Portraits of I

Photography has the ability to preserve authenticity and freeze moments in time. As a photographer myself, I am intrigued by the idea of the “joiner portrait”† as a way to examine one’s life at the very moment of the shot. How would I take my own joiner portrait at the age of 40 today? What would the shot look like if I am to compose a joiner portrait of myself living an ideal life in the future?


I would start by selecting my own home office as the location for shooting the portrait; this is the one space in my house where I spend most of my time reading, thinking, writing, designing, building, and more often than what I should be… eating. The interior of the home office might be anything but plain — an unconventional half-octagon floor plan with a forest cottage-style design decorated with my years worth of figure and gadget collections — but the setup of the work station is quite simplistic: a large 72” desk made of bamboo stands and centers against the longest wall of the room (i.e. the diameter of the octagon layout) with an ergonomic chair for work, a drawer cabinet accompanied with a campaign table for storage and displaying my collections are on the left to the desk within arm’s reach, and a what I call the “Comfy” papasan chair for guest visit and my own leisure sit right at the back of the room.

Portrait of I, at 40

In my joiner self-portrait taken in the home office at age 40 today, I would be a reader, a cynic, and a farther. Then there would be a wimp hiding somewhere behind the drawer unit, hence not seen anywhere in the final picture. The camera would be shooting from the center of the wall where the desk stands against. I would place the camera with a 16mm wide-angle lens against the center of the wall, and raise it to just a few inches above my normal sitting height, allowing the shot to include the whole room with the desk as the closest object in focus.

The reader, the largest subject in the portrait, would be reading, thinking, and writing at the desk. He looks dreadfully anxious and desperately wants to find a way to free himself from the unbearable shame, anger, cynic, and fear in his life. The cynic, on the other hand, would be sitting cross-legged and murmuring nonstop on the Comfy behind the reader; he is doing everything he can to convince the reader what a pathetic loser he is and how he has failed just about everything he chooses to do in life. The cynic also repetitively cautions the reader that he is too old to accomplish anything and gripes about how all those average Joes out there don’t deserve their wealth and success.

As the intense dialogue between the reader and cynic continues on, the farther would be standing by the see-through glass door smiling and looking into the living room where his beautiful newborn baby Clara is playing with her toys and occasionally raises her cute little face to smile back at him. The farther looks to be the only person in the room feeling content and thankful for the blessing he has in life. There is nothing more important than taking care of his sweet baby Clara, the farther tells himself.

Then, there would be this cowardly wimp hiding behind the drawer cabinet because he is too shameful to even show himself to the camera. The wimp helplessly covers his ears with both hands, desperately wanting to silent the contemptuous words from the cynic. Unlike the reader who continues to search and refuses to give up, the wimp is at his breaking point and afraid of leaving from his pitiful hiding spot to take any action. The wimp looks out of the windows, however, and wishes for a better tomorrow.

Portrait of I, at 65

Age 65, a time to retire for most people, would be the year I select for the my future joiner self-portrait. The shot would take place at he same location with the same setup: My home office in the same house where I live at 40, which hopefully will be filled with precious memories of the family by the time I grow old. Besides, I am already in love with the house I own at 40, so why bother changing anything?

There would be three and only three subjects in the portrait: a creator, a reader, and a farther. The wimp would be gone and there would be no one hiding anywhere in the room. The camera would be shooting with the same 16mm wide-angle lens from the same spot at the same height, allowing the same desk to be the largest object in focus again.

This time, the creator would be the largest subject in the portrait sitting at the desk working on his latest project. Where the camera is set up, the shot would not be able to capture the exact type of work the creator is doing — may it be a business, an essay, an art work, a philanthropy job, or perhaps a congrats letter for his dear daughter Clara, by then 25 — but it does show that he is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus and enjoyment in his work. The creator is in the flow and through his work he seems to have had the fortune to reach and challenge his deepest potential and desire in life.

The reader, on the other hand, looks focused but quite relaxed on the Comfy reading and thinking with a pile of the books he has collected on science, philosophy, and arts. In contrast to the 40-year-old himself anxiously looking for a way out of despair, the reader now seems to be reading with a pure passion; he is no longer desperate but his curiosity and desire for the unknown knowledge and wisdom has stayed the same. Reasoning with truth is the only way to attain true freedom as human, the reader has come to believe with his numerous life adventures over the years.

As the creator and reader are lost in their own worlds, the farther stands at exactly the same spot 25 years ago by the glass door, smiling still and looking into the living room where his beautiful daughter, Clara, now a confident young adult ready to start her own life adventures, is chatting with her mom. At times Clara turns her head and smiles back at the farther, wondering when he will finish his works and join their conversations. Judging from the look of the farther’s eyes, one wouldn’t have any doubt that he must be a very proud dad.

The How

As the 40-year-young man looks at the joiner portrait of his 65-year-old self, he couldn’t stop wondering how this portrait of his very own from the future can possibly be a true sketch of the life he will be living 25 years later. Yes, perhaps it is too good to be true. Or perhaps the “how” is the one question that he must ask and answer himself.


† Charles Handy describes the “joiner portrait” in his book, Myself and Other More Important Matter:

“Elizabeth, my photographer wife, . . . asks her subjects to pose for her in two or three different ways, wearing different clothes or doing different things, to reflect the different roles in their lives, but all in the same setting. . . . She then joined the images together so that it looks as if there are three different people in the room — Except that they are all the same person. There is an added twist. Since she takes the portraits from the same position but places her subject around the room, the image that is nearest the camera comes out larger. ‘Which of your different personae,’ she asks the sitter, ‘is most you?’ It is often a difficult question to answer.”

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