ME, MY SELFIE AND I

The Advertiser - SA Weekend - - CONTENTS - WORDS EL­IZ­A­BETH DAY

Once we wrote let­ters, now we use smart phones to take “self­ies” and share our pri­vate mo­ments with strangers.

It starts with a cer­tain an­gle: a smart­phone tilted at 45 de­grees just above your eye­line is gen­er­ally deemed the most for­giv­ing. Then a light source: the flat­ter­ing beam of a back­lit win­dow or a burst­ing su­per­nova of flash re­flected in a bath­room mir­ror, as prepa­ra­tions are un­der way for a night out. The pose is im­por­tant. Know­ing self-aware­ness is con­veyed by the slight raise of an eye­brow, the side­ways smile that says you’re not tak­ing it too se­ri­ously. A doe-eyed stare and mussed-up hair de­notes nat­u­ral beauty, as if you’ve just wo­ken up and can’t help look­ing like this. Sex­i­ness is sug­gested by sucked-in cheeks, pout­ing lips, a non­cha­lant cock of the head and a hint of bare flesh just be­low the clav­i­cle. Snap!

Af­ter­wards, a flat­ter­ing fil­ter is ap­plied. Out­lines are blurred, colours are soft­ened, a sepia tint soaks through to im­ply a sim­pler era of vinyl records and VW cam­per vans.

All of this is the work of an in­stant. Then, with a sin­gle tap, you are ready to upload: to Twit­ter, to Face­book, to In­sta­gram, each like­ness ac­com­pa­nied by a sel­f­ref­er­en­tial hash­tag. Your im­age is retweeted and tagged and shared. Your screen fills with thumbs-up signs and heart-shaped emoti­cons. You are “liked” sev­eral times over. You feel a shiver of – what, ex­actly? Ap­pro­ba­tion? Re­as­sur­ance? Ex­is­ten­tial calm? What­ever it is, it’s ad­dic­tive. Soon, you re­peat the whole process, try­ing out a dif­fer­ent pose. Again and again, you of­fer your­self up for pub­lic con­sump­tion.

This, then, is the selfie: the self-por­trait of the dig­i­tal age. We are all at it. Just type “selfie” into the Twit­ter search bar. Or look at In­sta­gram, where more than 90m pho­tos are cur­rently posted with the hash­tag #me.

Ado­les­cent pop pop­pet Justin Bieber con­stantly tweets pho­tos of him­self with his shirt off to the shriek­ing de­light of his huge on­line fol­low­ing. Rihanna has treated her fans to In­sta­grammed self­ies of her en­joy­ing the view at a strip club, of her but­tocks barely con­cealed by a tiny denim thong and of her pos­ing with two over­size cannabis joints while in Am­s­ter­dam. Re­al­ity TV star Kim Kar­dashian over­shares to the ex­tent that, in March, she posted a pic­ture of her own face cov­ered in blood af­ter un­der­go­ing a so-called “vam­pire facial”.

The smart­phone self-por­trait or ‘selfie’ has es­tab­lished it­self as a form of self-ex­pres­sion. Is it a harm­less fad or a danger­ous sign of western so­ci­ety’s grow­ing nar­cis­sism?

In the same month, the selfie-ob­sessed model and ac­tress Kelly Brook banned her­self from post­ing any more of them (her willpower lasted two hours).

The po­lit­i­cal classes have started do­ing it, too. Pres­i­dent Obama’s daugh­ters, Sasha and Malia, took self­ies at his sec­ond in­au­gu­ra­tion. In June, Hil­lary Clin­ton got in on the act af­ter her daugh­ter, Chelsea, tweeted a joint pic­ture of them taken on her phone at arm’s length.

Last month, three sis­ters from Ne­braska stormed the field of a col­lege base­ball match and filmed them­selves while do­ing so, even­tu­ally be­ing re­moved by se­cu­rity guards. Stills from the six-sec­ond Vine video clip be­came known as “the most ex­pen­sive selfie of all time” af­ter it emerged that the sis­ters were fac­ing a $1500 fine.

The trend has even reached outer space: in De­cem­ber, Ja­panese astro­naut Aki Hoshide took what might be the great­est selfie of all time at the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion. The re­sult­ing im­age en­com­passed the sun, the Earth, two por­tions of a robotic arm, a space­suit and the deep dark­ness of the in­fi­nite be­yond.

“The selfie is rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing how we gather au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal in­for­ma­tion about our­selves and our friends,” says Dr Mar­i­ann Hardey, a lec­turer in mar­ket­ing at Durham Univer­sity who spe­cialises in dig­i­tal so­cial net­works.

“It’s about con­tin­u­ously rewrit­ing your­self. It’s an ex­ten­sion of our nat­u­ral con­struc­tion of self. It’s about pre­sent­ing your­self in the best way … [sim­i­lar to] when women put on make-up or men who body­build to look a cer­tain way: it’s an as­pect of per­for­mance that’s about know­ing your­self and be­ing vul­ner­a­ble.”

Al­though pho­to­graphic self-por­traits have been around since 1839, when da­guerreo­type pi­o­neer Robert Cor­nelius took a pic­ture of him­self out­side his fam­ily’s store in Philadel­phia (whether he had the help of an as­sis­tant is not known), it was not un­til the in­ven­tion of the com­pact dig­i­tal cam­era that the selfie boomed in pop­u­lar­ity.

There was some ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with the selfie in the 1970s – most notably by Andy Warhol – when the Po­laroid cam­era came of age and freed am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­phers from the tyranny of the dark­room. But

film was ex­pen­sive and it wasn’t un­til the advent of dig­i­tal that pho­to­graphs be­came truly in­stan­ta­neous. The fact that we no longer had to traipse to our lo­cal chemist to de­velop a roll of hol­i­day snaps en­cour­aged us to ex­per­i­ment – af­ter all, on a dig­i­tal cam­era, the im­age could be eas­ily deleted if we didn’t like the re­sults. A selfie could be done with the timer but­ton or by hold­ing the cam­era at arm’s length, if you didn’t mind the loom­ing tun­nel of flesh dog-ear­ing one cor­ner of the im­age.

As a re­sult, im­ages tagged as #selfie be­gan ap­pear­ing on the photo-shar­ing web­site Flickr as early as 2004. But it was the in­tro­duc­tion of smart­phones – most cru­cially the iPhone 4, which came along in 2010 with a front­fac­ing cam­era – that made the selfie go vi­ral.

Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est Aus­tralia Me­dia and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Au­thor­ity re­port, one in two adults, or 8.7 mil­lion of us, owns a smart­phone and a re­cent sur­vey of more than 800 teenagers by the Pew Re­search Cen­tre in Amer­ica found that 91 per cent posted pho­tos of them­selves on­line – up from 79 per cent in 2006.

Re­cently, the Chi­nese man­u­fac­turer Huawei un­veiled plans for a new smart­phone with “in­stant facial beauty sup­port” soft­ware, which re­duces wrin­kles and blends skin tone.

“A lot of the cam­eras on smart­phones are in­cred­i­bly good,” says Michael Pritchard, the di­rec­tor gen­eral of the Royal Pho­to­graphic So­ci­ety.

“The rise of dig­i­tal cam­eras and the iPhone co­in­cided with the fact that there are a lot more sin­gle peo­ple around [than be­fore]. The num­ber of sin­gle-oc­cu­pancy house­holds is ris­ing, more peo­ple are di­vorc­ing and liv­ing sin­gle lives and peo­ple go on hol­i­day by them­selves more and don’t have any­one else to take the pic­ture. That’s one rea­son I take self­ies: be­cause I do ac­tu­ally want to record where I am.”

But if self­ies are sim­ply an ex­er­cise in record­ing pri­vate mem­o­ries and charting the course of our lives, then why do we feel such a press­ing need to share them with hun­dreds and thou­sands of friends and strangers on­line? To some, the selfie has be­come the ul­ti­mate sym­bol of the nar­cis­sis­tic age. Its in­stan­ta­neous na­ture en­cour­ages su­per­fi­cial­ity – or so the ar­gu­ment goes. One of the pos­si­ble side-ef­fects has been that we care more than ever be­fore about how we ap­pear and, as a con­se­quence, so­cial ac­cep­tance comes only when the out­side world ac­cepts the way we look, rather than en­dors­ing the work we do or the way we be­have off-cam­era.

The Amer­i­can writer John Paul Tit­low has de­scribed selfie-shar­ing as: “a high school pop­u­lar­ity con­test on dig­i­tal steroids”. In an ar­ti­cle pub­lished on the web­site Read­Write ear­lier this year, Tit­low ar­gued that selfie users “are seek­ing some kind of ap­proval from their peers and the larger com­mu­nity, which thanks to the in­ter­net is now ef­fec­tively in­fi­nite”.

In­deed, al­though many peo­ple who post pic­tures of them­selves on the in­ter­net do so in the be­lief that it will only ever be seen by their group of friends on any given so­cial net­work, the truth is that the im­ages can be viewed and used by other agen­cies.

There are now en­tire porn sites de­voted to the “am­a­teur” naked selfie and con­cerns have re­cently been raised that jilted lovers can seek their re­venge by mak­ing ex­plicit im­ages of their ex pub­licly avail­able on­line.

The pre­pon­der­ance of young women pos­ing for self­ies in a state of undress is a po­ten­tially wor­ry­ing is­sue. When the model Cara Delev­ingne In­sta­grammed a pic­ture of her nip­ples pok­ing through a black lace top, it rapidly got more than 60,000 “Likes”.

Ac­cord­ing to Gail Dines, the author of Porn­land: How Porn Has Hi­jacked Our Sex­u­al­ity: “Be­cause of porn cul­ture, women have in­ter­nalised that im­age of them­selves. They self-ob­jec­tify, which means they’re ac­tu­ally do­ing to them­selves what the male gaze does to them.” Dines ar­gues that al­though men can “gain vis­i­bil­ity” in a va­ri­ety of ways, for women the pre­dom­i­nant way to get at­ten­tion is “f**ka­bil­ity”. And it is true that a lot of fe­male selfie afi­ciona­dos take their vis­ual ver­nac­u­lar di­rectly from pornog­ra­phy (un­wit­tingly or oth­er­wise): the pout­ing mouth, the pressed-to­gether cleav­age, the rum­pled bed­clothes in the back­ground hint­ing at op­por­tu­nity.

But Rebecca Brown, a 23-year-old grad­u­ate trainee from Birm­ing­ham, be­lieves her pen­chant for self­ies is nei­ther de­grad­ing nor nar­cis­sis­tic. In­stead, she ex­plains, it is a sim­ple means of self-ex­plo­ration.

“It’s al­most like a vis­ual diary,” she says. “I can look

back and see what I looked like at a par­tic­u­lar time, what I was wear­ing.

“It’s ex­plor­ing your iden­tity in dig­i­tal form. To me it’s not about nu­dity or hav­ing a raunchy or raw kind of look… Peo­ple think if you take pic­tures of your­self, you’re self-ob­sessed but that’s like say­ing if you write a diary or an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, you’re self-ob­sessed. Not nec­es­sar­ily. A selfie is a for­mat and a plat­form to share who you are.”

Does she feed off the so­cial ap­proval that a selfie can gen­er­ate? “I sup­pose you take pho­tos to see what you look like,” Brown con­cedes.

“Be­fore I go out, I’ll take a cou­ple of pic­tures al­most to see how I look in other peo­ple’s eyes. In the same way that if you wrote a re­ally good piece of work and had peo­ple com­ment­ing about how good it was, or if you put some­thing on Twit­ter that peo­ple retweeted, if peo­ple start lik­ing your selfie, then ob­vi­ously you’re go­ing to get a nat­u­ral buzz. It gives you a nice boost and you can walk with that lit­tle bit more con­fi­dence.”

There is noth­ing new about this, of course. Hu­man be­ings are so­cial an­i­mals and have long been driven by the need for ap­proval and self-af­fir­ma­tion – al­beit on a smaller scale. The de­sire for a pic­to­rial rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the self goes all the way back to early hand­print paint­ings on cave walls more than 4000 years ago. In a fast-paced world of ever-chang­ing tech­nol­ogy, it could be ar­gued that the selfie is sim­ply a nat­u­ral evo­lu­tion of those hands dipped in paint.

“As with so many ‘new trends’, this one has a fairly dis­tin­guished pre­his­tory,” ex­plains es­say­ist and author Ge­off Dyer.

“In 1925 DH Lawrence was be­moan­ing the way that ‘each of us has a com­plete Ko­dak idea of him­self’. This new phe­nom­e­non of the selfie has al­ready been turned into a work of art which is also a sort of vis­ual es­say: Richard Mis­rach’s 11.21.11 5.40pm con­sists of him tak­ing a tele­photo shot of a cou­ple on a beach tak­ing a pic­ture of the sea. Then we zoom in closer and closer on each sub­se­quent page un­til we are able to see the screen of their phone in which is re­vealed… a self-por­trait.”

The pop­u­lar­ity of the selfie is, says Mar­i­ann Hardey, “an ex­ten­sion of how we live and learn about each other” and a way of im­part­ing nec­es­sary in­for­ma­tion about who we are. By way of an ex­am­ple, Hardey says that when her fa­ther died sud­denly last year, she took refuge in her In­sta­gram feed.

“I couldn’t bear the con­ver­sa­tions but one way to prove to friends that I was OK was to take a pic­ture of my­self,” she says. “That re­vealed some­thing very im­por­tant to my friends – one, that I was still func­tion­ing and, two, I was out do­ing stuff. An im­age can con­vey more than words.”

The idea that young women are self-ob­jec­ti­fy­ing by pos­ing semi-porno­graph­i­cally for self­ies is, she be­lieves, a danger­ous one.

“When we’re talk­ing about what is ac­cept­able for women in terms of con­struct­ing an im­age, we need to be very care­ful of not head­ing down into the ter­ri­tory of ‘she was wear­ing a short skirt, so she was ask­ing to be raped’. We should avoid that ar­gu­ment be­cause it’s prob­a­bly an ex­ten­sion of more pa­tri­ar­chal de­mands. Women should be al­lowed to por­tray them­selves in a way they feel en­hanced by. Who didn’t ex­per­i­ment with cut­ting their hair off and dy­ing it pink when they were younger? This is just a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion of ex­per­i­ment­ing with the chang­ing in­ter­faces of be­ing young and one of th­ese in­ter­faces, yes, is sex­ual iden­tity.”

A selfie can, in some re­spects, be a more au­then­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of beauty than other me­dia im­ages. In an ar­ti­cle for Psy­chol­ogy To­day pub­lished ear­lier this year, Sarah J Ger­vais, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy, wrote that: “In­sta­gram (and other so­cial me­dia) has al­lowed the pub­lic to re­claim pho­tog­ra­phy as a source of em­pow­er­ment… [it] of­fers a quiet re­sis­tance to the bar­rage of per­fect im­ages that we face each day. Rather than be­ing bom­barded with those cre­ations… we can look through our In­sta­gram feed and see im­ages of real peo­ple – with beau­ti­ful di­ver­sity.

“In­sta­gram also al­lows us the op­por­tu­nity to see be­low the sur­face. We cap­ture a glimpse into the mak­ings of peo­ple’s daily lives. We get a sense of those things that make the ev­ery­day ex­tra­or­di­nary.”

The ap­peal for celebri­ties like Bieber, Kar­dashian et al is con­nected to this. The ex­pan­sion of so­cial net­work­ing has en­abled them to com­mu­ni­cate di­rectly with their fan­base and to build up large, loyal fol­low­ings among peo­ple who be­lieve they are get­ting a real glimpse into the lives of the rich and fa­mous.

“If you’re go­ing for a younger au­di­ence, you’re ex­pected to en­gage with ev­ery me­dia chan­nel avail­able to you,” says lead­ing PR Mark Borkowski.

“Ev­ery as­pect of Rihanna’s life is about her let­ting peo­ple in. Some peo­ple are very nat­u­ral and nor­mal about it and com­pletely com­fort­able with be­ing ‘on’ and that’s fine. But it be­comes un­stuck if it’s not real. A selfie has to be ‘the real you’. It works if you can give peo­ple a man­age­able piece of re­al­ity which is who you are.”

The key is the idea of “man­age­able re­al­ity”: celebri­ties can now ex­er­cise more con­trol than ever over the dis­sem­i­na­tion of their im­age. The para­dox at the heart of the selfie is that it mas­quer­ades as a “can­did” shot, taken with­out ac­cess to air­brush­ing or post-pro­duc­tion, but in fact, a care­fully posed selfie, edited with all the right fil­ters, is a far more ap­peal­ing prospect than a snatched pa­parazzo shot taken from a de­lib­er­ately un­flat­ter­ing an­gle.

“It’s about self-ex­po­sure and con­trol,” says artist Si­mon Fox­all, whose work ques­tions the pa­ram­e­ters of in­di­vid­u­al­ity and self-ex­pres­sion. “A selfie blurs the line be­tween ‘re­al­ity’ and the per­for­mance of a fan­tasy self, so one col­lapses into the other.”

Be­yond that, a ju­di­cious use of self­ies can make good busi­ness sense too: Alexa Chung and Florence Welch have both used self­ies to post daily up­dates on what they

are wear­ing, thereby ce­ment­ing their po­si­tion as mod­ern style icons and guar­an­tee­ing, no doubt, the con­tin­u­a­tion of a se­ries of lu­cra­tive fash­ion deals. (Chung, for one, has de­signed a women’s wear line for the fash­ion brand Madewell for the last three years.)

The web­site What I Wore To­day be­gan as a site that fea­tured young en­tre­pre­neur Poppy Din­sey pos­ing for a daily selfie, in a dif­fer­ent out­fit for ev­ery day of the year. It be­came an in­ter­net hit and has now ex­panded to al­low users to upload their own im­ages, as well as gen­er­at­ing ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue by fea­tur­ing on­line links to cloth­ing retailers.

“Peo­ple like the con­trol self­ies give them,” says Din­sey. “Some­times it’s just a prac­ti­cal mat­ter of not hav­ing any­one around to shoot you and that’s why I al­ways took my own pic­tures in mir­rors for WIWT. But you’re de­cid­ing how to frame your­self – you’re not trust­ing some­one else to make you look good. With front-fac­ing cam­eras on iPhones, and so on, you can see the pic­ture you’re tak­ing and frame it per­fectly to show your­self off as best as pos­si­ble – your mate isn’t go­ing to make the same ef­fort when tak­ing your pic­ture. Plus, you can re­take and re­take with­out any­one hav­ing to know how much van­ity has gone into that ‘ca­sual’ pose.”

In some ways, of course, the no­tion of con­trol is disin­gen­u­ous: once a selfie is posted on­line, it is out there for pub­lic delec­ta­tion. Fu­ture em­ploy­ers can see it. Mar­keters can use it. A re­sent­ful for­mer lover could ex­ploit it.

You can use dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy to ma­nip­u­late your own im­age as much as you like. But the truth about self­ies is that once they are on­line, you can never con­trol how other peo­ple see you.

© The Ob­server 2013

Kevin Rudd posted a selfie of his shav­ing cuts, while Steph Rice posts a thank you to her make-up artist for “mak­ing me pretty for tonight”.

Dan­nii Minogue shows off her LA out­fit

Kim Kar­dashian and TV pre­sen­ter Wil­lie Geist take a selfie on an iPhone

Rihanna takes self­ies for her fans

Andy Lee asks “If a lo­cal asked you and your mate to jump off this 25m high bridge in Bos­nia, would you?”

Shock, hor­ror it’s Kim Kar­dashian – again

PHO­TOG­RA­PHY IN­STA­GRAM

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