Chinelle Rojas on the art of self-portraiture

In an age saturated with selfies, the art of self-portraiture can seem watered down at best, and a conceited indulgence at worst. But for Florida-based designer Chinelle Rojas, it’s been a way to come to terms with her identity and celebrate who she is. His series of self-portraits, my black selfis a way for her to reclaim a part of herself that has long been ignored.

“That’s how I was brought up. My parents never cared much about race, which I think bothered me in a way. I had things happen to me, different microaggressions and stuff like that. I didn’t know how to put two and two together until I was an adult looking back like, ‘Wait. It was wrong. [The title My Black Self] didn’t come until I got to a point in my life where I embraced my blackness,” she explains.

For Rojas, the project and the process go beyond a selfie. Each plan is meticulously planned and sometimes sketched beforehand. Chinalle Rojas

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Assume your identity

Born in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, Rojas spent her childhood in Germany and Florida.

“Being Caribbean, I didn’t grow up identifying as black,” she shares. “I know it’s super weird because I’m clearly black but I didn’t grow up identifying as black. Later in my adulthood I started to come to terms with the fact… When America see, I’m black so I’m black but Trinidadian if you want to be specific.

my black self was a public proclamation to accept who she was and how others might view her. Rojas, who had been practicing self-portraiture since the start of his career nearly 10 years ago, officially launched an Instagram account for the series in late 2019, which coincided with another embrace of his identity: The whole family moved in Trinidad, where Rojas created prolifically.

“I’m just more able to see that I’m black and Caribbean, Caribbean and black,” she says. “I’m Afro-Caribbean and this just reiterated to me a bit more.”

chinelle rojas my black self
my black self is a celebration and statement of Rojas’ identity. Chinalle Rojas

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Setting up the shot

When Rojas comes up with an idea, one of the first things she does is see if others have created similar work. Although she maintains that she is very adept, when it comes to art, Rojas is determined to be first.

“I don’t like to do things that other people have already done, so that’s kind of my thing. If I don’t see anyone who has, then I’ll be like, ‘Cool. Do it now.’ If I see someone who has done it, I will make a mental note of how not to do it,” she explains. “I prefer to be a pioneer in this sense. When it comes to my art and stuff like that, I try to separate myself and be different and do something that other people aren’t doing, at least not yet.

Depending on the complexity of the idea, she will sketch it out, sometimes in great detail, before taking and building the final image in Photoshop. And that’s his advice to other creatives who want to dive into self-portraiture. Have a plan. This will make the process easier and even save you a lot of frustration.

“It’s amazing what a little planning can do in the self-portrait process. If you know what you are going to wear, you know how you are going to make up, how your hair will be, the lighting situation, how you are going to set up the shot, it makes the shooting process is so much more fluid because you already know what you have to do. It won’t be a lot of “Oh, I don’t know”. It will work? I don’t know,” advises Rojas.

When it comes to taking the picture, it’s an open secret. The Fujifilm Ambassador’s hack involves using the intervalometer on her Fujifilm X-T4 with the camera set to shoot continuously at one-second intervals. That way, she’s not limited by a set number of photos and can time each one accordingly. With the help of the camera’s flip-up screen, she can compose and capture in real time.

chinelle rojas my black self
To create this photograph, Rojas climbed onto a roof, blindfolded. It represents an act of faith. Chinalle Rojas

His editing process

After sorting through hundreds of photos, Rojas pulls her favorites into Lightroom for basic edits and touch-ups using her own presets. However, she is not attached to a particular style.

“It always depends on my mood because I might say, ‘this will look really cool, really retro’ and otherwise I’m like, ‘I need clean, crisp or dark and moody or super bright.’ It really depends on the actual feel I’m looking for in the self-portrait – the sky’s the limit, I don’t have to stick to a specific theme just because that’s what everyone knows.

For those who want to try

Photographers interested in trying the self-portrait (and not just a selfie) can take a page from Rojas. His best advice? Don’t limit yourself. At the beginning of the learning process, photographers are often told that they have to find their style and that consistency is king. For Rojas, this is not always the case, and it is not necessarily the case for the others either.

“When people think of self-portraits, they think more about their phones and their selfies,” she says. “A selfie is not a self-portrait; they are very different. I just want people to know they can do it and since my portfolio is entirely self-portrait it shows people that you don’t have to limit yourself to a specific style.

chinelle rojas my black self
Selfie Gone Wrong: Rojas says she had a scary moment taking this photo. Chinalle Rojas

The craziest thing she ever did

Climbing a roof, an underwater tangle – sometimes a shot goes beyond Photoshop, and Rojas is no stranger to extremes.

In one instance, she climbed onto the roof of her father’s house in Puerto Rico in an attempt to capture a shadow self-portrait, meant to represent the leap of faith she had taken in moving her family to Trinidad and then to Porto Rico.

“I was trying to do this leap of faith and do the hardest thing and that’s something we did when we moved from Trinidad to Puerto Rico, just trying the hardest thing,” recalls- she. “I [had] this vision, but getting on the roof was completely terrifying for me.

But coping with a fear of heights isn’t the only thing Rojas has done, and that pales in comparison to another shoot, which could have been deadly.

Armed with a vision, an aquarium, a swirling yellow dress and the help of a client, she attempted an underwater portrait in one of Florida’s famous springs. It went far from planned, and the result, while extraordinary, was hardly worthy of a “graze of mortality”, in Rojas’ words. Although she will continue to add to the series as time and life permit, it’s not a shot she will attempt again.

“I had been swimming and I was doing the thing but while I was there trying to stay above water whatever I was stomping my feet but then my feet started to be enveloped in this flowing underwater dress. In a brief moment of panic, I felt like I was going to die and drown. This is not how I want to die. I don’t want to be one of those people who die trying to do self-portraits.

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