On selfies


Call me conflicted, a hypocrite, or just plain old-fashioned, but when I find myself celebrating songs like “Let me take a selfie” for its satire, and singing along while actually considering whether to take a selfie, I wish the camera phone had not been invented.

Gone are the days of the old school film, the dark rooms, the composition of a shot that wasn’t just a click and shoot at anything and everything. Gone are the days of a measured study of a subject, replaced by the frivolous and almighty “self-portrait” known as the Selfie.

Now, I have been known to take a “selfie” or two. In fact, back when I was studying photography and sitting near the window of my Via Macci apartment in Florence trying to figure out the right natural light, we called these things self-portraits. We studied Helmut Newton, Man Ray, Sally Mann. We looked at the compositions of photographs, examined their contexts, tried to dilute the complexities into meaning or the experience as we understood it. The idea, then, was that the artists, having put themselves in front of the camera, broke a wall and created an intimacy between the world and themselves. That the eye turned inwards, sending a message, posing a question, and perhaps even making a comment on a social or political issue as in the case of photographers such as the American photographer Laura Aguilar whose self-portraits set in nature speak to the body, in all its shapes and forms, being a part of the natural world and comment on the politics of self-image, perception, and nature.

These portraits said something, something worth listening to, something that provoked thought.

Many have argued that “selfies” do the same, making artists of us all, if you will. That this new form of self-portraiture is in itself a portrait of our times, bringing photography into Everyman’s hand as opposed to being the domain of a few. After all, you only have to click through a few Facebook profiles to see shots of beautiful scenery, real life ironies, and lots and lots of creative “self portraits.” All of a sudden, we have insight into people’s lives, their moods, and best of all, their closets and social lives. I cannot count the number of times I have seen a picture titled “Lunch” featuring a pouty selfie in yet another fabulous pair of sunglasses and wondered what it was that was for lunch–the subject of the photograph? Or the sunglasses?

Perhaps it is worth considering if accessibility to the feeling of being artistic is the only virtue here, and if the art of photography has lost its depth because the lenses are now everywhere, no longer a particular vision or an eye with which the world is seen.

We seem to have become our own favorite subjects. And not like in the case of artists like Vivien Maier or Diane Arbus who took photographs of themselves to illustrate something and not merely as a narcissistic exercise, but because it is gratifying, in some way, to see your own face staring out at you in soulful, delighted, thoughtful, expressions. I say this because I understand it, the pull of the selfie, the power to present yourself to the world in any way that you wish, that perception of others feeding into self-perception until there is no difference between the two and you are, at the end, that pouty, sexy, doleful, gorgeous, filtered creature that you see in your camera screen. I do this. I pose, filter, instagram. I selfie.

But, I realize, that I and other selfie takers are helping the world around use shrink and that photography, the medium that many have looked to, and still do, as a means of expansion, as a doorway into other worlds and moments, has been corrupted, narrowing the lens so much that each individual “artist” is concerned only with their little world, their view, their creation.

Where once self-portraiture was the thing that opened up the mind, the eyes, letting us be voyeurs for a second, understanding the mind that was behind the photographs that helped us see the world, it is now doing the opposite, pointing us only inwards and yet showing us no interiority, nothing but a glossy version of ourselves so similar to many others.

Perhaps a lens pointed outwards is the real way to get at the inside of a person. Perhaps. But first, let me take a selfie!