selfies

Each year the Oxford English dictionary chooses a word of the year based on a research program that monitors online content, collecting 150 million words in use each month. In 2013, the OED chose selfie—defined as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam, and uploaded to a social media website”[1] While the original use of the word selfie appeared in 2002[2], linking its debut to the introduction of camera phones in the West, the proliferation of selfies is connected to the launch of the front facing camera by Apple and for video messaging. The appropriation of this camera from its intended purpose of video messaging into a device for taking selfies underscores that technology does not harbor determinant usages. From this lens, media is understood as a site of contestable meaning, constituted through shared, social engagement with a particular technology.[3] If read against a technological determinist model, we may ask ourselves what do selfie takers think they’re doing when they reverse the gaze and click the digital shutter? How does that affect how they take selfies [see: intention]? How does the surrounding discourse on selfies begin to mutate the way the media is employed?

At the etymological root of selfies is “self”, with the added diminutive suffix “ie”. Selfies can thus be understood as particular examples of the performed self. Indeed, the constant markers of self-reflexivity within the selfie, such as the trope of the extended arm that holds out the smartphone or the reflected image of the twofold subject and artist within the mirror, perpetually underscores the performativity of the selfie taker. These performative self-reflexive cues have leant credence to the notion that selfies exemplify the narcissistic tendencies of millenials, the generation that has most readily adopted this media.[4]A 2013 article by feminist tabloid website Jezebel argued that the most noteworthy function of the selfie is to display the photographer—usually a woman–as physically attractive through prescribed and coded tropes that are embedded within the media. In other words, the surrounding discourse on selfies has claimed that these photographs exist as material evidence of constructed performances of the self: instances of externalized vanity or narcissism.

The link between media and narcissism is one that integral to media studies. In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan argued that the myth of Narcissus is a paradox of both recognition and misrecognition; Narcissus mistakes his own reflection in the water for that of another person. Absorbed—or as McLuhan notes, numbed—by his own image he fails to notice the nymph Echo who vies for his love. As such, the myth highlights that “men at once become fascinated by an extension of themselves in any material other than themselves.”[5] Read through the perspective of narcissism, selfies accordingly externalize and make visible the relationship that users have to media. In a recent feature for The New York Times, author Clive Thompson explains the explosion of selfies: “People are wrestling with how they appear to the rest of the world. Taking a photograph is a way of trying to understand how people see you, who you are, and what you look like.”[6] In other words, much like McLuhan’s reading of narcissism, Thompson claims that selfies allow the subject to externalize an image of themselves and see it through another medium. Further, because selfies are then uploaded on social media networks, the subject of the selfie is able to make sense of how he is perceived by his social peers—his network.

The word selfie is also etymologically linked to the other media nested within it; namely the genre of self-portraiture. While its roots may lie in traditions of painted self-portraiture, the selfies closest relative is the photographic self-portrait. Although the two mediums seem similar, there are important differences between the analog photographic self-portrait and the selfie. Photography that employs film is a “technique of producing an image by the action of light on a chemically prepared material.” [see photography] As such, photography has an indexical relationship to its subject[7] in that light is imprinted onto the filmic material, leaving an indexical mark. Because of this fixed and static relationship between the photographed subject, and the photographic image, Andre Bazin described photography as a process of embalming time[8], and Roland Barthes confirmed this theorization by stating that photography showcases a “what-has-been”[9] relationship to a subject in time.

Danish art historian Mette Sandbye has argued that the digital image possesses a very different relation to time. Unlike analog photography, the digital image is composed of binary code, and thus its relationship to what it represents—in the case of the selfie, an image of the self—has a different indexicality, in that it is embedded in a signaletic relationship to a network. Sandbye posits that this signaletic web allows for the digital amateur photography, to which selfies belong, to depict many frames per second of any given situation while belonging to a larger digital archive. These tenets of digital photography transform time within the image to one of presence, everyday activity and “what-is-going-on”, rather than “what-has-been.”[10] The selfie-taker is able to upload his photograph into a web of networked images on platforms such as Instagram or Facebook moments after he or she takes it, channeling a sense of instantaneity and ever-presence.

Unlike analog photography, which demanded that the photographer wait for his film to be developed in order to select or preview his self-image, selfies allow for instantaneous feedback through the smartphone screen. Indeed, the selfie photographer is able to take as many shots of themself as their phone can hold, and select their preferred picture from this archive of images. Further, the photographer has the ability to see their reflection on the screen as they pose, adjusting their posture, facial expression, hairstyle and framing in order to create their desired outcome. In other words, selfies enable real-time feedback, and accordingly allow the selfie taker to adjust the subject of the photograph (themself) and the photograph’s framing based on this instantaneous information. With the front facing camera, the smart phone screen functions as both a mirror in addition to the interface on which the digital image is viewed. The photographer/subject thus views his reflection simultaneously as he does the job of what would have been looking through the viewfinder, with analog photography.

By conflating subject and photographer into one, selfies open themselves to discourse around manipulation and deceitfulness. The twofold photographer and subject has complete control over the presentation of his or her own image. This particular affordance of the media has added to the notion that selfies are sites of creative and curated artifice, a popular sentiment furthered by the fact that Instagram—the most prevalent networked platform where selfies circulate—enables users to add “filters” to their image. While the original conception of the filter enabled users to transform their basic Iphone 321 ppi camera photos into photos that resembled film or professional photographs, through the shared discursive practices of selfie users these filters have come to symbolize the artificial and deceitful nature of peoples’ self photographing. Filters, which act as readymade photograph enhancers, allow users to cast their photographs in more flattering tones.

The popular trend of the added “#no filter” has attached itself to the selfie in order to contest the deceitfulness attached to filters. The hashtag (#) symbol allows users to connect their image to a network of images that have added the same metadata tag. Furthermore, hashtags allow the user to adjoin a label to their image, thus supporting a particular reading of the image through linguistic codes. In the case of the trending #nofilter (of which there are almost 58 million recorded on Instagram), the user is labeling their image as un-manipulated, thus implying that their self portrait is closer to reality. This particular hashtag can thus be understood as a means to strip selfies of their inherent reading as manipulated.

It is important to note, however, that manipulation in images is not solely a result of digitization; rather the perceived lack of indexicality within the digital image adds another layer to the discourse around manipulation and creative artifice in photography. As Tom Gunning has noted, in analog photography the prevalent belief that the image captures the real is based on the photograph’s indexical dimension —activating what Gunning calls a “truth claim”.[11] The recording of the digital image within a matrix of code transforms this relationship, and lends credence to the judgment that the digital photograph is more likely to be manipulated. Gunning importantly notes that manipulation is not a novel phenomenon belonging solely to the digital; analog photographs employed treatments during the course of exposure that manipulated the film stock itself. The popularity of spirit photography in the nineteenth century, created through double exposure, activating the effect of a phantasmagoric Other to haunt the photograph’s subject, points to early manipulations and creative artifice in analog photography (fig. 2).

In line with Gunning’s claim, W.J.T. Mitchell underscores the problem of buying into the myth that analog and digital photography have different ontologies, with the latter’s materiality readily lending itself to manipulation and thus inauthenticity.[12] Rather, Mitchell claims it is more fruitful to look at media as what Raymond Williams calls “material social practices.”[13] Indeed, the discussion I offer here aims to view selfies as medias that are shifted and constituted through discursive networks and the way they are employed. Selfies are a novel media, as such their “material social practices” have not been solidified; their meaning is constantly mutating and transforming based on our daily engagement with them.

— Loreta Lamargese

[1] “Selfie,” The Oxford English Dictionary Online. < http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/selfie> Accessed 3 February 2014.

[2] “Infographic: a closer look at ‘selfie’,” The Oxford English Dictionary Online. < http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/11/an-infographic-of-selfie/> Accessed 3February 2014.

[3] Gershon, Ilana. The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting Over New Media. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010: 3.

[4] Gloria, Erin. “Selfies Aren’t Empowering. They’re a Cry For Help.” Jezebel, 21 November 2013. < http://jezebel.com/selfies-arent-empowering-theyre-a-cry-for-help-1468965365> Accessed 3 February 2014.

[5] McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extension of Man. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1964: 41-43.

[6] Wortham, Jenna. “My Selfie, Myself.” New York Times. 19 October 2013. < http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/20/sunday-review/my-selfie-myself.html?_r=0> last accessed 3 February 2014.

[7] Peirce, Charles S. The Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Ed. Judith Buchler. New York: Dover Publications, 2011: 102.

[8] Bazin, Andre. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” in Classic Essays on Photography. Ed. Alan Trachtenberg. New Haven: Leete’s Island Books, 1980: 237-44.

[9] Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.

[10] Sandbye, Mette. “It has not been—it is. The signaletic transformation of photography,” in Journal of Aesthetics & Culture. 4 June 2012. <http://www.aestheticsandculture.net/index.php/jac/article/view/18159/22779>. Accessed 3 February 2014.

[11] Guning, Tom. “What’s the Point of an Index? or, Faking Photographs,” in NORDICOM Review. Vol. 5, No. 1/2, September 2003: 41.

[12] Mitchell, W.J.T. “Realism and the Digital Image.”: 3.

[13] Williams, Raymond. “From Medium to Social Practice,” in Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 158-64.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.

Bazin, Andre. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” in Classic Essays on Photography. Ed. Alan Trachtenberg. New Haven: Leete’s Island Books, 1980.

Gershon, Ilana. The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting Over New Media. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010.

Gloria, Erin. “Selfies Aren’t Empowering. They’re a Cry For Help.” Jezebel, 21 November 2013. < http://jezebel.com/selfies-arent-empowering-theyre-a-cry-for-help-1468965365> Accessed 3 February 2014.

Guning, Tom. “What’s the Point of an Index? or, Faking Photographs,” in NORDICOM Review. Vol. 5, No. 1/2, September 2003: 41.

Peirce, Charles S. The Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Ed. Judith Buchler. New York: Dover Publications, 2011: 102.

Sandbye, Mette. “It has not been—it is. The signaletic transformation of photography,” in Journal of Aesthetics & Culture. 4 June 2012. <http://www.aestheticsandculture.net/index.php/jac/article/view/18159/22779>. Accessed 3 February 2014.