Ever since the Oxford English Dictionary announced that “selfie” was their Word of the Year 2013, there’s been quite a strident and cynical backlash. Some seem adamant that the rise of the selfie, social media’s apparently negative shorthand for pretty much any self-portrait photography, is indicative of a youth culture defined by vanity and solipsism. Grace Dent in the Independent was particularly hysterical, passionately longing for an era when individuals were controlled by their shame and public ridicule was waiting around the corner for those that weren’t:
In 1993, if you went to Woolworths three times a week to sit in the Foto-Me booth snapping pictures of yourself pulling “The Fonz is Cool” poses, your ego would have been the stuff of local legend. Now, a selfie-a-day is unremarkable. I sat in a bar recently while one friend took a dozen separate pictures of themselves in the toilet as “it was such amazing light”. We take selfies without irony, sans shame, posting the results online as bait in the great murky cyber-sea. We fish never-endingly for compliments, comments… indeed any feedback at all. Maybe just a Facebook like? A little Instagram regram and a new surge of followers. Anything – please God, anything – which indicates we were bathing, remotely, momentarily in another human being’s gaze.
I couldn’t, in truth, find a professional article behind Dent’s bleating strawmen, fragmented sentences and repetitive sarcastic uses of hashtags, but there must have been one for it to find its way past an Independent editor and subsequently all over my Facebook feed. Let’s therefore assume this isn’t actually more indicative of the hideous decline of journalism and more charitably say this suggests that the backlash against the selfie has moved beyond the usual two or three dry comments per each one uploaded to Facebook and has entered the English zeitgeist good and proper.
It’s good to see people so fired up and passionate about something so important, something so close to the bone of early 21st century social identity. There was a worry that this generation would waste their focus on relatively trivial subjects like the emancipation of Palestine or growing financial inequality on a global scale, but it looks like things are back on track as we stand up to the ubiquitous Instagram imposition, the frivolous Facebook encroachment that is the selfie. Already, crack squadrons of vigilant paladins are scouring their friends’ “mobile pictures” folders for anything that looks remotely like it was taken with a smart phone’s reverse camera, and woe betide those who haven’t got the memo and decide to create a new display picture instead of scrolling through thousands of mates’ pub snaps to find one suitable for their boss to see.
I must admit, I won’t be among them, however. I hold my hands up here: I am one of the hyper-shallow, self-obsessed, narcissistic, empty-headed young sociopaths who have, in the past, taken photos of themselves. Worse, I’ve then uploaded them onto social media. Yes, I am that worst kind of vapid, egomaniacal, attention-seeking, compliment-craving, exhibitionist braggart, the selfie-taker. Gaze upon my works, ye mighty, and despair:
They are merely three examples – there are at least two more around the internet. Looking over these selfies, I’m led to consider why I took them.
For as long as I can remember, I have had self image problems. Not for any good reason, looking at it objectively. When I was a child, I suffered terribly from sinusitis, resulting in a perpetual runny nose I would try to cover up as often as possible. As this faded in my teens, it was replaced by chronic acne, the scars of which I still carry on my body. I had a gap in my teeth that meant I didn’t show them when I smiled until I was about 18, and a permanent stain on one incisor I was neurotic enough to have removed as late as last year. Through this period, I’ve been sporadically self conscious about my weight, my messy hair, a surgical scar that means my bottom lip protrudes more than it otherwise would, my jawline’s lack of definition, the fact one of my nostrils is wider than the other and several other things that have meant my reflection and I don’t always get along well.
So what, right? Well… right. My experience of self-image problems aren’t particularly special. I’m convinced I’m in the majority when it comes to not looking like one would like to look. So, the first obvious point to make is: yes, it is probably nice to receive some mark of acceptance from one’s peers, even if it is a Facebook like. Dent, and others, are aghast that anyone might crave that kind of social confirmation, even a little bit, but I don’t actually find it particularly shocking. It must be said, though, that there’s actually something else going on, something bigger that’s at stake.
There’s a part in The Matrix when Morpheus shows Neo the inside of the computer simulation for the first time. The script reads:
Is it really so hard to believe? Your clothes are different. The plugs in your arms and head are gone. Your hair has changed. Your appearance now is what we call residual self image. It is the mental projection of your digital self.
This part has always seemed bogus to me, and by conversations I’ve had with others, I’m not alone. The filmmakers, obviously restricted by the medium, can only show us Keanu Reeves in a jacket and jeans, and with an unexceptional haircut. If only it were true that our self images were that normal, basic and unchanging. The “residual self image”, quite simply, does not exist with that degree of consistency. It’s in a constant state of flux.
More so when something alters in our life, from a haircut (see above) to a break up. The Dents of this world want to see the common Instagram image of the girl two days after finishing with her boyfriend as being some kind of desperate public plea for attention and sympathy, as well as validation that she will be able to find a replacement. More likely, the validation that is desired is twofold: 1.) that she is not as ugly as the break-up has made her feel internally, and 2.) on a subconscious level, that she is still recognisably the same person as she was three days ago.
The quite wonderful and epoch-shaping photographer, Nan Goldin, certainly sees it this way, commenting on one of several of her pictures that would now be classified as selfies (emphasis mine):
My work has been about making a record of my life that no one can revise. I photograph myself in times of trouble or change in order to find the ground to stand on in the change. I was coming out of a melancholic phase. This was taken when I was traveling extensively, on the road from hotel to hotel. You get displaced, and then taking self-portraits becomes a way of hanging on to yourself.
A particularly devastating example of one of Goldin’s portraits is her “Nan one month after being battered”, an artistic capturing of her domestic abuse.
In The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (p.8), she speaks frankly about the events leading up to this photo:
For a number of years I was deeply involved with a man. We were well suited emotionally and the relationship became very interdependent. Jealousy was used to inspire passion. His concept of relationships was rooted in … romantic idealism … I craved the dependency, the adoration, the satisfaction, the security, but sometimes I felt claustrophobic. We were addicted to the amount of love the relationship supplied … Things between us started to break down, but neither of us could make the break. The desire was constantly reinspired at the same time that the dissatisfaction became undeniable. Our sexual obsession remained one of the hooks. One night, he battered me severely, almost blinding me.
This photograph is, obviously, completely different than the smiling Facebook display pic taken in someone’s living room, and it would be completely wrong to compare them directly. But the emotion behind her taking the photo is consistent with Goldin’s more general rationale for her self portraits, which is identical to the reason for most selfies. They aren’t a desire for simple public gratification so much as a necessity for the individual to ground one’s own self, to do away with Cartesian distinction, within the social context that defines us as much as anything else does.
This is nothing new. If you could map the emotional path of Van Gogh, you’d find a tumultuous road indeed: it’s speculated that he suffered from bipolar disorder and temporal lobe epilepsy. And the road would have selfies as milestones. Those keen to cling to the fantasy of the selfie as generational, and the sole preserve of talentless egotists, please look away now:
There are thirty-four more Van Gogh selfies extant. This is relatively restrained next to Edvard Munch, who crafted 190 selfies over the course of his life, in which he frequently sees himself mistreated by women or other forces beyond his control. Frida Kahlo made fifty-five selfies, including this famous one, but there are far more nightmarish and frightening examples where she tries to depict as best she can both her mental and physical anguish – Kahlo spent many years bedridden and alone. We might also here spare mentions for Rembrandt, Dürer, Picasso, Rubens, Schiele, Brueghel the Elder, Van Dyck, Matisse, Cezanne, Manet, Whistler, Toulouse-Latrec, Gauguin, Renoir, da Vinci and Goya, irrepressible selfie-ists all. Schiele, by the way, would also paint himself masturbating or otherwise pleasuring himself, presumably as a forerunner to the satisfaction-seeking nature of the modern selfie:
I turned silences and nights into words. What was unutterable, I wrote down. I made the whirling world stand still.