Body in Crisis

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Self-Portrait, April 9, 1977
Self-Portrait, August 5, 1980
model's gaze, photographer's gaze, expression, confrontation, photographs, self portrait, self-portrait series, black and white photography, change, chronicling changes, facial changes, time, sequencing change, photos as chronology, archiving a process, identity, Ukrainian-Canadian identity, photographer as subject, mortality, concealment, revelation, conceal, reveal, clothing in photography, perspective
start quoteThe stranger is always welcome. At Christmas, Dad told me, in a Ukrainian household a place would be set at the table for the stranger to come.end quote-- Sandra Semchuk

Sandra Semchuk created these images as part of a  seriesA number of things or events standing or succeeding in order, and connected by a like relation; sequence; order; course; a succession of things; as, a continuous series of calamitous events. (The Online Plain Text English Dictionary)  of 77 self-portraits taken between 1976 and 1991. Her gaze (where she is directing her eyes and her attention) is straight-ahead, right at you, the viewer. Her expression is almost confrontational, as though she is about to demand an answer to an important question.  Because much of Semchuk's work focuses on her Ukrainian-Canadian identity, it might be assumed that this is related to the question she is about to ask. While this might be the case, the photographs themselves act as a chronicle, or an account of events; they are an archive of a process, as the photographer, who is also the subject, ages and progresses towards her own mortality.

These two photographs were taken slightly more than three years apart (one in 1977 and the other in 1980). Notice the change that is visible in the photographer between these two dates.  The act of chronicling her own face and attitude through photographs is a way for the artist to express, indirectly, the changes that she has undergone over the course of her life. Imagine the amount of experience and living that those three years represent, and the ways in which they would have affected the artist. In the first image, there is no evidence of clothing, while in the second image she is wearing a shirt and a jacket.  This suggests that she was more innocent or immodest in her youth, while after three years she saw the need for concealment or protection.

additional resources Things to Think About
  • Which traditions in self-portraiture is the artist breaking by making these images, and which traditions is she continuing? You may find it helpful to research portraiture throughout art history to answer this question. Look especially at the histories of self-portraiture and photographic portraiture.
Studio Activity
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Create a self-portrait

Draw or paint a pair of self-portraits

  • One of your self-potraits should depict you the way you are now, and the other should depict the way you think you will look in five years, 10 years, or however long you choose.
  • Consider the kind of life you think you are likely to have between now and then.  Will it be easy or hard? Will you age slowly or quickly?
  • How will you show these changes in your drawings or paintings?

Create a performance artwork

Create a work of  performanceAn art form in which the actions of a person or group in a particular place at a particular time constitute the artwork; all works of performance art therefore incorporate time, space, the performer’s body, and the relationship between performer and viewer.  by choosing an activity to perform every day for a specific number of days, weeks, months or years. It can be any activity that you can repeat, but you should take care that as you are performing the activity you are aware that you are making art, and not simply conducting your daily routine.

  • As you make this art, observe in yourself how performing the work over and over changes the way you see the work or the activity.
  • Take note also of how the activity you choose to repeat could be interpreted. Will you invite other people to view your performance each day, or will their participation be accidental or left to chance?

Create a portrait to focus on an issue or event

Brainstorm a list of personal or social ideas that you could communicate with a portrait.
Many artists have used their art to make people think about war, poverty, racism, violence, and oppression.  You may prefer to focus on a personal experience.

  • Think about what you want your artwork to do. Do you want people to become aware of a problem? Do you want to urge people to act in a certain way?
  • Will people need to have more information about your idea than they get just by looking at your artwork?
  • Is your message communicated best through a self-portrait?

Author unknown.  Sandra Semchuk.  Art History, Concordia University.  Retrieved from the Internet on May 11, 2008 from:

Borsa, Joan, and Sandra Semchuk. Sandra Semchuk: Coming to Death's Door - A Daughter/Father Collaboration. Vancouver, British Columbia: Presentation House Gallery, 1992.

Regan, Margaret.  ‘‘How Far Back is Home’ Celebrates a Photographer Who’s Come a Long Way.’  Tuscon Weekly, July 28, 1997.  Retrieved from the Internet on May 11, 2008 from:

Semchuk, Sandra.  Biography.  Emily Carr Institute of Art Design.

Semchuk, Sandra Semchuk and Laurel Tien.  ‘Telling Story! Voice in Photography: An online visual art critical studies program evaluation.’  International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Vol. 5, Issue 3, 2004.

Canadian Heritage University of Regina Mackenzie Art Gallery Mendel Art Gallery Sask Learning