This article was first published in the Spring 2015 issue of The Community College Moment
Selfies: Handprints on the Cave Wall
I have a postcard from First Lady Michelle Obama that I really love. She and First Dog Bo are reclining on the East Lawn: she is holding her cell phone up in what is now the iconic pose of the selfie. She and Bo are both smiling at her cell phone, and I, for one, don’t think, “Oh, Michelle’s taking a selfie–she’s so self-absorbed and narcissistic.” I’m not saying there isn’t plenty of evidence in the selfie movement that leads my thinking in that direction, but that here is a vernacular genre of spontaneous self-expression born of roots in self-portraiture and evolving technologies.
Rather, I reflect first on Vincent Van Gogh, the Post Impressionist painter who did a whole series of self-portraits. When I look into the somewhat wild and lonely face that he portrays, I think less about his well-known history and more about the twin qualities of vision and loneliness, perhaps even bewilderment I see there. These are profoundly human emotions. And just as a little brush up on art history, a reminder that Van Gogh did not receive any critical attention during his lifetime to make him think his art would become a class marker of the upper crust. Very much like today’s millions of selfie takers, he felt alone, misunderstood, an unseen face among the masses of humans.
A self-portrait, a selfie says, if only to oneself, “I exist. Here I am. This is my handprint on the cave wall of my time and my world.”
I believe we are all desperate to be seen, to be acknowledged, and the selfies we take reflect the degree of maturity we have attained in our personal struggle to come to grips with that drive. Van Gogh painted himself with a ruthless honesty that inspires me to see in my own aging features the galactic pinwheels cartwheeling across the ordinary face of home.
I reflect, too, on Frida Kahlo. Injured as a young girl, she endured multiple surgeries and extended confinements throughout her life. In spite of being flat on her back in a hospital bed for months at a time, she was able to rig up a mirror and easel and find the drive to paint her own self-portrait using Surrealist techniques that put her own face front and center, surrounded often by the mechanisms of pain. Other Kahlo self-portraits connected her face to her Mexicanismo and German roots. Frida Kahlo’s eyes staring into mine tell me about courage in the face of biological obstacles, about passion for life, for partner, for history. For reflecting humanity and soul deep beauty, there is no greater mirror to the world than Kahlo’s selfies.
Self-portraits, and by extension, selfies, have a long and time-honored history as a vernacular genre, meaning “of the people.” Technology just gives more people the tools for self-expression. Big noses, tongues out, duck kisses, rude gestures; worse, selfies taken with homeless people or with coffins at funerals–inappropriate by many if not most standards, selfies, like all attempts at art, record the moment that is receding rapidly into the past. Those goofy kids will become parents or professionals with complex life patterns and fates far from the feckless moment of that stupid selfie. There will be a future moment where that picture and all the unique others, will fall into historical place for self, family, and archived history of a now faded past.
The selfie is a way of exploring how I am in the world. There is something in me that sees myself very differently than others do, and through photography, I can explore those shadows, those soul rooms of intimacy, memory, suffering, and sadness, as well as their bright opposites. The drive to self-portraiture is linked to the impulse to memoir, to the personal documentary video, to first person storytelling of all kinds. Teilhard de Chardin famously said:
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience,”
and I think there is something in that, at least inasmuch as because I am in my body, I am the one person in the world I see the least of. What is this strange horse I ride called the human body? Yet, unlike a horse, my human body undergoes radical visual changes as I move through time, space, experience, DNA, and suffer the ungentle ravages of gravity.
In some ways, I don’t feel quite real because I can feel myself, but I can’t really see myself. The mirror image won’t stand still and anyway is all backward, and I can’t send it to my mother to reassure her that I’m still very much alive–the intent and destination of so many selfies. The self-portrait, the selfie does that–holds my image still–yet! in reverse! Am I never to see myself as I really am?
No matter how cheekily self-aware a selfie might be, they all have a quality of heart-breaking innocence about them. Rare is the mask that the camera or brush doesn’t penetrate with its frank, lucid gaze.
Michelle Obama and the dog have an air of mutual grace and fun as she holds up the cell phone camera to snap the image. This summer day in the middle of Obama’s second term is casual, so ephemeral. The portrait of the two of them is so intimate. Then the whole world rushes onward: the dog will die, Michelle will grow old and die, and the selfie, the self-portrait of the two of them, happy and in tune with each other and the world, will remain for other sympathetic eyes looking back through time.
I am wary of critics who seem to confuse self-representation with self-regard. Before selfies came along to bend the popular conception of self-portraiture toward youthful narcissism, the general consensus was that self portraits were, indeed, meant to bring the viewer into direct contact with the soul of the artist. If you go back to Rembrandt’s self portrait at London’s Kenwood House, “Self-Portrait With Two Circles,” it is hard not to think that it is a weight to grow old, that it happened to the bewilderment of the great Rembrandt, and it happens to you and me, too.
Why is it that critics, everyday, shall we say, vernacular critics, tend to a knee jerk pathologizing of the current selfie movement? One apologetic blogger even greets readers with, “Hi! I’m Diane Greco, and you are looking at my online exercise in narcissism, vanity, exhibitionism, ambition, vanity, vanity, and, of course, vanity.” Greco’s Biblical language (“Vanity, vanity,” quoth the prophet, “all is vanity.” Eccles. 12:8) points an arrow straight back down the Puritan tradition that exhorts people to use photographs of themselves only to examine their own flaws and failures as a source for self-improvement and for attaining grace. Jessica Moore, photography collection curator at the Western Plains Cultural Centre, doesn’t mince words in her critical stance, “For me, The Selfie has been defeated by its ubiquity; their multitude and banal similarity has robbed them of any impact.” Moore, too, is in the grip of that Puritanism, that powerful force from the deep past that, in addition to critics crying narcissism, has spawned the Quantified Self Movement and the proliferation of productivity apps.
It is all too human to want to police the boundaries between (other people’s) public and private lives. Open the topic around any given water cooler, and those critical voice echos of Jessica Moore, perhaps your own, come down hard on selfies everywhere. Selfie researcher Jill Walker Rettberg makes the same observation, “Society disciplines digital self-representations such as selfies through ridicule and pathologizing.” I am not beyond interrogating these voices, and the primary argument that comes most quickly to mind for most of my conversationalists is an objection at the sheer numbers of selfies, as if quantity implied lack of value, cheapness, and, yes, narcissism, vanity, exhibitionism, ambition, vanity, vanity, and, of course, vanity. Apparently the question really must be asked:
“Does the quantity of selfies make any kind of meaningful difference to anything?”
To answer, I turn to the Selfiecity.net project which quantitatively examined the differences in selfies from five different, international cities: Bangkok, Berlin, Moscow, New York, and Sao Paolo. This project is the brainchild of Dr. Lev Manovich, an expert on digital art and culture. Manovich is a Professor of Computer Science at The Graduate Center, CUNY, and the Director of the Software Studies Initiative. He and his cohorts investigate selfies using a variety of methods–artistic, quantitative, and theoretical. They have set for themselves some fascinating questions, such as:
“How can the history of photography help to better understand selfies phenomena? How can we theoretically approach social media images in general?”
The current data set includes 3200 selfies. The web site includes data visualizations of, for example, the ratio of men to women in each city who post selfies on social media. It turns out that many more women post selfies than men. In Bangkok, 1.3% more women post than men; in Moscow, 4.6% more women post than men, a fascinating gender contrast. For another example, the data show people take fewer selfies than are being complained about around the water cooler: depending on the city, only 3-5% of images were actually selfies.
The data set can be analyzed by any visitor to the web site using a variety of filters. Different trends flow through the selfie culture of any given city–head tilts, smiles, poses, expressions–and those can be isolated for research, for deep thinking, for art history, or for investigation into the desire for self-representation.
In my view, selfies are very much both for communicating and for reflecting upon ourselves. Creating and sharing a selfie or a stream of selfies is either consciously or unconsciously a form of self-reflection and self-creation. The ancient artists of Southern France had the cave walls of Lascaux to leave red handprints as their eternal marks; we have the selfie to contribute to the great stream of human history.
Greco, Diane. Web log post. [Narcissism, Vanity, Exhibitionism, Ambition, Vanity, Vanity, Vanity]. 27 May 2013. Web. <http://dianegreco.blogspot.com/>.
Manovich, Lev, Moritz Stefaner, Mehrdad Yazdani, Dominikus Baur, Daniel Goddemeyer, Alise Tifentale, Nadav Hochman, and Jay Chow. “Selfiecity.” Selfiecity. Digital Thought Facility, 2014. Web. 22 Nov. 2014. <http://selfiecity.net/>.
Moore, Jessica, and Kent Buchanan. “Selfies: The Pros and Cons of a Global Obsession.” Dubbo Photonews Weekender. 17 May 2014. Web. 22 Nov. 2014. <http://www.dubbophotonews.com.au/index.php/dpn/categories/local-news/item/3037-selfies-the-pros-and-cons-of-a-global-obsession>.
Walker Rettberg, Jill. Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: How We Use Selfies, Blogs, and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves. Norway: U of Bergen, 2014. Print.
Additional Sources Consulted
Cumming, Laura. A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits. Hammersmith, London: HarperPress, 2009. Print.
Losh, Elizabeth. “Beyond Biometrics: Feminist Media Theory Looks at Selfiecity.” Selfiecity.net. 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2014. <http://selfiecity.net/#theory>.
McKenzie, Jamie. “The Selfie Goes to School.” From Now On. 4 Mar. 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2014. <http://www.fno.org/mar2014/selfie.html>.
Rutledge, Pamela. “Making Sense of Selfies.” Psychology Today (2013). 2 July 2013. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.