Exercise 4.4 – The Selfie Phenomenon

The selfie can be seen in many different formats; evidence of something happening; exploitation and marketing of a certain type of image; narcissism or exhibitionism; a desire to fit in, to see and be seen and also as a trophy – proof that the person or persons within the image have a position of prominence over everyone else. 

The definition of Selfie by the Oxford English Dictionary is “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media.”

The selfie existed before the digital image, as can be seen in images such as Joseph Byron Clayton and friends and Robert Cornelius. In the case of Cornelius, the image is a self portrait, possibly done as an experiment. However, the selfie has taken off due to the proliferation of modern technology and the interconnectivity provided by the internet.

Fish eye distorted selfie of 5 suited men in hats. Image is off yellow monochrome and appears to have been taken in the 1930s.
Joseph Byron Clayton and Friends Selfie. Courtesy of Tom Byron

The selfie at times can be seen as the deep routed trait of a narcissist, exhibitionist or perfectionist:  the constant working and reworking of images until the perfect one is taken and distributed via the internet to the followers they have gained over time. Certainly, the selfie can be seen as an exhibitionist product, the photographic equivalent of “look at me, pay attention to me” hoping that the perfected image will go viral and gain them even more attention.

Instagram Selfie by Cuididiaz. Copyright Instgram User Cuidodiaz

The application Instagram has allowed for the self-curation of life through the selfie, people photographing themselves on holiday, at a party, or at an event. Instagram allows the images to be placed and seen virtually, so that the individual can be seen at the moment of engagement through the image. The selfie is used to capture moments as they occur, but once they have been posted, does the individual or group ever come back to the image and reevaluate or reminisce of what was happening? Or do they never revisit the past as they are constant moving forward producing more images.

Social media such as Instagram has created a sense of entitlement in some individuals who use the selfie format to either market a product that they have been given or try to use their follower numbers as an attempt to gain something for free. Whilst these are few and far between in the sheer amount of selfies taken through Instagram, it cannot be avoided that the selfie has become a powerful marketing tool and that these types of selfie are less art and more commerce. The selfie as commerce or influence is of concern as the presented image is of such artifice that although the image appears real it has undergone manipulation through coaching, modelling stance, lighting and post processing that the false image presents an unrealistic body and lifestyle image which can cause physical and mental health damage in young women and men.

Instagram Selfie by Katboesenberg_fit. Copyright Instagram User Katboesenberg_fit
Instgram Selfie by Rachellevank. Copyright Instgram user Rachellevank

The selfie can also be seen as a grand trophy, capturing the individual doing something or being somewhere which is well outside the means of the standard selfie taker. Here the selfie is less Schrodinger’s selfie i.e. “Photo or it didn’t happen” and more of a boast,” here is proof that I am so much better than you because I am able to open doors that you can only dream of”. Sometimes these selfies can go too far and cross the line into quite disturbing, for example, people taking selfies against the background of injured or dead people, or going to a disaster area just to be photographed against the misery of others. As stated by Susan Sontag in the NY Times article, (Sontag 2004), the selfie is now embedded into life to such a point that there is a deep satisfaction in photographing oneself even if the image content is deeply wrong.

Virginia Police Officers who took Selfie inside Capitol Building during riot. Copyright Associated Press

We have to ask ourselves if this is the fault of the selfie culture or are these events just highlighted examples of people forgetting about the social contract and putting themselves first in an attempt to gain followers and some self esteem through the purely virtual statistic of people who have seen the image and who follow in the hope of seeing something that they can themselves replicate or appropriate in the hope of gaining the virtual golden ring and going viral and gaining their 15 minutes of fame.

The selfie is a tool by which people can show their lives, make contact, influence or be influenced, it is a multi-faceted form in the virtual world of social media. It is both art and not art, it is a record of the celebrations in the day to day lives of the many and is really a product of the digital age, mainly due to the immediate contact it generates.

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