SP.240 / ESG.SP240 Composing Your Life: Exploration of Self through Visual Arts and Writing

Spring 2006

Photo of a person's face, sunglasses, shirt and necklaces.One student's final project for the class explored the link between clothes and personal identity. (Image courtesy of Mirat Shah. Used with permission.)

Course Highlights

This course features a complete set of readings, extensive assignments, and examples of students' final projects.

January 2009: The instructors have published a book expanding on the concepts discussed in this course.

Course Description

In this interdisciplinary seminar, we explore a variety of visual and written tools for self exploration and self expression. Through discussion, written assignments, and directed exercises, students practice utilizing a variety of media to explore and express who they are.


Course Description

In this interdisciplinary seminar, we will explore a variety of visual and written tools for self exploration and self expression. Through discussion, written assignments, and directed exercises, students will practice utilizing a variety of media to explore and express who they are. Assignments will focus on the nuance and interplay of written and visual elements, with special focus on photography.

Representations of self will include:

Examples of written expression of self will include letters, emails, blogs, journals, poetry, memoirs, and autobiographies. Examples of photographic representation of self will be demonstrated through self-portraiture, images of one's environment, image of self taken by others, and images of others taken by self. Students will complete a "portrayal of self" that will synthesize one's own photography, art, memorabilia, writing, and "found objects" in a cohesive narrative of self. No prior experience with photography is needed.



Summary of Major Assignments

This class requires regular attendance (no more than 3 classes missed), completion of weekly exercises (writing a few paragraphs in one's journal, collecting one or more pieces of memorabilia, taking one or more pictures), weekly reading and photo assignments, and construction and presentation of a mixed-media portrayal of self.

Basis for Grade

Final Project30%
Weekly Homework (Including Reading and Assigned Exercises)20%
Class Participation and In-class Exercises50%


1Introduction to SubjectIce-breaker Exercise (art)
2Turning PointsTurning Points (writing), Drawing My Life (art)
3Class DinnerGetting to know students in casual setting outside of class
4Family Traditions/Influential PeopleFamily Influence (photography, writing), Key People in My Life (writing)
5Gender and SelfGendered Photos (photography, writing), Reverse Gender Autobiography (writing)
6Race and EthnicityPersonal Definitions (writing), Family Tree (writing, art, photography), Cultural Artifacts (photography, writing)
7Self Image and RolesMost and Least Favorite Roles (writing), Roles We Play (photography, writing)
8Values and MeaningValues and Meaning (writing), Expressing Meaning (art, poetry), Insurance Inventory of Valued Items (photography, writing)
9Class Trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, BostonClass outing to discover how artists use a variety of methods for self-portrayal
10Self in Historical ContextVisualizing Self in Historical Context (photography, writing), Switching Places (photography), One Thing That Changed My World (photography, writing)
11Alternative Views of SelfStranger, Acquaintance, Friend (photography), Unmasking the Self (art), Alter Ego (photography, writing)
12Self in the FutureWhere Do I Want To Go From Here? (writing), Where Do Others Think I Will Go From Here? (photography, writing), How Do I Want To Be Remembered? (writing, photography)
13Presentation Self PortrayalsFinal Projects (art, writing, photography)
14Public Exhibition of Self-PortrayalsReception for the exhibition: Students speak briefly about their works to audience
15Composing a Life from Beginning to EndStudents run a group exercise which they designed during the previous week.

Review/evaluation of term


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Both students and future teachers of this course may find the following readings useful. We have organized the reading list to reflect the fact that this seminar incorporates a range of different disciplines.

The following text is based on concepts presented in this course:

Amazon logo Ramsay, Graham, and Holly Sweet. A Creative Guide to Exploring Your Life: Self- Reflection Using Photography, Art, and Writing. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishing, 2008. ISBN: 9781843108924.

Teaching Interactive Classes

Amazon logo Brannigan, Gary G. Experiencing Psychology: Active Learning Adventures. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999. ISBN: 9780321032829.

Writing and Self Expression

Amazon logo Pennebaker, James W. Opening Up: the Healing Power of Expressing Emotions. New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 1997. ISBN: 9781572302389.

Amazon logo Daniel, Lois. How to Write your Own Life Story. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 1997. ISBN: 9781556523182.
This book gives practical tools and tips to help you recall and describe events, lessons, and relationships that have shaped your life - includes tricks to jog your memory, ways to gather facts, and how to conduct library research.

Amazon logo Rainer, Tristine. Your Life as Story. New York, NY: Jeremy Tarcher, 1998. ISBN: 9780874779226.
A thorough, well written, and historical look at how we write about our lives, including a very useful taxonomy of different types of autobiographies.

Amazon logo Roorbach, Bill. Writing Life Stories. Cincinnati, Writer's Digest Books; New Ed edition (October 2000). ISBN: 9781884910470.

Visual Art and Self Expression

Amazon logo Alinder, J., ed. The Photographer's Image: Self-portrayal. Carmel, CA: The Friends of Photography, 1978. ISBN: 9780933286009.
Introspective and psychologically minded self-portraits by known photographers, including three essays on self-portraiture.

Amazon logo Hieb, Marianne. Inner Journeying through Art-journaling. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2005. ISBN: 9781843107941.

Amazon logo Hines, Babbette. Photobooth. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002. ISBN: 9781568983813.
A compendium of photobooth images collected from the 1940s-1960s - opening essay by Lawrence Weschler.

Amazon logo Lafo, R., F. Weiss, and G. Fifield. Self-Evidence: Identity in Contemporary Art. Lincoln, MA: Decordova Museum, 2004. ISBN: 0945506473.

Amazon logo Michals, Duane. Now Becoming Then. Altandena, CA: Twin Palms Publishers, 1990. ISBN: 9780944092125.
A collection of narrative photographs in series which reflect on the artist's life. Includes a chapter about Michals' life by Max Kozloff.

Amazon logo Weiser, Judy. PhotoTherapy Techniques. Vancouver, Canada: PhotoTherapy Centre Press, 1999. ISBN: 9780968561904.

Amazon logo Weissman, N, and D. Heimerdinger. Self-Exposure: A Workbook in Photographic Self-Portraiture. New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1979. ISBN: 9780060906917.
An excellent workbook designed to introduce beginning photographers to the methods of self-portraiture.


During each class, the instructors conducted a handful of exercises designed to foster student discussion. The insights gleaned from these discussions formed the basis for the out-of-class student projects. Displayed here are samples of two classes, complete with descriptions of the class exercises, examples of students' work, and students commentary on the exercises.

Based on their experiences in running the class, the instructors have also compiled guidelines for running interactive seminars of this type. (PDF)

Sample Class 1: Turning Points

Sample Class 2: Self in Historical Context


Project Description

Over the course of several weeks, students met individually with the instructors, and in small groups outside of class to develop and refine their projects. Students then presented their projects in a two-week, end-of-term exhibition of their work. The final project served several important functions. First, it gave students a focus for their in-class work; students did the in-class exercises with the awareness that materials generated from those exercises might become elements of their final projects. This helped to give an over-arching shape to the class, and tied each class assignment to a greater goal. Second, for final projects, students were asked to choose a particular aspect of their lives that they wished to express to others. Students were required to be self-expressive in a way that clearly presented their ideas to others. In preparing work for the exhibition, students considered how their work would be perceived by an audience and how to be articulate in presenting their ideas. The projects shown below are merely a representative sampling of some of the approaches students took to their final projects.

Here is Thuy-Tien Le's description of how she created her final project (PDF). (Courtesy of Thuy-Tien Le.  Used with permission.)

Dressdown by Mirat Shah (Courtesy of Mirat Shah. Used with permission.)

"I hoped to reveal everything I carry with me on the inside using my outside appearance."
Photographic collage of the artist's clothing.

Photograph of Marat Shah's final project.

Wa*lt*er by Youn-Jae Walter Song (Courtesy of Youn-Jae Walter Song. Used with permission.)

"...a physical representation of the inner struggle of my thought process and the methodology for the decisions that I make."
A grid containing elements of the artist's life.

Photograph of Youn-Jae Walter Song's final project.



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