Towards a New Theory of the Selfie

3340 words


Looking through another person's photographs is empathy at its most literal. The perspective revealed in the angles and framing of the content show within neat, convenient boundaries what another person finds important enough to save - what she is afraid, at some point, she will not remember exactly and must preserve in amber. Perhaps it is not appealing to think of memories like insects, but that is certainly how we treat them: they are ubiquitous, and we capture them in thematic groups (e.g. "A Day at the Beach," " Snow Day," "The New Dog," "21st Birthday," and so on), their classification is determined by event and content. And, just like insects, we capture our memories.


Photography, from the very beginning, changed how people remember. Lest the reader blithely skip over that statement, let me reiterate: photography interrupted the way human memory had worked for hundreds of thousands of years. Even antiquity, with its idealized statues, and the Renaissance, with its revival of idealized art, did not alter memory the way photography did. Classical art provided heroic memory: Ashurbanipal, mighty and flat; the equestrian Marcus Aurelius, frozen for all time with hoof atop the back of a slave; Justinian and Theodora, primitively pixelated in their mosaic forms and their impossibly amygdaliform eyes and dangling feet, half-apotheosis and half-stylistic limitation. We remember Henry VIII as fat but proud during a time in his life when he was ugly, deformed, gout-ridden, and old.


Photography's entrance into popular life in 1839, 300 years after Henry VIII's smug lie, swung the pendulum of representational media a little further towards truth on the spectrum of veracity. Flat, gray, grainy, slow, and expensive, early photography was miraculous. The miracle of the format was so obvious to many people at a time when miraculous meant magical and magical meant evil, and photography, among the more superstitious, gained a reputation not for being the work of sorcerers but still in itself powerful. The  Enlightenment eroded the edges of magical belief and tried to supplant it with reason, but superstition dies hard. One man's miracle is another man's soul-stealing arcana, but whichever way one saw it, one thing remained the same: the medium of photography was respected.

Originally, expense made photography a once-in-a-lifetime or, quite often, a once-before-burial event. Ghastly and obscene by modern standards, lovingly propping up dear uncle, occasionally in lifelike positions but mostly upright in the coffin in his Sunday best, and taking his picture was the last chance to preserve the memory of the deceased. Never the kind to let good money go to waste, the family of the deceased would often crowd around the body for the picture. Taking a photo of just the deceased was a luxury most could not afford, and what is a funeral if not a family reunion by another name? Put less crudely: it was the last time any of the people in the picture would be together, and it deserved preservation.

Why the twenty-first century sees death photography as creepy is more immediately obvious than why it sees death photography as disrespectful. The practice fell largely out of favor when photography became cheaper and ubiquitous, so it became less of a once-before-burial event than a once-during-each-phase-of-life event, then several-times-per-phase, then several-times-a-year. To say it fell out of fashion is not to say that death photography completely disappeared - it is not completely uncommon to find photographs of the dead well into the 1970s and 1980s, and even occasionally today. Now photography of the dead is mostly reserved for crime scenes and war zones, and even then many people protest the photography of soldiers' flag-draped caskets - no bodies in sight - as disrespectful, as if being aware of the toll of war is somehow disrespectful to those who died in that war, as if taking a photo of casket is so loud as to disturb the sleeping dead. Perhaps there is wariness about the use of bodies as political tools or the desire to hide the costs of war from populations who pay for them. Or perhaps rumors of the demise of superstitions surrounding photography were greatly exaggerated. Perhaps it is all of this and quite a bit more.

In any case, photography's re-categorization as "non-event" owed a lot to new formats that made it more disposable, more replaceable, more pervasive. From daguerreotypes to cardboard "cabinet cards," from keepsakes to bookplates and newspaper front pages and pamphlets and fliers, as the cultural saturation of photography changed, so too did their content. The move from event to non-event meant that taking photos of the mundane was not the wasteful sin it had been before. Finally, amber was capturing more than vague impressions of beetles and edging closer to the real. But then, its primary function – as people-preserver - changed, bifurcated into two different foci: firstly and most widely, the documentation of the mundane and, secondly, art.


On the art side of things, experimenting with aesthetics and composition became more important, especially with the addition of color. Taking a photo of a chair in the middle of a bare room - especially if backed by theory and training - could mean more, could literally be worth more, both in uniqueness and cultural currency, than taking a photo of a family member. While not everyone could be a professional, anyone who could afford a camera could be a photographer; the dictatorial control of the medium had slipped from the professional’s grasp. The medium's purpose, use, and strengths began to depend on the user. With democracy comes accessibility; with democracy comes dilution of will; with democracy comes the lowering of denominators. Photography had become the everyman's medium.


The range of objects that interest the everyman are largely predictable; thus humanity's body of work became repetitive, and the value of photography became not so much about the skill involved but about the uniqueness of the shot itself. Unique events are everywhere but the ones that are worth noting are rare. For the most part, families continued snapping photos of the Grand Canyon, the event-experience enriching the lives of the photo-takers but the photo itself whittling away at the worth of the object by tiny fractions.

After digital photography and digital photo manipulation, the biggest leap in photography came with the camera phone, the digital Swiss army knife of the twenty-first century. Whether the art of photography swings the pendulum of the medium back towards the lie rather than the truth is a philosophical quibble, but the advent of computerized manipulation and the camera phone made the lie more standard than the truth. Between Photoshop and the digital alteration of everything from engagement photos to advertisements and headline photos, the norm became to never fully trust what we see and be completely fine with living in a world that is composed mostly of lies and deception aimed at self-aggrandizement, creating and making impossible the fulfillment of desire, and sensationalism - often of what is already sensational but requires another notch of sensation in order to even register in the anesthetized - withering the empathetic compartments of our brains.


Instagram is nothing more than a hipster's take on the same self-opinion and staging that Henry VIII's court painters mastered when they disguised his disfigurement that resulted from his regal, destructive lifestyle. Instagram and the proliferation of "filters" that are standard with almost every smartphone with a camera is the manifestation of our willingness to disguise what we hate about ourselves, whether or not what we hate is derived from genetics or our choices or a mixture of both. In the nineteenth century, the most a man could do to hide a scar on his face would be to turn to the side; a woman could disguise the liver spots on her hands by wearing gloves. The nineteenth-century man and woman could not look at their own photos without being reminded that the omissions of their disfigurements were evidence of their existence. Now we treat imperfections as meaningless pixels that can easily be camouflaged, masked, or simply erased. Our appearances are just information, and not all information, we have decided, is worth knowing.


The phenomenon of the selfie lies at a crossroads: one road is the culmination of the lie that began with heroic memory and stretches as far as the ego can see; the other, the human mind's obsession with the mundane details of everyday life. On the one side is narcissism; on the other, a pleasant, affable boredom. Some people's photography does take on the flavor of amateur anthropology, documenting the lifeways of everyone from the uncorrupted Amazonian tribe to the single mother of the inner city. Our obsession with categorization, a dubious gift of the Enlightenment, makes us want to know absurdly specific things about people in slightly different categories than ourselves. "I'm 27 and a woman in the country," I might think, "but she's 27 in the city" - the juxtaposition inviting the comparison and the contrast and the search for the truly universal and the truly idiosyncratic. The smallest differences are gouges amplified into canyons. This constant exaggeration of differences is part of a larger search for value defined purely by authenticity, but that is another, longer conversation.


In our capitalism-dominated world, the calculus goes like this: if you're doing it for someone else, then you're doing it for the money; if you're doing it for yourself, you haven't figured out how to make money at it. If everyone's a photographer and out to please himself with his photography or, at the very least, he is not making money at it (statistically speaking, the vast majority of us), then almost every single one of us is doing it for himself. The currency of social media complicates this equation, because one who engages in social media is ostensibly doing it for others with the promise of a non-monetary return in likes and hearts and favorites and comments. But this return - while tangible in the release of happy hormones, perhaps - still is a function of pleasing ourselves. The more people like us, the more we like ourselves (and those for whom attention brings self-acrimony, they are still getting some self-satisfaction from confirmation bias). If it takes photo manipulation for people to love someone more, then he or she is positively reinforced to continue manipulating his or her own appearance. It's a lie, but it's a likable lie, which is the point.

Essentially this: all these lies we tell with our photography either begin or end up but always fundamentally exist as lies we are telling ourselves.


The selfie trend - or epidemic, depending on the elevation of your moral high ground - has occurred at peak Time-Magazine-The-Person-Of-The-Year-Is-You egotism and twenty-first century malaise, when everything is exciting and new and nothing is interesting or affecting. We are desensitized to a world that is consistently at its most wondrous and terrible and ultimately enthralled by the things we keep faking: our entertainment, our beauty, our detachment, our uniqueness, our coolness.

If the trend of photography has become primarily occupied with documenting the non-event, the everyday object, the most common, uninteresting, normal, and boring aspects of life, whether it’s our cereal or our skies or our ceilings or our floors or our cars or or or, and if the trend of culture has led to not so much self-love but self-obsession, then the meaning of turning the camera on ourselves is plain: the most common, uninteresting, normal, and boring aspects of life is us.

Consider the following: nineteenth-century death photography often featured groups of people because of the expense of the photograph and because most people desired to be photographed before death so as to enjoy it. The photograph was a serious matter. Composition had to be taken into account, as well as the photographer’s schedule, who would be in the photograph and who would be left out, who could be trusted to keep the photograph, who would schedule the photographer, and so on. Lest it be forgotten, it took discipline to sit for a photo 150 years ago because of the exposure time.  While making do with what little they had was the catalyst for all this determined coordination, the act of the photograph was important. It was a priority. It meant something, for people to be together, in that time and in that place, with people they loved. Death photography's association with death meant that the photograph was incredibly important. In a world before the discovery of the germ, death was omnipresent and vicious and indiscriminate. For the woman who would die in childbirth and the man who would die of yellow fever, the photograph was sometimes the only way their children would know their parents’ faces. Modernity has lost its connection with the precious, the priceless, the irreplaceable, and the way we choose to save everything, to never let anything go, to never say goodbye to the minor moments to make room for the major ones, is the proof.


We rely on photographs to bear our memories for us. Posterity is no longer the point. If it were, we would be more judicious about what we save: taking multiple photos every day of our meals or our significant others or our children is not in any sense practical; the terabytes of data people generate in frighteningly little time is not done with our grandchildren or even ourselves in mind. It is done without any mindfulness at all. The cameras we use now and programs we use to organize our photos have conspired to make saving everything, never making a choice, the easiest option. Simply sync, clear the camera storage, and voila – you’re ready to take hundreds more photos you may never look at again. Afraid of a hard drive crash and the abrupt departure of all your memories? Get acquainted with “the cloud,” that nebulous space somewhere between your computer and the internet that trades privacy for permanence. Your memories will never face the inevitable death they would have if they had stayed with you (that is, if you never stop paying for the cloud – immortality is not free). You never have to say goodbye with the cloud.

Unexpectedly, a third road has rudely met and plowed over the previous crossroads, an interstate conquering a cow path: memory. Memory is not a service road running alongside other concepts – it is the plotter of paths and trajectories, the reason for traveling, and the road itself. Energy expended to protect the ego comes from a need to be remembered and a fear of becoming faceless after we can no longer speak for ourselves; the documentation of the mundane is simultaneously driven by a desire to remember everything and a fear that we will forget even the tiniest details. The common ground is the fear of forgetting and being forgotten. Our existential angst has driven us to absurdity: we must keep everything; if we cannot swallow the world and selfishly keep what we experience, we can compress moments into flat squares and rectangles and feed our narcissism.


Why the selfie, then? It is not as simple as vanity. The rise of the selfie is congruous with a cultural crisis of self. Environmentally, politically, culturally, economically, young people – those for whom the selfie is most popular – have never felt so impotent to effect change. Young people think and read and talk more intelligently than ever before in human history, and yet we feel powerless. Cogito ergo sum is not enough to prove existence. Brilliance and opportunity flourish around us, but in an age where the intelligent voice is just another noise, being smart and knowledgeable just means you know more ways to be unhappy.

“I feel like I don’t exist” is an equally disturbing and dismissed question, as if it is frivolous the contemplate one’s own existence and to try and understand why one’s actions do so little in a world so big, to understand why the harm a person does will always somehow outstrip her attempts to do good. Many young people are anesthetized to anything short of catastrophe or the pinnacle of elation (a result, I would wager, of a culture that privileges the increasingly sensational as normal). They take on risky behaviors, whether drugs or adrenaline rushes or sex with strangers or acts of cruelty or absurd acts of kindness, in order to feel something that breaks the fourth wall of their uneasy coexistence with the monotony of being.  Love seems fleeting and fake and connections with other human beings forced. Being in a space with another person and being actualized by him or her and feeling real and three-dimensional and understood is both increasingly necessary in our highly existentially-aware culture and decreasingly, distressingly uncommon. Other people don’t make us feel real anymore, and being a thinking, rational human being who feels ignored by a world-turned-machinery makes us detached from both present and consequence. Thinking and therefore being, seeing and therefore being seen, are no longer enough.


Enter the selfie. With front-facing cameras on phones and tablets and computers, it has never been easier to quickly verify and actualize ourselves. We no longer need conversation or group photos or relationships to feel real for a fleeting moment. Sure, the rest of it is nice, but it’s not essential nor is it comparable to doing a quick self-check with a simple shutter click. The irony, of course, is that we live in an era in which we have never been so connected to one another; but our connections to each other are so tenuous and superficial that we have begun to wean ourselves off of needing one another. We no longer need someone to hold the camera for us and take a picture of us experiencing the world. One button press, and we can do it all ourselves. And all the better, we might think – human relationships are messy, and one cannot depend on another person with whom to share our lives. Better to depend on ourselves, we say with a nod and well-concealed but certainly deeply-felt doubt.

Self-obsessed egotists all are we, but it isn’t as though we can help it: no one in our lives spends more time in your head or my head than yourself or myself, respectively. Yet we are also constantly, incredibly, incurably afraid of there being lifetimes in which we don’t exist. Certainly we are afraid of it for future lifetimes (I feel a special kind of horrified sadness when I see an older photograph with individuals unlabeled, ultimately forgotten to me and anyone else; they have died twice, and no one mourned them the second time), but, most especially and specifically and non-theoretically, we are terrified of it for the present lifetime. If the selfie marks a moment in which we felt most like ghosts and had to make sure we weren’t, then many of us are phasing in and out of matter and time, struggling to anchor ourselves to the present.

The selfie, however self-absorbed it makes its subjects look, is the least destructive way we have of proving our existence in a world that makes us feel like we died years ago. It is a symptom of decay, yes – but what kind of decay, however, has nothing to do character and everything to do with the intersection of soul and machine. Much in the way that we have relied on photography so much as to mechanically change the way that memory functions, we have relied on technology so much that our abilities to love and connect and exist without constantly checking that we exist have atrophied.

The distance between us grows, so we settle for getting closer to our selves – but only after they have been filtered and altered and changed and corrupted into something we can more easily love.

We still lie, even when we are the only ones in the room.