From Vincent Van Gogh to Lucian Freud the self portrait has a firm place in art. Often broody, dark and unflattering the artist strives to show us a fraction of his life, a bit of gritty reality. The selfie – a picture of yourself taken on a digital device intended to be published online – has an altogether different purpose. Where a portrait might be an opportunity to show the world who you are and what you stand for, a selfie shows the world what you would like to be. This is your version of the real you. The funny sweet and exciting version of you edited into shape and with a flattering filter.
The stratospheric rise of the selfie shows that we all seem to have a huge need to document ourselves. Some even say the selfie will be the cultural marker of our time. Already the third most frequent hash tag used on Instagram is #me. Are we a generation of narcissists? Or is there something deeper?
The term “selfie” was first documented in about 2004 and it firmly belongs in the digital age. Sure, Andy Warhol experimented with a Polaroid camera in the 70s and anyone born in the 80s will still remember the photo booth where you and your friends pull silly faces and get a strip of 4 different pictures for a couple of coins. But you never quite knew if it would end up being what you wanted it to be. With the digital camera everything changed. Film used to be expensive and fragile, the amount of pictures was limited and you would have to consider carefully what you use it on. Digital pictures are easy and disposable. If you don’t like it, you delete and try again. Also you don’t need any bodies help. You don’t have to carry your film roles to the developers and blush when you pick them up, you don’t have to ask some bored friend or pay a photographer to share your vision – there’s just you and the camera and endless amounts of time. It’s about control. You are in charge of the image you produce. You are in charge of the image you publish. And nobody needs to know how much vanity went into striking that “casual” pose.
A lot of celebrities embrace the opportunity of posting self produced photographs exactly because they can control their image that way. They can give fans a feed of pics from their so called “real” life – perfectly photoshopped for that natural look – creating a feeling of intimacy and closeness, that is much preferable to an unwanted or unflattering paparazzi shot. In our celebrity crazy age it seems we are all out there copying them, documenting our little everyday life, shooting our own personal reality show. We are the stars in our life and our very own paparazzi too. We create a sense of importance around ourselves. This is what I wore today. This is where I’ve been. #Me having coffee, #Me by the beach, #Me being fabulous. As if we want to hold on to time and make people see that we actually exist. We are alive, would someone please notice! Is that “ultimate symbol of a narcissistic age” actually founded in insecurity? I know of people who take a quick selfie before going out to see if their outfit is ok. I know of people who snap away in the changing rooms to get approval of a partner before actually buying anything. Is that narcissism? It seems like we all just want to be accepted, get some reassurance, we want to be ” liked” and the more thumbs up you collect for your picture the better you’ll feel about yourself. People may do a pouty “duck face” one, an ironic eyebrow raised one or pull a silly face suggesting they don’t take it seriously but they all do it. Trying to get some feedback from their digital audience, crying out for attention.
Maybe with families breaking down and more and more people living alone we need that reassurance from our digital friends. We need to know that it’s ok to be us. We might not be famous, we might not be important but Instagram is writing your autobiography for you anyway. And you can rewrite it, edit it, filter it, until it looks like exactly the kind of person you want to be. You can set the scene yourself. You are in charge. And when you browse through it your life looks fun and colourful and exciting, you are more attractive and more successful and more interesting than you’ve ever been and all your friends like it. Who knows, maybe it takes yourself to see the best in yourself. A photographer, even a great one, will only ever capture his version of you. He will shoot what he sees. Maybe the selfie is in the end the most honest image of how we see ourselves. Or how we wish we were. So we keep contorting ourselves to fit into the screen of our own dreams and snap away. Hope you “like” it!
By Susanne Louise Frost