I spend much of my time working with children and young people, teaching them various elements of photography and art, and i’ve managed to do this for almost ten years self-employed which i am very proud of. But i am aware that times are changing and in order to maintain a level of interest in children and young people i have had to start to use the word ‘selfie’. If there was any word i could banish from everyday use it would be that. In fact i struggle to even write it here. I detest it. It is a vulgar, narcissistic term used to refer to the taking of one’s own picture using a hand-held device and then, more often than not, sharing that image via social networks. Normally the images are badly taken with camera phones and granted the cameras in phones are considerably better than they used to be, it’s not their fault it’s the people taking them…
Pictures of young girls with their cheeks puffed up, one hip jutting out with their hand resting on it, drunken, regretful nights out in the pub, or boys with their tops off showing how hard they have worked down the gym. Just a few of the more common examples of what has now become a whole new phenomena in social networking being used by presidents, actors, tourists and just about everyone. The pictures they take say ‘look at me, look where i am, aren’t i having a great time?’ Very few emotions (apart from the standard gormless smile/provocative pout) exist in these images and so the visual cues come from what else is happening in the picture- what time of day is it? Can we tell what type of room the image was taken in? More often than not it turns out that there is, in fact no depth to the image and what you see is what you get- just a quick shallow skim across the surface of someone’s life. It can be argued that you catch a glimpse of what goes on behind closed doors but i would argue that the images tend to be staged and give few clues- only what the taker wants us to see.
The article above places some good context around the ‘selfie’ phenomenon (there are also some errors- Atget was not the crime scene photographer is was Wegee) but all things considered it gives good perspective from an arts point of view. Below is a quote from Kyle Chakya from the National #selfie Portrait Gallery;
““It’s less about narcissism—narcissism is so lonely!—and it’s more about being your own digital avatar.” Chayka adds, “Smartphone selfies come out of the same impulse as Rembrandt’s … to make yourself look awesome.””
They just used the word “awesome” and Rembrandt in the same sentence. I don’t think that was really what Rembrandt was thinking. I hope someone corrects him and perhaps does so in person and manages to take his phone off him so he sits and listens for three minutes.
As a portrait genre it is here to stay for the foreseeable future and so i have resigned myself to the fact that i will have to spend time correcting people when they say ‘selfie’ and ask them to use either self-portrait or auto-portrait. Whether i have worked with a group for several hours/week/months it makes no difference. I can enlighten them as to what it means to take pictures of people, and show them how to do it, and how to treat photography as a skill, an art form, and a tool for communication. But as soon as they go home and engage with social media and their friends, it’s back to the puffed up cheeks and duck face. I am happy to make a joke about this when i am working but it is part of a bigger picture of how to connect with people and how to maintain a sense of authenticity in one’s life when technologies are outstripping the need to or want to meet with people face to face and experience the sponteneity of conversation.
And here endeth today’s lecture. Because authenticity is too big a subject for now…