/ 22 December 2014

How selfies are changing the way we see ourselves and the world

A man takes a selfie while another prays during Hajj.
A man takes a selfie while another prays during Hajj.

Every year rival dictionary makers announce their word of the year. 

The exercise is nominally focused on drawing attention to new words enjoying common currency but, alongside this, in celebration of the fine grain of language, swirls a host of other concerns relating to brand awareness and the besting of corporate rivals.

Such are the workings of “capitalism”, which American dictionary maker Merriam-Webster selected along with “socialism” as its joint words of the year for 2012. Over the past decade the American Dialect Society, a veteran at this game of canonising new words, has tended to foreground the influence of technology and austerity economics in its annual selection.

“Cyber”, “web”, “Y2K” (remember that?), “subprime”, “bailout” (the story of African Bank in a nutshell), “tweet” (how Thabo Mbeki might better have economised his thoughts) and “app” have all been enshrined by the dialect society.

By way of distinguishing themselves from earnest American lexicographers, the British have tended to focus on unconventional words. This year rivals Oxford, Collins and Chambers announced “vape”, “photobomb” and “overshare” as their respective words of the year. Last year Oxford chose “selfie”. On balance, it was an astute decision.

The news from the past year – be it Beyoncé’s private walk through the Louvre in Paris with Jay-Z, Pope Francis’s five-day tour of South Korea or Senzo Meyiwa’s last hours with girlfriend Kelly Khumalo – can all be told through the selfie. Ditto aspects of the anger and frail moments of reciprocity in Ferguson, United States.

Selfies also offered insider accounts of what it meant to be a Palestinian in the Gaza Strip during Israel’s angry offensive, or a Peshmerga fighter resisting the spread of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis). There was even a selfie meme featuring Isis jihadists demonstrating their affection for that addictive Italian hazelnut chocolate spread, Nutella.

The radical subjectivity of selfies didn’t dominate journalism over the past year so much as expand the texture and tone of the news. Take one well-documented local event. Two weeks after language geeks at Oxford announced selfie as their word of the year, President Jacob Zuma appeared on national television with sombre news. Nelson Mandela had died.

“Our people have lost a father,” said Zuma. How does one mourn a familiar stranger? The question perplexed South Africans for days.

Early on, in the immediate wake of Zuma’s announcement, mourners began streaming towards Mandela’s Houghton residence. No doubt heartsore but also a little curious and discombobulated by the unscripted present tense, they arrived with flags, handwritten notes, posters, bits of fabric and flowers – yellow carnations and floppy sunflowers, bright red roses and plastic-wrapped bouquets containing a multitude of colours.

The mourners lingered, chatted, wept, sang and prayed. Some even posed for the huge press contingent stalking Mandela’s urban residence.

Mostly, though, they photographed themselves, these self-portraits stored like relics from a pilgrimage in the software of their mobile phones.

This urbane compulsion – to see and be seen, to go beyond mere reportage and claim a walk-on role in a big news story – was repeatedly acted out during the 10 days preceding Mandela’s burial in Qunu on December 15.

In Pretoria, during the sombre ritual involving the conveyance of Mandela’s body between One Military Hospital and the Union Buildings, where he lay in state for three days, a middle-aged woman wearing a red T-shirt flipped her phone and photographed herself waiting for the cortège.

Similar acts of description and witnessing occurred at a rain-soaked FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, where boos pelleted down like hail on Zuma. During the extended eulogy, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt famously photographed herself sitting with Barack Obama, president of the US and David Cameron, prime minister of the United Kingdom.

Thorning-Schmidt refused to publish the photo – hers is arguably the most famous selfie never seen – stating it wasn’t “particularly good”. This fact didn’t stop pundits weighing in. A columnist for the New York Post, a daily tabloid, described the Obama selfie “episode” as a symbol of “the greater global calamity of Western decline”.

Why not simply a breach of decorum? Selfies tend to bring out the inner troll.

Writing for the Guardian shortly after Obama’s stately gaffe, Jason Feifer, a Brooklyn-based editor behind the wickedly funny Tumblr microblogging site “Selfies at Funerals“, offered an upbeat reading of the presidential selfie.

Some history: Feifer, who works for business magazine Fast Company, began harvesting funeral selfies as an addendum to another Tumblr project. Titled “Selfies at Serious Places“, his microblog aggregated self-portraits of bored teens at Auschwitz, Treblinka and Chernobyl.

“Many people interpreted funeral selfies as further evidence of millennials’ self-centredness,” explained Feifer in his Guardian editorial. “I didn’t. Had my parents’ or grandparents’ generation grown up with the kind of social media tools that today’s teens have, they’d have done equally embarrassing things for all the world to see.”

Selfies, offered Feifer, are a “visual language that older people – even those like me, in their 30s – simply don’t speak”.

Yes, although to read selfies simply as evidence of how young people appropriate technology is a bit limiting. The use of these uniquely mobile and easily shared contributions to the self-portrait genre cuts across age, race and religious orientation. In the process, selfies are testing accepted cultural codes, especially in places where ritual and memory dictate solemnity and selflessness.

In Israel, for instance, anger greeted a local Facebook page titled “With My Besties in Auschwitz” (in Hebrew), which compiled school-trip selfies made to death camps in Europe. “Even here I’m drop-dead gorgeous!” read a caption to a selfie taken at Auschwitz. The page was taken down in June.

In Saudi Arabia, selfie-taking Hajj pilgrims have similarly encountered headwind, particularly from stern Muslim clerics.

Hasan Essop, a Cape Town artist who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, earlier this year witnessed flashing cameras in the al-Masjid al-Haram mosque. “The prophet Muhammad would be turning in his grave,” said Essop. Unlike the great many smartphone-touting pilgrims he saw taking photos, Essop didn’t take any selfies. Which is not without irony. Essop has achieved art-world prominence with a series of self-portraits produced with his twin brother, Husain.

The desire to record a visual memory of being in Mecca predates smartphones. In the past, explained Essop, pilgrims had their portraits taken in a studio with a painted backdrop depicting the Ka’aba, a popular location for Hajj selfies. Many Cape Town homes of elderly Muslims still possess these portraits, which attest to faith, endurance and joyous achievement.

“But that has been replaced by the selfie,” said Essop. “Youngsters would rather post a selfie as proof of them standing there.”

The emphasis on youth can be diverting. One of the earliest selfies known to photo historians depicts a group of middle-aged white men – all of them photographers with the Byron Company in New York – huddling together on a rooftop in 1920 for a selfie made with a wooden box camera.

The idea of the selfie is nothing new. Nor is the use of the camera to record contradictory emotions, be it at a pilgrimage site, place of atrocity or funeral.

“No funeral is 100% sadness,” wrote Feifer. “It’s a mixture of loss and celebration, of life in all its parts. Mandela’s legacy will contain all of that. If I were seated next to Obama, I’d have wanted to take a selfie with him too.”

Me too.

Self-absorption and narcissistic wonder are hardly new human attributes. Nor, for that matter is joy, communion, playfulness, affirmation, curiosity, wonder, boredom and loneliness, all attributes visible in selfies. What is new, though, is how these very primary instincts interface with, and are amplified by, the perpetual present tense of social media.

Last year 1.2-billion photos were uploaded and shared every day. By May this year, when Mary Meeker, a former Wall Street analyst turned internet sage, released her annual internet report, the number of daily uploads and shares was already at 1.8-billion.

Despite their apparent ubiquity, selfies still constitute a relatively small volume of the global traffic in images. Estimates place the number of digital self-portraits produced on smartphones and webcams at anywhere up to 93-million daily. Numerically, selfies are still dwarfed by the cat genre – at least in Britain, where the volume of uploaded images depicting cute, slothful, indignant or owl-eyed cats far outnumbers that of self-portraits.

Our present-day image culture is ostensibly immaterial but is actually founded on a very tangible physical infrastructure. Like all large-scale industries, Web 2.0 – a now somewhat dated term referring to the capacity of the internet to create participatory communities of users – is physically obese.

A 2012 New York Times investigation into the physical structures of the internet revealed that the immaterial indeed has volume. The world’s digital warehouses, many of which are in secret locations, use the equivalent of about 30 nuclear power plants (or 30?billion watts) and produce epic farts (their carbon emissions sometime violate clean air regulations).

Philosophically, all this trafficking in images poses interesting questions too, particularly in relation to how “abundance, quantity and accumulation” – key attributes of digital photography, according to American photo historian Kate Palmer Albers – are changing the age-old hierarchical culture of looking.

“The relatively easy access to digital photo and video cameras, combined with the global distribution platform of the internet, has altered the traditional statistical relationship between image producers and image consumers,” writes German philosopher Boris Groys in the introduction to his 2010 book of essays, Going Public. “Today, more people are interested in image production than image contemplation.”

Social media businesses have hugely profited from this existential shift. In 2006 Google stumped up $1.65-billion for video-sharing platform YouTube. Facebook paid roughly $1-billion for the photo-sharing service Instagram in 2012.

Selfies cannot be abstracted from the capitalist ecosystem that sponsors their proliferation. At the same time, there is a strange feedback loop between the culture of business and the culture of culture.

During her recent visit to the Louvre, Beyoncé uploaded a selfie to her Instagram account showing her in front of an Italian marble sculpture portraying Apollo conquering the serpent Python. The work, created some time between 1700 and 1720, venerates Apollo, the god of light and music.

This is not why visitors flock to the Michelangelo Gallery in the Denon Wing to see it. The sculpture is a popular place to pose for selfies. Many tourists believe his gesture, holding up a (missing) sword, resembles the pose of amateur self-portraitists.

“The selfie is dead,” tweeted Feifer in June. “Brands were the murderers.” His blunt proposition was just a self-promoting stub with a link to a longer article he had written for Fast Company.

“Selfie is now a word most often heard out of the mouths of marketing execs,” Feifer said in that article. As evidence he offered Samsung’s “grating, high-profile celebrity selfies”.

In February, Samsung signed a deal to sponsor 10 promoted tweets featuring celebrity selfies at the Oscars. Mid-show, event host Ellen DeGeneres ran into the audience with a Samsung Galaxy Note 3. The apparently spontaneous group selfie produced by actor Bradley Cooper’s hand featured enough bleached ivory to stock a poacher’s warehouse. Its near-simultaneous transmission briefly shut down Twitter as millions forwarded the image.

Selfies are good business, which invariably means they will involve a lawyer at some point. Remember the toothy smile of that crested black macaque who unwittingly produced a selfie? The US Copyright Office does.

Following a dispute between Wikipedia and David Slater, a British wildlife photographer whose equipment recorded the image of that macaque in an Indonesian forest, the US Copyright Office ruled that a photograph taken by a nonhuman is unprotected intellectual property.

Ownership is never a speculative quality in a capitalist economy. Take that Oscars selfie. Shortly after it went viral Associated Press reprinted the selfie, its caption including a courtesy thanking DeGeneres for permission to use it. Legally, the selfie was not hers to give. Expert legal opinion has suggested that Cooper, who is definitely not a simian, owns the image.

“Historically,” Los Angeles entertainment lawyer Ethan Kirschner told the Wire, the online news platform of monthly print magazine the Atlantic, “it’s always been the person who pressed the shutter who’s technically the person that owns copyright.”

A nostalgic view might hold that none of these complications existed before the internet. The unfolding legal dispute around the estate of photographer Vivian Maier’s estate suggests otherwise. Although not strictly an authorship issue, the current legal wrangling over ownership of Maier’s self-portraits animates what happens when selfies acquire the status of art.

Born in New York in 1926, Maier worked as a nanny for much of her adult life. In her spare time she produced crisply delineated portraits of urbanites in outdoor settings as well as inquiring self-portraits. Maier died in 2009, destitute and without immediate family. Her life’s work, which included over 100 000 negatives, was sold off in three lots in 2007 when she failed to maintain storage payments.

John Maloof, a former real estate agent in Chicago, acquired the largest bulk. He has been actively promoting her work since. As part of his due diligence Maloof tracked down a Maier heir, a first cousin, and made a one-off settlement. In June, David C Deal, a commercial photographer and lawyer, set in motion procedures challenging this arrangement. He has found a different first cousin.

Maier’s work is worth the battle. It offers an alienated yet engaged portrait of wearying American optimism. Although she didn’t invent the self-portrait genre, her poses – in front of mirrors and windows, deadpan or amused, standing outdoors or in a domestic setting, with spectators or alone – also rehearse the countless ways in which the self has been measured and described by the camera.

And they really are countless. Among the most innovative – or technologically adaptive – is New York photographer Noah Kalina’s archive of daily portraits. On January 11 2000, Kalina began photographing himself every day. In 2006 he released a video montage online.

Kalina’s project was an instant hit – this is a culture where “likes” and “views” are the digital equivalent of applause and ovation.

In a ironic twist that mirrors Hasan Essop’s refusal to produce a selfie while on pilgrimage, Kalina turned down requests to appear on Oprah and The Ellen DeGeneres Show. His project was about fame or narcissism.

There is no stock explanation for why people – amateurs as much as artists – photograph themselves. Maier’s class doesn’t fully explain her obvious love for doubling, mirroring and experimenting in her self-portraits. The same applies to Samuel Fosso, whose self-portraits rank alongside French artist Claude Cahun and American photographer Cindy Sherman as among the 20th century’s most vital documents of the self on show.

Like Maier, Fosso’s work exceeds the sum of his biography. Born in Cameroon to a Nigerian mother, Fosso lived in Nigeria before moving to Bangui in the Central African Republic as a young boy. Initially he laboured in his uncle’s shoe factory before switching jobs to work as studio photographer.

His decision to begin styling himself for the camera was both practical – he needed to use up spare frames of expensive analogue film – as well as emotional – he sent the resulting photos to his grandmother in Nigeria.

“I felt, at that time, that I was handsome, young, well made and without stain,” Fosso told the New York Times in 2009. “I wanted to have proof of this, to show my future children.”

Fosso’s explanation is useful in narrowing the distance between artist-produced self-portraits and the flood of image experiments being produced by bored teenagers, chocolate-loving jihadists and pilgrims far away from home. Selfies are about being there – in the thick of history, like Forrest Gump and Woody Allen’s Leonard Zelig – but also about checking out of the seriousness of daily routine.

Narcissism? I prefer to think of selfies as a form of radical subjectivity, a form of self-authorship that transcends the usual modes of publication. A question remains unanswered, though: With so many people making selfies now, who is looking?

Sean O’Toole is a writer based in Cape Town.