On coping with my chronic illness with selfies

I’ve never been entirely comfortable with photos of myself. As much as I enjoy the haunting power of portrait photography, the great works of documentarians like Mary Ellen Mark or Steve McCurry, I’ve always been skeptical of seeing myself in this light.

There are several reasons for this. I’ve spent years struggling with several aspects of my appearance, including my weight, and this always seems augmented in photographs.

Moreover, there have definitely been times when the camera has captured me in moments that I do not want immortalized. I have to wonder: is a photo an honest depiction of who I am? Can it capture my heart, my spirit? Or does it reduce me to nothing more than my physical appearance, and if so, what does that say about me?

This control over one’s own image might have a lot to do with why selfies have become such an icon of our culture in recent years. In a digital age, where our identities are so carefully curated for public opinion, the selfie acts as a powerful piece of performance art. And, it can be empowering, an extension of our own self-acceptance. A chance to say, “look at me, I like myself today.”

This all runs through my mind each time I consider posting a photo of myself, changing my profile picture, etc. It’s a constant war, wrapped in a greater struggle for how I want to be perceived in the public sphere, and whether or not I should even care about this in the first place. That’s a lot of weight every time I think about pulling out my iphone.

But about two years ago, something started to change. I woke up with a headache on an otherwise insignificant morning, and it hasn’t gone away since. I’ve been diagnosed with a complicated headache disorder, have had just about every test you can imagine, and have gone through periods of time when I can’t even get out of bed. And I’m still waiting for answers, living with this constant pain in the meantime.

Through all of this, I’ve started taking and posting more photos of myself than I ever had before. Initially, these photos were a vehicle for me to show myself and the world that I wasn’t going to let my illness get me down, a way of literally putting my best face forward. But it has since become something more.

These photos have become a way to celebrate the days when I do feel good, times when I can be more than my headache, when I want to remember there is more to me, to life, then this nagging ache. Seeing myself looking well or happy or bright is a way for me to say to that spot behind my eye, “you will not win.” These photos are a way to remind myself of the person I used to be, the person I still fight to be every day. I believe there is something significant in that.

So that brings us to a sunny summer morning in downtown Morrison, Colorado. I’ve decided to have my picture taken professionally, not something I’ve done since high school. I want to do this, in part, for the very practical reason of needing headshots, and in part, because for the first time in a long time, I feel like I am worthy of photographing.

I tell the photographer, an old friend, that I want to feel healthy and natural, and above all else, I want to feel like myself. This is the most important thing. I want to see my own strength, my own vitality, in the face of what I’ve been through and continue to go through on a daily basis.

And, I hope that in taking these photos, he will see it too. I hope that through his lens and his perspective, I will look strong and vital, like a young woman who is so much more than the physical limitations her chronic pain might impose. So, we wander around Main Street, pausing to shoot in doorways, on benches, even down by the river.

Sometimes I look at him, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I smile. It’s all very casual, and I spend most of the time just trying to get comfortable with myself, my body, with a few suggestions, or “hold that pose” moments along the way. The hour goes by incredibly quickly and he tells me “I can work with this.”

After the dust settles and the editing (though not too much) has been done, I’m presented with the finished product. And to my pleasure and my surprise, I do like who I am, who I appear to be in these photos. Here I am as I see myself, and as he sees me, and I am so much more than a face, or a body, or a headache. I can’t think of a time I’ve been happier just being me.

Selfies via author. All professional photos taken by Kyle Colby of KColby Photography. Visit his website at www.kcolbyphotography.com to see more of his work. You can also follow him on Instagram or Twitter @kcolby87