On the Selfie
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 207, October 2017
Most of us feel that the ‘selfie’ is a telling artefact of our massive self regard, exemplifying the obsession that the universe revolves around our inalienable individuality. But we might be wrong to assume this. Perhaps there is a more constructive, progressive explanation for the greatest cultural mania of recent years.
We should get the bad stuff out of the way quickly – there is no denying that an increase in self awareness of the body, especially amongst the young, is producing some toxic results. The ‘naked torso’ shot has (previously insouciant) men obsessively working out and sharing pictures of their ‘six packs’, not just to their friends, but to anyone in the world who cares to look. I should note that I, too, have a six pack – it’s cooling nicely in the fridge. I must remind myself to send a picture of it to my friends.
The obsession with objectification of the face and body is reportedly having a negative effect on women and, increasingly, men. The availability of selfie apps which can be used to ‘shop’ yourself into an idealised ‘you’ is corrosive. That self worth can be measured in the resulting ‘likes’ of an Instagram post is indisputably pathological. It seems the selfie can be deluding and diverting from a genuine sense of worth – a ‘worth’ that is normally built on the societal positives of care and interaction and which have provided generations with a bedrock sense of the world and an idea that they are unconditionally part of it.
But that said we can’t load the selfie with pure opprobrium. Edward Weston once made some portraits of Tina Modotti, ‘Tina discovered in Edward’s portraits a new scaffolding of her identity. … she fell in love with what she saw of herself in [Weston’s] eyes as much as with the human being before her’. Her reaction to this image of herself is, perhaps, not unique among sitters for portraits who enjoy the image made of them, but what Modotti saw in the image was a construction that she was able to see herself reflected in. This is not the reflection of Narcissus. This is the positively affirming psychological effect of seeing oneself through the apparently objective eyes of another (perhaps a god-like view) that seems to confirm that we are who we think we are.
So the contemporary selfie could be an attempt to appropriate the point of view of the ‘perfect viewer’, or perhaps better put as ‘the one who understands all’. This yearning for a third party view of ourselves is not derived from a sense of obsessive self regard or vanity rather it stems from a need to make sense of ourselves in a world where ‘self’ is found in many different aspects of our personas. Where does our ‘self’ live? I have heard psychologists argue that even our notebooks should be considered part of our ‘extended self’. In this way almost everything we do, own, eat, enjoy, hate etc must be considered a part of our self and therefore ought to be taken as evidence of what makes up our greater ‘selves’.
I live and work, metaphorically and actually, in the shadow of Grenfell Tower. On the day of the fire I photographed the media and the public gazing at this horrific disaster as it happened. A couple of days later I walked with people paying their respects and coming to terms with the unfathomable awfulness of what had occurred. If you live in the area there is no hiding from the ghastly horror of the hulking, burned out tower that looms over everyone like a monument from Hell to the forgotten and marginalised. And then amongst the mourners (because that is what we were) I started to see people having selfies taken with Grenfell as a backdrop. At first my instinctual ‘sneer’ reflex was triggered. How could they be so callous? I was outraged (and outrage always carries with it a feeling of superiority). A short time passed between the scenes I describe here and the time when I got down to writing this article. In that time my ‘outrage’ at the Grenfell ‘selfi-ists’ had mellowed to a new comprehension of what was going on.
We are so attuned to the image as a way of relating the world. By placing ourselves in the image that frames the object of our interest (or at least that to which we wish to be associated – however grisly) the shooting of selfies is a way of describing to others our experience of life. This is no more offensive than someone writing a letter in which they describe in detail their experiences; good or bad. Either missive; selfie or letter, is full of implied associations and attitudes that the creator hopes will be seen to reflect well on them by a third party onlooker – again, this idea of the ‘perfectly observed self’.
For some years I have been compiling ‘evidence’ for a book I wanted to call ‘Turning our Backs on Culture’. The title reflects the way people always stand with their backs to the thing of interest whilst taking a selfie so that they can be seen in the same frame and therefore bathe in the reflected glory of the view/painting/gig etc. In recent months I have been forced to face up to the fact that my original thesis – that people are narcissistic and can only relate to an experience if they can see themselves in it – has been entirely trashed as being snobbish and lacking in understanding of the cultural phenomenon of our time. My work continues on the same theme but with the broader remit of recording how we consume culture, how we interact with it and why we are so drawn to it. My view is now more anthropological rather than political.
The selfie is the cultural phenomenon of our times. To many the selfie is an expression of our inward looking, self centred, narcissistic tendency which, in turn, speaks of our inability to relate to the world without placing ourselves centre frame. But to some, perhaps, there is a new understanding that places the selfie in the same canon as all forms of artistic expression; a tendency that dates back to the early stages of civilisation, that is, a very human desire to make sense of the scale of the world by using our own physical form to measure it and show it to others. Nothing more, nothing less.
Next month I’ll be thinking about truth in photography – we are told the camera never lies but what about all that is left out of the frame? The camera may not deceive but it rarely tells the whole story.