“Pile in guys, let’s take some pictures so it looks like we have friends!”
The dance floor was dead. We milled around awkwardly in semi-formal garb, trying to convince ourselves and everyone else that we were having the time of our lives. Smartphones emerged, one after the other, and our visages flew into cyberspace, carried off by our muploads – “mobile uploads”.
My phone pinged in my pocket. A friend had just liked the picture I was newly tagged in, thereby recognizing my enjoyment in this recreational space and, well, also validating the notion that I had friends. +1 notifications, +1 acknowledgements of my intrusion upon others’ feeds. +1 being noticed.
This typical example of personal photography demonstrates its contemporary distance from its historical origins. The practice of personal photography originated as a hobby of bourgeois mothers to document their households, back when “Kodak moments” required a few minutes to capture and cameras were status symbols. Since then, with the technological development of faster films and smaller devices, and the subsequent mass production and consumption of handheld film cameras, the camera itself has simultaneously performed a “disappearing” act in its subsumption as a feature in other devices. The camera faded into the matte cases of smartphones, tablets, and other multimedia gadgets as it became more ubiquitous in terms of its personal practice. The self-portrait is no longer the artistic student’s contemplative exercise, but the idle consumer’s time killer. The photographs themselves, though they in some sense exist “permanently” once posted on the Internet, become ever more ephemeral with spaces like Snapchat, which encourages “no-holds-barred” self-portraits by deleting them within a few seconds of being read.
What, then, are the implications of photography’s multitudinous existence, interference in, and enrichment of our contemporary lives? How do we recognize these two most recent developments – digital and ubiquitous – in the development of photography in the context of our own existences embedded in an increasingly digital age?
The multitudinous nature of digital photography itself distinguishes it from traditional analog film photography. Digital photos are written to the physical instance of an incredibly compact memory card, rather than the extended physical memory of film. This expansion in scale has significantly impacted the digital workflow: the emphasis now is on “shoot now, cut later”. When photos are cheap, why be stingy? As a result, notable photos tend to be surrounded by duds, the necessary byproducts of the new digital photography.
The second distinguishing feature of the digital photograph is its mutability: the skepticism of “being shopped” with which we approach images these days. Granted, there were plenty of processes available to modify analog photography; indeed, the names of software tools explicitly refer to such analog post-processing as “masking”, “burning”, “dodging”. But it’s never been easier to change a photo beyond recognition, whether with Photoshop or Instagram or another editing application. One click can imitate, non-destructively, how hours of chemical processing would transform a 35mm slide.
This multiplicity and mutability are features of the new photography that, by now, we simply accept as fact. The “selfie”, destined for social networks like Facebook and Instagram, is a product of photography’s new multiplicity and is endlessly subverted by its mutability.
What exactly is a “selfie”, and where does it exist? In its most elementary form it’s a picture someone takes of themselves, whether with others in the frame or not. A “selfie” is the bored self-portrait someone takes at the airport when there’s nothing else to do but make silly faces at a phone. A “selfie” is also the self-documentation of a group of friends at a shared meal, concert, or other experience. It’s the picture a group of friends demands to document their presence somewhere, together.
Why take selfies? Part of it exists in the need to document one’s own existence in an authentic language on the Internet. Social networks, like Linkedin and online dating websites, demand and encourage users to upload profile pictures to assure others that they are real, that there is a human behind the words on the profile. Words can be faked, and while images can be stolen wholesale from others, it is the graininess, the “fuzziness” of the generic self-portrait that speaks to its authenticity. The documentation of our own photographic imperfections – the crookedness of our framing, the background objects that shouldn’t be there – calls all the more to our own authenticity in a photoshopped, mediated image landscape. Even the most elaborate, richly worded online dating profile is less compelling and less immediate than a picture.
The authenticity of the digital self-portrait contrasts with its ubiquity and mutability and complicates the selfie’s various roles. Is a grainy profile picture, subjected to wacky photo filters, more authentic as a statement of personal identity, an injection of personality, than a technically pristine headshot? Then the mutability of the digital image is a canvas for a statement of authenticity, a way for the selfie-taker to impart his or her own influence on the presentation of self in the image – image making as, in a certain sense, self-making.
Taking the self-portrait is also a deliberate gesture of self-documentation. As image, it is a proclamation of self and agency: I am here, in this space, with this backdrop, with these people. Its mood and tone inevitably influences the perception of self by others, and thus, agency over the self-portrait is an agency for presentation of the identity of the self. Casual? Goofy and self-effacing, or airbrushed and flawless? Thus the decision-making process requires a step back in considering what online spaces the self-portrait is destined for, who will see it, how one wants to be seen by others viewing the self-portrait. The act of rendering ourselves the objects of photographic representation, if only for a moment, flips the way we see the world to the way the world sees us. Moreover, this dynamic is now being encoded into the hardware itself: smartphones and tablets now include front-facing lens and some compact cameras include mirrors on the front. As this initially novel self-portrait becomes technologically and socially more ubiquitous, it is all the more complicated and less critically understood.
Historically, the “cult value” (1) of art was in its very existence, in some sort of ritual purpose or actualization of the artwork. At the very inception of personal photography, the portrait still maintained an authority in the novelty of its technology, able to truly capture a representation of the world. Over time, the actual process of taking a photograph became less interesting in its own right as it became more mainstream. In contrast, the exhibition value of an artwork lies in its display and viewership by others; the artwork exists to be shared and disseminated. The self-portrait as documentation of “being-there” or “being-with” to stave off accusations of not having a life or not having friends, therefore, employs the exhibition value of self-documentation. My friends and I were resorting to the exhibition value of selfies while awaiting something more exciting. The self-portrait destined for exhibition, then, undermines the idea that existence is valuable in its self-generation. It is the kind of self-portrait that technology alarmists describe implicitly in decrying the decline of culture today.
Must the selfie, as the alarmists would have it, entail a certain decline in the value of human interaction? I would argue not, as long as the selfie’s exhibition value is mediated by a recognition of its cult value. The self-portrait with cult-value, then, the self-portrait for the sake of self-documentation, mediates between the importance of a photography proving one’s existence and the process of existing itself. The value of the cult-value selfie exists not in the number of likes it generates but in its existence as a crystallized memory of time and place. It provides an opportunity to step back from the usual plane of existence of living and experiencing, to self-document one’s own experiences. The process of self-documentation proclaims that one’s existence is worthy of documentation and reflection: that this moment in this space and time is worthwhile. Sometimes these selfies come from intimate occasions with friends and family, or noteworthy experiences: running into a favorite band member or author, documentation of a lengthy project or a particularly victorious moment.
Acknowledging the development of technology, it appears selfies are here to stay, though apps and devices might change. In parallel to our public feeds of selfies, group photos, pictures we take of the food we eat and the famous people we meet and the landmarks we’ve stood in front of; let us not allow the exhibition value of selfies to obliterate their intrinsic value of self-declaration and self-documentation. Why not carve out a space for us to follow our own lives in the process of living? A space to celebrate the times that, in the transience of the moment, we thought were worth celebrating. After all, in a combinatorial sense, the backdrops of self-portraits are typically photographed many times over: what distinguishes them at all is the presence and primacy of our own self. Ultimately, our selfies are symptoms of the self-consciousness and awareness of our own existences.
(1) In discussing the authenticity, “exhibition value”, and “cult value” of art, I am employing Walter Benjamin’s ideas about art and its technological reproduction – see “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction”