featured gallery for December 2005

The Damaged Narcissist

The purpose of searching through the archives was to find self-portraits that spoke to me about life as an HIV-positive person and how people had visualized their "newfound" body. In the end not all the images selected are self-portraits, but I felt the few exceptions still reflect my interest in how our identity and subjectivity may become altered, even reinforced by a diagnosis of ill health. As a photographer I was naturally drawn to this exhibition being about photography, but also because of the relationship that the photograph, as a reflection like the pool that Narcissus was drawn to, has with our concept of self, the image we carry in our mind's eye of who we are. Photography is not a pure reflection. It is not unmediated. It provides us with a version of the world, like that of Jacques Lacan's mirror stage analysis -- an infant's mis-recognition of itself in reflection as a whole body while its experience of the world is in a fragmented state, life lived through representation.
The narcissist has had a rough time of it, often seen as a negative, the vain individual or the crude analysis of the "homosexual" in love with his self-image -- the same sex. If narcissism is taken as a negative, then a damaged narcissist is a double negative -- does this mean they cancel each other out and make a positive? Narcissism is sometimes looked upon as a positive force; after all, we have to love our self before we can love others! If narcissism is about vanity, then why would those who are ill want to turn the camera lens on themselves? The damaged narcissist is a corruption of this vanity, a desire to express, but also control one's concerns about an illness, to decipher this diseased and damaged body and make sense of a virus invisible to the naked eye.

Julia Kristeva describes in her book Tales of Love the last moments of Narcissus by the pool:

At last the moment of understanding is at hand. After many frustrations Narcissus gathers that he is actually in a world of "signs": "You nod and beckon when I do; your lips, it seems, answer when I am talking though what you say I cannot hear." The exertion for deciphering leads him to knowledge, to self-knowledge: "He is myself! I feel it, I know my image now."

We have reached the crux of the drama: "What shall I do? ... What I want is with me, my riches make me poor. If I could only escape from my own body!"

The tragedy reaches a higher level when Narcissus, at the moment when his tears disturb the pool, realizes not only that the loved image is his own, but furthermore that it can disappear -- as if he had thought that, for want of touching, he could nevertheless be satisfied with contemplation alone ... which has henceforth become impossible.
I could have chosen many more images; in fact over 160 images were titled under "photographic self-portraits" in the archive. This selection of images doesn't provide a whole picture of peoples' experience of living with HIV, it doesn't attempt to give a definition, it probably provokes more questions than answers, but by asking questions we know we are still alive. I could also write endlessly on the particular images I have chosen, but I will let you view and reflect on them for yourself. But finally, as a true narcissist, I have also included my own self-portrait in this selection.