Sara Cassidy

Self portraiture in Canada (Click thumbnails to view in full.)

The photographic self-portrait is like slow food. It takes planning and intent and time. There’s the lighting to consider, and the location, the struggle with the tripod’s finicky legs or the search for a satisfactory angle of reflection in mirror or window.

Meanwhile, the selfie—impulsive, wildly framed, instantly gratifying, in easy reach (literally and figuratively)—is fast food. The selfie descends from the candid family snapshot, itself consequent to the proliferation of the inexpensive, easy-to-use Brownie camera that put photography into amateurs’ hands early in the 1900s. (“Snapshot” is originally a hunting term for a shot fired without careful aim at a fast-moving target.) Easy to zoom, easy to shoot, with no clumsy film to forward, the digital camera made snapshots easier to take. The smartphone let us seamlessly turn the lens on ourselves.

The photographic self-portrait has a long history, with the first on record taken in 1839, the year the first camera design—developed by Louis Daguerre—was published for free public use by the French government. As this survey of self-portraits by Canadian non-indigenous settlers and indigenous artists shows, this slower art form allows for complexity and resonance.

“A self-portrait should encapsulate much more information than a random selfie,” says Algonquin-French photographer Caroline Monnet. “It has great power to inform about social, political, cultural and economic contexts, while its meaning is completely manipulated by the artist.”

The selection of self-portraits here begins with the view through the colonizer’s eye. William H. Grant, member of a 1922 Arctic exploration team, labels his self-portrait, Self-portrait with Inuit man’s two wives and child, failing to record the names of the people who welcomed him. The settler William Norfolk’s romantic self-portrait captures natural beauty, solitude, survival, even existentialism, also the pernicious idea of Canada as empty, all wilderness.

In the photo by Yousuf Karsh, who spent a lifetime capturing, in his words, “the essence of the extraordinary person,” the photographer turns the lens on himself. With its sharp black and white contrast, and mediating—wondrously—the inner life of its subject, the work is characteristically Karsh. The artist Art Zaratsyan frames himself repeatedly to express a distant state of mind. Janieta Eyre’s surreal double portraits suggest the selves within us, perhaps the mirror “other” that our singularity evokes; in artist statements, Eyre has, playfully, claimed to be the surviving sister of Siamese twins separated at birth.

For contemporary indigenous photographers such as Metis Rosalie Favell the self-portrait can redress exclusion and proscription. For Haisla-British photographer Lisa Walker, the art form’s complexity is restorative. “Being a half First Nations woman in Canada is a sometimes confusing, sometimes beautiful, sometimes awkward thing to be. Self-portraiture helps me explore how it feels to inhabit multiple layers of my identity,” Walker says. “My self-portraits offer me a sense of empowerment, clarity, reflection.”


Sara Cassidy writes fiction and non-fiction. She lives in Victoria, BC. Read more of her Geist work at here and at

Get this photoessay in print in Geist 98, only $6.

No items found.

Sara Cassidy

Sara Cassidy's writing has won the Atlantic Writing Competition for poetry, a National Magazine Award (Gold) for non-fiction, and a BC Book Prize for children's writing. Her 21 children's books have been nominated for many honours, including the City of Victoria Children’s Book Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award. She lives on lək̓ʷəŋən territory and works in communications for the BC Ministry of Health.




Libby Simon remembers the old wooden floor radio that brought Papa news of the war announced by the Voice of Doom.


Albuquerque, 1972

The photographer’s unique view on the American social landscape.

Marc Josse

Lunar Chronicle

This journey took me from New Orleans to Calgary, where I am right now.