The Selfie: self-obsession or self-expression?

In 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary attributed ‘selfie’ with ‘word of the year’. Everyone and anyone seemed to be taking selfies. Celebrities with other celebrities, and celebrities with their adoring fans. Taylor Swift commented that:

I haven’t been asked for an autograph since the invention of the iPhone with a front-facing camera. The only momento ‘kids these days’ want is a selfie.” 

During 2015, 24 billion selfies were uploaded. The latest smart phones now have a second, front facing camera, which enables the user to photograph themself at arms length, ensuring they’re in the frame. It would appear as though this was a recent phenomenon, which  has transformed our image making culture. However, the practice of taking self-portraits can be traced back throughout the history of photography. 

Even when photography was in its infancy, photographers were taking photographs of themselves. If the definition of a selfie is a self-portrait, then it is widely believed that the first selfie was created by amateur chemist and photography enthusiast Robert Cornelius’ (below), which he took in 1839. 

 Self-portrait, by Robert Cornelius

Self-portrait, by Robert Cornelius

However, others insist that a selfie is a photograph taken using a digital device and posting it online. Therefore the first known modern selfie was taken and posted online by an Australian student, called Hopey, in September 2002 (below). It shows the injuries that he sustained from tripping over during a 21st birthday party.  

 The first modern selfie, by Hopey.

The first modern selfie, by Hopey.

Before the addition of a front-facing camera on digital devices, people had to make do with photographing themselves in bedroom and bathroom mirrors. They would go to great lengths to capture themselves looking their best. 

On Instagram there are over 328,000,000 images tagged with #selfie. So why has taking selfies become so popular?  

Previously, if you wanted your photograph taken in front of a famous landmark, you might have politely asked a stranger if they could use your camera. However, due to the amount of private and personal information stored on expensive smart phones, it is understandable as to why people would want to take the photograph themselves. Furthermore, the increase in popularity of social networking sites such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook has provided digital natives with a platform to post images of themselves. 

Despite its popularity, not everyone is a fan of the selfie. The urge for people to photograph themselves and publish the results of their social media is considered to be narcissistic by some. The aim of many posters is to accumulate as many ‘likes’ for their selfie as possible. However, Schwarz (2010: 180) warns that: ‘extracting value from your body is a risky game. A high stakes example of this would be on dating apps, such as Tinder, whereby a single swipe determines how desirable a selfie is.

Conversely, the selfie could be viewed as an acceptable form of self-expression. After all artists, such as Picasso and Van Gogh often painted their own self-portrait, so why should it be any different for a photographer?  

Reference

Schwarz, Ori (2010) ‘On Friendship, Boobs and the Logic of the Catalogue: Online Self-Portraits as a Means for the Exchange of Capital’, Convergence 16( 2): 163–283

 

Exercise 3.1: Towards a hyper photography.

The artist as archivist