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Selfies as Self Declarations: What happens now?

“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”

Categories: 2013 Winter Writing Contest, Communications & Media Studies, Philosophy.

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12 Responses

  1. I think the issue of photography has a very deep impact on the question of existence and it deserves to be thoroughly explored.

    I really like your conception of ‘Dasein’ and ‘mit-sein’, the being-there and being-with. I think this is really important because this provides us with a new avenue to approach the onset of photography in a new way than how we, the editors, have usually been thinking about the advent of pictures.

    To explain it a little more, for the ancient Greeks, being-there was in effect “truth,” that the appearance of that thing is an unconcealing of that thing itself, and through this unconcealing the thing’s Being comes to the fore. In contrast, without the being-there, everything is to be reckoned as mere entities – things to be used. It is when the thing reveals itself that which you have the space to genuinely question the Being of the thing.

    To take it back to photography, it does seem like pictures do shine upon the individual or the people – pictures that somehow make you ask: “who is that person?” Where usually you probably won’t notice them. I guess superficially this is pervasive within movie actors/actresses where pictures really give them “something” to which if they were not stars, nobody would have cared about them at all. Perhaps it would be possible to think of it as such: that the “cult-value” creates the rich worldhood of that individual to which only the spectators have a direct access into, to peer within – that these people are no longer people, but works of art in themselves. (Remember editors and all), I’m not talking about an imagined/fantasized world here, but the world in which the Being truly show themselves. In other words – the superstars world consist of grocery shopping and buying cucumbers. All of a sudden, we no longer see the cucumber as merely a vegetable that is on sale on tuesdays, but we truly see the cucumber as the true meaning of it – crunchy, tasty, greenish, etc, etc.

    You mention that filters, backdrop and shop allows for agency within the individual to manipulate one’s own representation – but is Being genuinely reduced to nothing but the representation of oneself? Your point here seems to be that existence is exhibition – and exhibition can only truly shine forth through the constant re-generation of the scheinen. Perhaps photography provides the easiest way of existence – you don’t have to help out in the soup kitchen 5 times a week for people to recognize you anymore, all you need is to take pictures and upload it on facebook. In this very sense, it isn’t something new – that we gain ‘ourselves’ through our interaction with the world. We can do something and allow it to realize ourselves while people recognize us, or pictures can do the trick as well – the immediate access to the Being of the person. But here again there is another problem – pictures in themselves too seem to be losing this appeal in that I can only see the ‘hot girl’ in the picture and every picture I’m just looking at ‘hot girls’, the Being thus is reduced to nothing but a mere entity. Also, doesn’t this mean that we’re apart from any genuine interaction with the world – that photography is used as a re-capturing of Being, without actually even needing ‘to be’ in the world? Being seems to no longer be a process, but an end goal – and each picture taken seems to capture those very ends by themselves. [In the effect of holding moments without working for those moments.]

    There’s a lot more to be said, I’d really like to know all of your thoughts.

  2. There is one more issue here that bars recognizing – temporality. The issue of re-genereation of pictures reveal that Being fades, and it seems like the advent of pictures allows us to chase this issue of “stable and eternal” attempt at ‘life.’

  3. This is brilliant, and brings up so many important themes. Even before the advent of digital photography I decided that I needed to be in the pictures when on vacation, because otherwise pictures of landscapes or notable things held little to no interest to me when I went back through them (or to the few people I showed them to). But I certainly didn’t understand it at this level.

    To me the destructive nature of facebook or whatever service is that people focus on the exhibition value – only showing the “good” stuff to make their lives seem more perfect to themselves and others. To focus on “the positive” can be natural and healthy, but not if it denies the existence of “the negative.” I would say this is inauthentic, and the concepts and themes explored here can help to draw those distinctions.

  4. Some (only mildly related) thoughts:

    1. Reality is increasingly constructed through images (in a wider sense, also news*); images are a mediator for / door into reality.
    2. Photography is art. Art is always the creation of an illusionary world/not-reality. Result: stylistic devices to *make up* / balance the loss of reality.
    3. Photography (and other art) during certain periods of time sometimes tries to subvert this, but naturalism, realism and similar movements are still forced to make use of stylistic devices; trying to make objective/neutral photos/art is still using a distinct style. Art is always, always, always about selecting (i.e. deleting): In photography, most obviously (as the camera does a lot of the rest), framing the content, what will be in the picture and where.
    4. Having a certain style can therefore not be averted.
    5. Yet selfies are without a style. They are styleless. There is only one concern, to display an object – for example people. other examples would be people photographing their food and uploading it to facebook.
    6. ???

    Or, if you can read german:

    NIcely written essay, by the way. You’re a hell of a lot more stringent than I am :D

  5. … people focus on the exhibition value …

    … thereby hollowing out the reality of their identity (unless they happen to be bad at hiding their less-glowing aspects) in favor of a derivative shell – “my perfect life, as curated by a thing that happens to share my name” – and, eventually, when that curated perfection fails to realize in day-to-day interactions …

    “You don’t know me, that’s not who I am!”

    Sorry, perfectly-symmetrical first-of-winter snowflake, those of us who interact with you outside The Exhibit are the only ones who actually do – so what’s all this noise about you being someone else?

  6. Angela2013-04-01 @ 07:00

    (thanks!) I started thinking about the presence of self in pictures in a very similar context – my family was upset with me for always photographing the sights and not taking enough pictures of them themselves.

    I completely agree with you – there is a kind of self-fulfilling pressure to present the good times, visually. I know my newsfeed is inundated with smiling faces, sometimes with a few people together who have significant personal animosities to each other. I do question the authenticity of some of these pictures, and I wonder how to tell apart the genuinely joyful – “I just have to show everyone!” and the exhibitionist – “I really have to show everyone because I have to.”.

  7. There’s a disturbing nostalgia in your yearning for the good ol’ days o’ shopping, and it might just be disturbing because it’s nostalgic, which is always worrisome, and it might be because it’s ahistorical nostalgia, so the lost authenticity might have never been. There was a time when potatoes were luxury items. Bananas were luxury items in East Germany. The true meaning of a thing, even one as simple as a tuber, cannot be separated from its symbolic/sign value. Being isn’t necessarily just representation, but it’s maybe harder than you think to separate them. (More below)

  8. This might mischaracterize the novelty of selfies, and what older practices can tell us about current ones. Back in the real olden days (i.e. pre-modern to early modernity, say up to 17th century) gentry would have portraits of themselves done, and would try to express things about themselves 1) with whom they chose to paint, at least from the Renaissance on and 2) with the composition of the painting, by having certain saints or backgrounds included (e.g. Jerusalem) and themselves in a certain relation to those other symbols. Later (c. 17-19th century), they achieved similar effects with certain uniforms, battle scenes, backgrounds, poses, etc. (God was ailing, then dead). In the early age of photography, photographers would have different backdrops and props available in the studio to give a bourgeois family the option to give the photo an oriental or nationalistic or whatever feel. Those are all selfies in the sense of being a mise-en-scene by the subject of the image, not a candid shot that somebody else chose. In selfies nowadays, there is also a very strong logic of accessorizing: which monument to include in the background, which friend should I put my arm around, am I wearing the right outfit?, etc.*

    The point is that this is a lot like advertising. It’s not documentation of the self as much as trying to sell a certain mode of representation to oneself. Am I as cosmopolitan as I think? Well, I can only speak English and don’t know much history from before Reagan, but I’m in front of the Eiffel Tower and most of my friends are in front of the Washington Monument/Mt. Rushmore, etc., therefore… There might be some decline of social interaction involved, but it can also be the decline of subjectivity in a world of images. A decline of interaction with oneself.

    *This can also exist in an objective mode with pictures not composed by the subjects. The lost (but reviving) art of Sovietology consisted of gleaning the relative status of different public figures in the Soviet Union by examining who was sitting next to whom at public functions and what kind of clothes they were wearing or decorations they displayed on their uniforms. Now en vogue with the remaining axis of evil.

  9. Almost forgot. Here’s Whitehead on the authenticity of cucumbers as commodities vs. cucumbers as food (more or less):

    “…in the intuition of a multiplicity of three or four objects, the mere number imposes no subjective form. It is merely a condition regulating some pattern of effective components. In abstraction from those components, mere triplicity can dictate no subjective form for its prehension. But green can. And there lies the difference between the sensa and the abstract mathematical forms.”
    /vegetable philosophy

  10. Hmm, the thing is that I’m trying not to get to meaning through semiotics here because this essay provides a segway to think about photography not through that lens that we’re all familiar with – signification, etc. Specifically this essay brings out a few important points about Benjamin’s book – and I think the author didn’t get the subtle terms of what Benjamin was saying, so I’m trying to pull those insights out of this essay through his (benjamins’) own terms.

    I’m not going so far to assert cucumbers as luxury items yet, but where I’m going is – why are post-hollywood cucumbers more in demand; answer this without semiotics. I’m trying to take meaning in a different direction this time, using Benjamin’s conception of “cult value.” We must remember that for Benjamin, that which is of the highest cult value is politics, because of it’s ability to create worldhood. I’m using the conception of worldhood to explain meaning within the cucumber itself. Now, to bring it back to photography, can’t we use this to explain

    got to go, elaborate later

  11. I’m sorry for not bringing anything to the discussion, but you making such a point out of … cucumbers, I just have to quote this. When I read that in the meditations, it just made me laugh out loud. :D

    “Is your cucumber bitter? Throw it away. Are there briars in your path? Turn aside. That is enough. Do not go on and say, ‘Why were things of this sort ever brought into this world?’ “

  12. That’s right, fabius, Stoicism is always relevant!

Got insight?