Project 16: The selfie revisited: testimony or trophy?

Exercise 4.4

For this exercise, I had to answer the question “what does the phenomenon of the selfie tell us about how photography is popularly used nowadays?”.

A ‘selfie’ can best be described as a photograph taken at arm’s length by the subject themselves.  It is usually made using digital technology (e.g., a digital camera or camera phone) and then shared online via social media.  So what does this tell us about how photography is used today?  Well, first and foremost, it tells us that a lot of photographs are taken as digital trophies.  These kinds of trophies range from the mundane (e.g., the “look at me and what I’m having for dinner today” type that are so abundant on Facebook) to the extreme (e.g., the images of torture and abuse from Abu Ghraib).

In the not too distant past, family photographs were made on a film camera, printed, and then placed in a photo album, where only a select few people were invited to see them.  Today, family photographs are shared online, where they remain indefinitely, for all the world to see.  Somehow there has been a dramatic shift from an assumption of privacy to one of openness.  If someone takes your photograph today, you expect it to end up online.  Where did this idea come from that everyone else is interested in your personal business?  That privacy is to be specifically requested, rather than the assumed norm?  Twice recently, I have attended art classes, where I have been told that photographs would be taken for the provider’s website, and that if anyone did not want their image appearing online, then they should inform the photographer directly.

What is interesting about the selfie specifically, is that it is not just (as might first be assumed) the younger generation that are using them for their social media.  Artists (e.g., Noah Kalina and his project Every Day) and politicians (e.g., President Obama) are just a couple of examples of people from all walks of life that are using the selfie for all kinds of reasons.

The recent phenomenon of the selfie has even been the subject of academic study.  Selfiecity investigates selfies taken around the world and evaluates them in order to determine the “demographics of people taking selfies, their poses and expressions”.  Their datasets include tens of thousands of images and seem to suggest that there has been a genuine paradigm shift in photography.  They hypothesise that the ease with which images can now be shared has resulted in a period of photography characterised by “mobility, ubiquity and connection”.  Given the kinds of images that I see online these days, their position is hard to dispute.