Art & Photography

I Took The Pictures But This Is Not A Self Portrait

The provocative inter-disciplinary artist Amy Hood explores authenticity, persona and projection in a unique riposte to the digital age

The inimitable Amy Nicole Hood is a creative tour-de-force, heading up the underground publishing company Viscous from her home in New York, where she works as a visual artist, creative director, and actress. Her latest project is a wry intervention into the realm of erotica and projection that feels like it would be as at home in an 18th century wunderkammer as it is in this increasingly strange first quarter of the 21st century. Entitled I Took The Pictures But This Is Not A Self Portrait her undertaking includes a strange magnifying glass mounted on a magnetic track dubbed “The Personascope” (that might not be out of place in Guillermo Del Toro’s Cronos), a series of ‘anti-self-portraits’, and an academic essay that deconstructs the contemporary relationship between the authentic and projected self.  

The sexual magnetism at the heart of the work explores what Hood refers to as the “hyper-voyeurism” of the modern era, and encourages the viewer to reflect, via its very format, on the habit of interacting with digitally projected facades. I Took The Pictures But This Is Not A Self Portrait comprises photographs that Hood took of herself in a deteriorating house with a Polaroid Land Camera, a technique of capture that infuses her shots with a sense of deliberateness and permanence, and draws a stylistic through-line from her own aesthetic history – creating a playful and ironic physical media riposte, if you like, to the ubiquitous “selfie”. Here, the keen-minded provocateur talks to Port about the themes of persona construction and image consumption at the core of the project – questioning where one might find authenticity in the de-sensitising image avalanche of the digital age.

Was This Is Not A Portrait in part born of a frustration with the persona you felt the audience were projecting upon you?

Initially, I was hesitant to accept the word frustration, but there’s truth to that. It can feel frustrating. There’s a part that says embrace your power and sensuality and hold it firmly, as an independent woman, as a human being. Then, there’s a part of culture that commodifies a woman’s power and sensuality, saying this is what the world has become accustomed to and obliges you to cater to it if you hope to get further along, both encouraging but also chastening it. We’re more complex than that – we are not just arrangements of pixels on a screen. People have stories. I think that’s something we often forget about, with our online experience especially. Beyond frustration, to say the least, is when traumatic and exploitative experiences become a part of this ‘persona’ or public perception because they’re click bait. The virtual arena can make it more challenging to have a say in our own narratives.

How long had you pondered the complexities that underpin the project and how did they lead you to the construction of the personascope? 

I think it was the culmination of a lifetime of being a woman in a world still so beleaguered by oppressive or patriarchal ideologies and convenience based value systems. The project began two and a half years ago, with the actual taking of the pictures. It was the first stroke in translating these subconscious usherings, which I continued to develop and refine into this transdisciplinary expression over time. The final addition was the essay – kind of the afterword concluding the creative process and all of the underpinnings of thought that motivated it.

This Is Not A Portrait contains that sense you can get standing between two mirrors in an infinite corridor – does that metaphor resonate with you?

We exist in parallel with past, present and future selves – every experience we’ve ever had informing our decision and makeup. We live so many lives within a single lifetime, be it years or months, or days even, oscillating intervals of growth and change. We shift in perspectives also, alternating between the first-person perspective of direct presence with our surroundings, without the self-awareness, the thinking-about-thinking and, opposingly, with the more third-person perspective of ‘I think therefore I am’, the part of our experience that feels more like reading your own story in a book – omnipresent, out of body. It is all of these factors that makes existence akin to the corridor metaphor, and indeed part of what I was trying to capture, noticing in particular that the digital apparatus exaggerates this. We are amalgamations.

Susan Sontag famously stated, “the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own” – does this ring true for you?

Tourism is an interesting allegory because while scrolling through feeds – like a tourist sweeps through a village – we get a taste of the place yet cannot obtain the comprehensive understanding of a resident. It’s a cursory interaction. It is also a public one. No longer is it just making something and putting it out into the world as an extension of yourself, your thoughts and opinions. Now it means all the thoughts and opinions all the time. I was thinking recently about the concept of solitude, it’s an almost extinct practice: being alone without a cell phone or internet or some device continually connected, informing us with likes and comments and app updates and emails and texts and etcetera etcetera. The strangeness of the smartphone is a dissonance created by being televised, the perpetual bit stream, and no longer being accustomed to a certain amount of solitude. Simultaneously, much of our interpersonal interaction is now fulfilled by technology instead of actual people, which is hardly interpersonally fulfilling at all for inherently social creatures. I wonder if the result actually exasperates loneliness and the sense of unfamiliarity.

Is it still possible to define an authentic self in the era of the art-directed realities of Instagram, and so forth? 

Authenticity is a matter of decision. What I would identify as the self/the individual in addition to their body is every lived experience, interaction, memory and dream they’ve ever had, and that is in a state of constant growth and change. Given all of these variables, I would say that there is certainly some degree of authenticity to everyone. But how much do you choose to tune into intuition, act from your own judgement and critical thought? Can you navigate through a sea of voices and recognise the wave of your own? It’s ironic that people used to say that a photograph steals your soul and now there’s hardly any soul to steal. Now it seems there’s so much constructed between the viewer and the soul of the subject. It isn’t that there is not, or can’t be, truth in photography, but it’s a piece of a bigger picture. What’s more of an issue than trying to parlay authenticity is that it frequently disinterests us.

You write in your associated essay that the performed persona has begun to overwhelm the personal – can you expand on this overwhelming of the personal and its potential impact on mental health?

Yes, I think it’s something like a deficit of the ‘person’ element. The interweb utilises habit and the human need for validation, fills it with content and somewhat pseudo-social interaction, conditioning us to value likes and follows over physical connection, while encouraging addictive and consumptive behaviours. There’s an algorithm determining what it is we even get to see, based on data mined for a predominantly capitalist agenda. It’s intended to feed this cycle, learning preferences to be more gratifying, influencing and updating to be more effective each time. Then we’re scrolling through so fast minimal emotional and intellectual investment is typically given to what we’re seeing and vice versa into what we’re producing. It becomes an almost subliminal catalogue of snippets. There is an entire history, a whole life, leading up to a single moment – context, perspective, and subjectivity is being missed. That’s not to say there aren’t really innovative and beautiful aspects to global interconnectivity too, particularly since the pandemic. But it’s all so recent we haven’t had enough time to really observe the cultural and psychological effects of being so technologically integrated, nor to consider what we want that relationship to be. That’s a big part of what I’ve learned, what sort of relationships do we want to cultivate with technology, with this rapidly changing world, with my co-creatures and with myself?

How do we define consciousness itself in this near blending of the digital avatar and real life?

I ask in my essay ‘where does the self lie in this context?’ but ‘what does consciousness mean in this context?’ may be the next big question to crack open. The digital realm now takes up such a significant amount of space in our mind that I’m not sure what it means for consciousness. Ha, I mean I guess if this whole thing is a simulation, as some theories out there have it i.e. ideas like the Holographic Universe Principle, then it’s surmisable we already have extraordinarily convincing conscious digital avatars.