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"My Own Self" The Self-Portraits of Asya Schween

The Self Portraits of Asya Schween
by Larry Berman and Chris Maher

Scroll down for the accompanying photographs and descriptions

This article is also featured on the dpreview web site

We first noticed Asya Schween’s haunting photographs in a forum thread about self-portraits on dpreview.com. Intrigued by what we saw, we did some further research and were impressed to find more than a hundred carefully conceived self-portraits on her web site www.MyOwnSelf.com. Asya is an exchange student from Russia, doing postgraduate work in Applied Mathematics at the University of Southern California. Despite her difficulty with spoken English, she was extremely fluent in our e-mail correspondence. Her wide grasp of the literature of many cultures and her dismissal of traditional atheistic boundaries has been the breeding ground for a host of powerful images.

There is no neutrality in response to Asya’s work. It seems that almost everyone has a strong reaction, ranging from shock and the mention of mental illness to an awe and outright critical acclaim of such a mature vision and style.

Larry and Chris: Tell us a little about yourself.

Asya: I'm an ambidextrous, color-blind math grad student, 22. I have two master degrees and I'm two years away from my Ph.D. in Bioinformatics. From time to time I want to ditch my college and do photography but I'm afraid I appear to be a coward and of course such attitude doesn't lead to anything except mediocrity, to be generous. Therefore my photos are being used exclusively in a utilitarian fashion for my own hedonistic fulfillment only.

My self-portraits are not ordained by my desire to impose something upon them. I'm not an admirer/devotee/pretender of dark glamour and morbid beauty. I'm continuously producing self-portraits and sometimes disgust/terrified/upset with them myself. I do self-portraits just for fun in attempt to escape the boredom of mathematics, so I sometimes spend hours and hours to set up just one shot.

Larry and Chris: How and when did you become interested in photography?

Asya: I was indifferent to photography for a long time as I never liked family albums. To me, family albums were (and still are) the quintessence of life’s superficiality. My 35mm point-n-shoot camera is still somewhere in my drawers, gathering dust. Two years ago I’ve got my first digital camera, Canon PowerShot G1, as a not-so-thrilling but quite expensive gift. I quickly became enamored with the digital ease-of-use and opportunity of making refinements on the fly. However, I was still apathetic to the dull nondescript scenic shots and faceless group portraits. A drastic change in my life happened a couple months later, I’ll tell you more about that later.

Larry and Chris: Have you ever taken a course in photography, or are you totally self-taught?

Asya: When I was 11, I fell in love for the first time, with my classmate. I joined a photo club just to be close to him. Three months later I began attending another school, forgot my first all-in-all and that was the end of my proper education in photography.

Larry and Chris: What were your earliest photographs like?

Asya: In a word, inexpressive. They all failed to convey my emotions, the transcendent fundamentals of the objects I was shooting, well enough. For example, my visit last year to San Francisco stunned my senses; the city itself reminded me of Dostoevsky's Petersburg - dark and obscure, but magnetic and intellectual. The photographs, however, turned out dull and insipid.

Larry and Chris: Can you tell us a bit about your childhood, especially any nurturing of artistic talent?

Asya: Nurturing of artistic talent? I was born in the family of young engineers; I am the second child, second daughter. My dad secretly, but desperately, wanted a boy, so I was raised as a tomboy, climbing trees, scraping knees and stealing ammonium nitrate from neighbor’s garage. My parents were strict and unrelenting disciplinarians. Pretense and artificiality of emotions were disapproved and always derided. I was sent to advanced school with emphasis on physics and mathematics, later I got my bachelor’s degree in Physics (just like my dad) and was accepted to an applied math graduate program here in the U.S.

Larry and Chris: When did you begin the series of self-portraits, and how did this come about?

Asya: I was shooting an abandoned piano in the back yard of my apartment complex; it was just another vain endeavor to express/communicate my thoughts and feelings. In a burst of irritation I swiveled the LCD screen all the way around and took a photo of my aggrieved face and was unexpectedly pleased with the result. I clearly remember my mounting excitement as I rushed home and started taking photos of my dissatisfied facial expression.

Larry and Chris: Have you done any acting? Do you do any creative writing or poetry?

Asya: Oh, no! To be honest, I’m not really into opera, ballet or even figure skating. I hesitate to step up to the soapbox and I do not think I have any acting vibes.

Larry and Chris: What is your definition of beauty?

Asya: To me, beauty is a quantum number that accounts for the existence and lifetime of the upsilon particle. That’s the definition I’ve learned in engineering school and I do not really treasure the metaphysical one. I believe neither in absolute beauty nor in a moral or aesthetical one. If pressed, I would define this term from gastronomical viewpoint of being inexplicably attracted to an object, reveling in it, but not as a universal measure of human taste.

Larry and Chris: What do you get most excited or passionate about?

Asya: I guess I’ve become a dreary mathematician, but I fail to come up with anything not utilitarian that would get me excited or passionate.

Larry and Chris: What turns you off the most?

Asya: Discussing anything that is beyond what is perceptible to the senses. This relates to the old habit of ignoring pseudoscientific hypotheses and lofty engineering plans. I dislike discussing fine art, archetypal ideals, etc.

Larry and Chris: What are your future plans, and how definite are you about them?

Asya: I’m now 22, I’m planning to finish my Ph.D. studies in a year or two. I’m trying to recall what else I promised to my mom and I hope I never ever mentioned Fields Medal in mathematics to her, as it would make me head for this unfeasible award as well. My parents do not want to hear anything about photography and I myself realize that being an ever-lasting amateur would continue to delude me that I’m not a mediocre scientist but a might-have-been professional fine art photographer. I have a glorious, promising, challenging, as well as splendid, magnificent and delightful professional future of applied mathematician.

Larry and Chris: Would you like to make a living from your art?

Asya: Yes, if it doesn’t imply working solely for mercenary reasons.

Larry and Chris: What do you like to do when you're not creating images or attending to your studies?

Asya: I enjoy reading. I’m not well-read when it comes to discussing/describing the literature; I’m a silent Greek sea sponge that thankfully imbibes the literary moisture without any transcendental argumentation.

Larry and Chris: What is bioinformatics and what drew you to it?

Asya: Math turned out to be mind-numbingly boring, so I turned to a very applied and relatively boisterous area of applied math, bioinformatics. The area of bioinformatics, in particular, computational biology, has captivated me because of the vast spectrum of research opportunities it offers in the analysis and interpretation of genomic data. I find this area exciting, rewarding, and most of all, fun. However, it would be an unwary exaggeration to tell that ‘I found myself’ in this field.

Larry and Chris: At first glance, your interest in a branch of mathematics seems at odds with your images. Is this just another side of you, or are the two related in any way?

Asya: I truly enjoy this question as it ingratiatingly pictures me as a polyhedral semiprecious crystal with mathematics being a ‘just another side’ of my otherwise perfect shape. I spent seven years playing violin while being 100% tone-deaf, I enjoy painting and photography while being partially colorblind, I study physics and mathematics all my life while being apathetic to exact sciences. So yes, at first glance, most of my interests seem odd, but they probably make me the person I am.

Larry and Chris: When and why did you decide to come to the US?

Asya: Norman Brenner once said, “The intermediate stage between socialism and capitalism is alcoholism.” I was the ill-fated witness of the moral decay of my coevals during the years of undergraduate studies in one of the best Russian engineering schools. After graduation, I had no ideas about my future plans and occupation, so I decided to postpone making these decisions until I’m done with the graduate school.

Larry and Chris: What kinds of equipment are you using, both photographic and otherwise?

Asya: I have two digital cameras – Canon PowerShot G1 and Nikon CoolPix 5700, I also have Zenith AM, Polaroid Sx-70 and an antique folding Kodak camera. I’m happy with my three 500 Watt heavy-duty garage lamps, half a dozen of flashlights and home-made soft boxes. I bought $10 fabric for my background and I’m also a proud owner of several 58mm filters. I also have Epson Stylus Color 777 printer, 2.53 GHz P4 computer and 19” ViewSonic monitor.

Larry and Chris: What about the props used in your pictures. Your images, though simple in composition, are well thought out complex statements.

Asya: Props! Oh yeah, props! Last week I caught myself buying useless stuff to make one shot and then throw it away. I'm renting a tiny studio (as in "studio apartment", not "the working place of a painter, sculptor, or photographer ") in South Central, LA and my room and kitchenette are cluttered with IKEA storage boxes, canvas supplies and mathematical textbooks.

Larry and Chris: What camera equipment did you use when you lived in Russia?

Asya: None myself. However, my dad used to take pictures, so we had a mini lab at home; I was first initiated in the enigmatic rite of printing black-and-white photos at age six.

Larry and Chris: How much time do you spend making your images?

Asya: All of my spare time is absorbed by taking and processing pictures.

Larry and Chris: How has your use of digital cameras affected your self-portraits?

Asya: It’s probably the other way around, my self-portraits has affected the use of the camera

Larry and Chris: Do you view the LCD screen before you trip the shutter?

Asya: Not anymore. When I first started, I always monitored the final composition in my PowerShot swivel LCD screen, now I find a certain pleasure in making ‘blind’ portraits and most of my recent work is done this way.

Larry and Chris: We’ve seen many of your pictures posted to forum threads on dpreview. Are the images accompanying your posts on the dpreview forum pulled from your files or done on the spot?

Asya: Few of them were done immediately after reading the forum, the rest were pulled from my collection.

Larry and Chris: How much post-exposure manipulation is used in creating your images? To what degree are your images pre-visualized?

Asya: Most of the times, I’m trying to catch a certain expression/frame of mind, so I already keep a deliberate and well-visualized image in my head. Very often I have to post-process the resulting image in order to perfect the final mood.

Larry and Chris: How do you feel about the attention being paid to your work?

Asya: Obviously it is one of the most contradictory feelings I’ve ever experienced before, the one that is worth catching in a pile of bytes on my hard drive. I once compared this sensation to the feelings of ‘lusus naturae’ from the cabinet of curiosities, but obviously there’s more than that.

Larry and Chris: How important to you is the effect that your images have on others, or that they have any effect at all?

Asya: Apparently, my collection is more than a family album that I’ve mentioned above, so public exposure does not leave me passionless. At the same time, each of my self-portraits is an end product, stark fossil that I thoroughly collect for unknown reasons as an inveterate philatelist or numismatist. Overall, I feel a presence of thick glass that separates me from the visitors and lets me study the reaction from the distance.

Larry and Chris: Some of your portraits have a strong erotic or sexual undertone. Can you speak about that?

Asya: Again, I’m not good with definitions; to me, virtually any object can be strongly marked or affected by sexual desire. It is neither bad nor good; it is a private measure of your own visual perception. Yes, I sometimes intend to enclose a sexual impact in my portraits but it is never meant to be indecent or vulgar.

Larry and Chris: What artists and photographers do you admire, and how may you have been influenced or inspired by them?

Asya: I enjoy a healthy view of life of Jean-Baptiste Mondino and somewhat repulsively attracted to the work of Joel-Peter Witkin.

Larry and Chris: Your work is a bit reminiscent of Cindy Sherman's. Are you familiar with her images?

Asya: I found out about Cindy Sherman’s work recently, a friend accused me of direct replication of her work. However, I believe our works differ a lot. I see her art as a series of cinematographic tableaux that refer to intentionally generalized and abstract anonymous female roles in modern society. Her self-portraits deliberately lack authentic human emotions, while mine scream for the presence of those.

Larry and Chris: You summarize the essence of Cindy Sherman's work with a remarkable clarity. Reaching out to all media, in all time periods, what artists, musicians, and other creative people can you point to who have truly captured the powerful emotions you seek to portray in your photographs? Have you ever studied their approaches to the creative process?

Asya: Here’s an incomplete list without any order or forethought: painter, sculptor, architect Michelangelo Buonarroti, violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini, depressive lyrical monologues of German gothic group “Sopor Aeternus”, modern Brazil artist Adriana Varejão, impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh, Russian poet Feodor Tyutchev, most of German expressionists (E. L. Kirchner, Käthe Kollwitz, and George Grosz).

Larry and Chris: You speak of how a visit to San Francisco strongly affected you, and how disappointed you were with the results of your photographs. Actually the image you sent was quite powerful, and unique in terms of any other shot of San Francisco we've seen. Capturing the "transcendent fundamentals of the objects" in a photograph is a very difficult task. How do you approach it? Do you previsualize an image that has that energy in it, or do you seek it on your camera's LCD? And how do you know you have captured it when you are finished with an image? How does the reaction of others to the finished piece enter into the equation?

Asya: I guess, still photography in general would fail to transmit my San Francisco sensation during that visit – it should be a repetitious, grotesque, almost absurd series of vignettes that closely resemble grainy silent movie.

Have you ever tried to pin down a butterfly for a collection of insects in your childhood? Well, I was a young entomologist once… Still remember not being able to shake off the stupor while pinning, spreading and mounting a beautiful but dead creature on the display. To me, shooting is a similar rite, but the "transcendent fundamentals of the objects" are still alive when you ‘mount’ them and that’s what makes the whole capturing problem so uneasy. Camera is not the decisive element in finding the image; it is a wayward tool of seizing it.

I do not remember ever being happy with the resulting images. Self-portraits do not frustrate me that much – most of the time I’m still able to relate my facial expressions to the naturally many-sided essence of my (and everyone’s) being. Honestly, from time to time I’m giving up on capturing inanimate objects, the process starts reminding me of spiritualism - sitting around a table, holding hands and communicating with the reticent lifeless surroundings. In general, photography challenges me constantly - intellectually, and emotionally.

My parents taught me to see myself through the reaction of others, but I guess I neither accepted nor followed this instruction. I keep a vigilant watch over the vastly differing perception of my work by others, the way public opinion fluctuates and alters as I introduce a new image, but most of the time I find it sarcastically entertaining rather than informative or instructive.

Larry and Chris: You have a very empirical approach to esthetic issues. Is there any room for the metaphysical or unexplainable in your creative process? Can the spirit of a time and place be crystallized by a photograph?

Asya: Of course there’s plenty of metaphysical or unexplainable content in my work/life. However, chewing over these subjects seems to be a mauvais ton to me.

Trite as it sounds, these self-portraits are reflections of my own self, grotesque interplay of my mind and body realities, something rather personal, "Asya Schween! Inexpensive soothing art for bedroom walls! Deep, penetrating, sensual! Dirt-cheap! Buy one today!"
Try Lobotomy!
“Application of frontal lobotomy in treatment of various mental disorders has lead Egaz Moniz to his Nobel Prize while to many psychotic people it meant the reduced ability to respond emotionally and/or intellectually. Sounds like a charm song and a panacea for all mental illnesses. Now, when we have non-sedating tranquilizers, lobotomy, I believe, is rarely performed, if ever. But… if you feel anxious or depressed, obsessive-compulsive or just a bit upset and tired - pick a simple ice-pick, insert it to your nose and bang on it with a hammer. Try Lobotomy! Satisfaction Guaranteed!”
Absolute Self Portrait
“I rarely visit my website – there’s no contact info to keep updated, no guest books or comment boxes to check. My site is deaf and dumb as it was intended. But even when I do check it, I usually languish idly as I skim through my portraits that crowd much like the giggling children’s choir and sing out of tune. The surplus of emotions that I see inhibits my personal feedback. Ever since I first noticed this reaction I was trying to come up with the emotionless self-portrait - cold-blooded, blank, non-transparent and calm - the one that provokes feeling, but doesn’t convey them itself. Well, the above work is the result of my efforts on this path.”
Be My Valentine “Frankly, I'm fed up with terrifyingly cloying hearts and pink “love me” v-cards on February 14th. We’re wasting a huge amount of time trying to decipher rhythmic contractions of our little force pumps. Let’s at least be honest and face how it really looks when somebody tears your heart out.”
Forbidden Dreams
“This work is more of kitsch - a puerile attempt to mimic our natural impulses that are considered obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent. “Forbidden dreams” mainly aims the audience that rejects (my) art in a traditional puritan manner due to ‘uncertain’ emotions that such work/art delivers.”
Lewd Threesome
“When I was six, my parents convinced me that I’m old enough and passed all my dolls to our neighbors that had four children and lived right above us on the third floor. I’ve spent hours and hours gazing through the window, watching these kids playing with my toys in the back yard. Last summer I was eyeballing eBay and found a cheap lot of vintage dolls. While bidding, I was so afraid that someone would steal my treasure at the very last moment… I finally got them, gave them a bath and then I played with them every evening for a week or so. Surely, we’ve got close (having relations, as people sometimes persist in calling it) and “Lewd Threesome” is just another memory of that serene period of my life.”
Got Bliss?“ I sometimes make snapshots for my parents and friends a la “Asya Schween at Girl Scout Camp”, e.g. self-portraits that are mainly utilitarian and serve to reflect my physical (rather than emotional) fitness. Here is me as my co-workers, students, friends see me every day – smug posture and happily benighted stare. Yes, that’s me.”
Man of Motley
“What happens if one changes his skin tones from white to black? Where does his white supremacy go? Does he start hearing Djembe’s beat at every sunrise? I guess it’s different for every person. I’ve tried once and that’s how I became a man of motley.”
The Spleen
“I have no doubts that I have a wealth amount of unaccounted black bile circulating in my blood. This cardinal humor imperceptibly poisons my mind and from time to time makes me melancholic and irascible.”
Long time ago, in my early childhood, I was quite sure that I'm absolutely clean and empty inside. I thought of myself as a hollow bamboo, growing on the Holy Mountain. Later I've discovered that there are yards of sickening wire, gallons of incarnadine viscid liquid and hundreds of crafty mechanisms inside my body. I've also learned that even a 60's Chevy truck is more reliable than my internal network - one day the innermost part of me will cease functioning, period. Now, when I've learned about mechanisms of aging, I know, that damage accumulates over the time - nice and slow. My body imperceptibly rots and deteriorates, damage accumulates and I inevitably die. And if you would care to look closer at my 22 years old body, you already see the first signs of my untimely death.
Probably one of my very first self-portraits, I made it in December 2000. It was the end of my first year in U.S., Russian nuclear submarine Kursk sunk, I was 20 years old and life seemed dreary and meaningless.
Forget Me Not
I've never thought of sharing my self-portraits back in 2001, I made them solely for my own entertainment. This photo is an ersatz of Alexander Pushkin's "Exegi Monumentum": "Not all of me is dust. Within my song, safe from the worm, my spirit will survive." I've made myself embalmed! A shrine to Asya Schween has been already built. "Forget Me Not" is a stealthy monument that I have once erected for myself and worshiped it in solitude since then.
Final note from the authors
In the past, artists would have to pound the pavement making appointments with art directors, editors, and gallery owners to try and get their work discovered and published. Now, all it takes is the creative drive, a web site, and the understanding of the promotional opportunities the web can offer. Of course, a little luck also helps.
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