In this post I want to deconstruct the ‘selfie’, not just as a type of image that is widely produced and shared across the world, but also as a philosophical and cultural concept that is beginning to define our age. Voted as the Oxford dictionary of the year in 2013, the selfie is far more than a photographic trend: its popularity represents a significant shift in the way that we conceive of others and of ourselves. Rather than regarding the selfie as photograph, it might help to regard the selfie as a medium of identification. This post seeks to uncover what the selfie – as a cultural phenomenon – communicates about our shifting identities.
As James Hall points out in his book The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History, the emergence of the self-portrait can be traced to the middle ages. However it was not until the Renaissance period, and the ‘heroisation’ of the artist, that self-portraits became a recognized genre within the visual arts. This crucial link between the artist as the author of the image is something that I want to return back to later in this post.
Since the very inception of photography in the mid-19th century, photographers have habitually used the camera to represent themselves. Perhaps one of the best-known examples of an early photographic self-portrait is Hippolyte Bayard’s photograph titled Self Portrait as a Drowned Man from 1840. Crucially, like in the modern day selfies of the 21st century, Bayard elects to perform to the camera and act out an alter ego – a dead man in this case. While photography is a medium that is predominantly associated with ‘reality’ or ‘truth’, self-portraiture always allowed a degree of performance or acting for the camera. It was, perhaps, the photographers’ opportunity to create a version of him or herself that stands in contrast to the ‘realness’ most photographs are associated with.
The rise of digital technologies witnessed the exponential growth of photographic production and, in particular, photographic self-portraiture. With the introduction of digital cameras, photography became not only more accessible and (if you take the cost of film into account) more affordable, but also, it became quicker. Rather than waiting a few hours or even days to get a film developed, the image was instantaneously visible. The instantaneity of digital photography is one of the key drivers in the rise of the selfie. In the past a person posing for a family photograph would see the results with a significant delay – in most cases the subject in the image would rarely see the results at all as photographs were archived in the family album. Digital photography changed our relationship to photography completely: the results are instantly visible and photographs can be deleted and retaken if the subject or the photographer cares to do so. This technological shift was therefore also accompanied by a major cultural shift as digital photography promoted a far quicker understanding of the image as representation of gender, class or social status.
Another major milestone in the emergence of the selfie was the mobile phone camera. In Japan the technology was introduced in the early millennium and initially promoted the user to take photographic portraits of personal contacts so that these contacts could be quickly identified via their profile photographs. This technology was appropriated by predominantly female users who used the camera phone to take a quick snapshot of themselves in place of a mirror. I witnessed this cultural phenomenon in 2003 while living in Japan as young women took pictures of themselves to make sure that the make up they just applied looked good in an digital image on the display of the phone. By 2004 mobile phone manufacturers produced phones specifically with a mirror option – a camera lens that pointed directly at the user. In hindsight I recognize that the introduction of this mirror option represents an important step towards the emergence of the selfie as we know it today.
Of course there are other elements that promoted the selfie such as the constant demand for profile photographs (e.g. self-portraits) uploaded on social networking sites such as Facebook (founded 2004) or Twitter (founded 2006). The launch of the first-generation iPhone in 2007 must also be regarded as a driving force in the promotion and dissemination of the selfie. Yet the technology that drove the selfie was already well in place before the launch of the iPhone, or even the rapid rise of Facebook et al. It would be wrong to attribute too much agency to the technologies that drove the selfie, because, quite clearly, these technologies were developed in response to a cultural demand. In other words, just as much there was a need for mobile phone technology and sharing media via the internet, there was also a social need for the selfie.
Tracing the selfie to its cultural roots, rather than its technological roots, is a complex exercise. I do not think there is a single point in time which can be regarded as the birth of the selfie considering that we are talking about an emerging discourse that can be divergent, paradoxical or contradictory. Yet one major driving force in the popularity of the selfie appears to be the popularity (or the famousness) of the subject producing the selfie. Here I return to the ‘heroisation’ of the Renaissance artist through self-portraiture. In the 21st century, it is the celebrity who conducts this form of ‘heroisation’ through the visual language of the selfie.
The rise of the selfie is inextricably linked to the rise of a very particular type of celebrity culture epitomized by Kim Kardashian – a celebrity who is famous because of her image as celebrity. This type of celebrity has appropriated the selfie most cunningly to not just document the self in various styles and poses, but also, as a way to reinforce and promote the self to a global audience. The selfie is not just simply a photograph innocently shared with a few million followers, it is a cunning PR exercise that actively advertises the celebrity as a brand. The success of the brand partially hinges on followers buying into the ‘reality’ promoted through the selfie.
One aspect of the selfie that is rarely discussed is the fact that it often focuses on the body. These bodily selfies appear to promote an intimate relationship between celebrity and her followers, yet it also promotes a hyper awareness of the body as potential commodity. In this type of image economy, a body that is not photographed, uploaded or shared has no worth. In order to remain current, therefore, the celebrity engages with this economy by sharing images of her body via the selfie. In this globalized and interconnected world, the selfie has become the universal language of a culture increasingly obsessed with fragmenting and sharing the body via the photographic image. Here, the selfie has gained the status of a quasi-currency, rising in value the more an image is shared and disseminated via the Internet.
The selfie is not just a type of photograph but, it should be remembered, it also constitutes a physical activity. Popular Twitter feeds such as @SelfyGames indicate that selfies are performed similar to a sport. The interactive capacity and the global reach of selfies could also be witnessed in the recent success of the #NoMakeUpSelfie charity campaign in the United Kingdom. These examples suggest that the act of taking a selfie is often in response to other selfies. This imitation of another form of representation directly refers to a philosophical concept derived from the ancient Greek word Mimesis – an idea that governed the creation of works of art, in particular, with correspondence to the physical world understood as a model for beauty. Following this line of thought, the selfie is not simply a form of self-representation, but it is actually a visual response to an ideal beauty largely promoted through the media, advertising and the cult of the celebrity. And this is the irony of selfies: inasmuch the word ‘selfie’ suggests that this type of image is about the self, on closer inspection, it actually is about a form of beauty that is largely outside of the self.
I would like to thank Rob Ball who referred me to Noah Kalina’s work.