Distraction Free Reading

Facing the Selfie

Last weekend I had the pleasure of participating in the symposium entitled Face It: Photography, Ethics, and Identity in the Age of the Selfie, which was held at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). The program featured an eclectic mix of voices representing artists and scholars interested in exploring how photographic images blur or highlight the distinctions between authenticity and enactment of identity on social media sites. Of particular interest was exploring the political and ethical obligations and ramifications of a seemingly unabated proliferation of images.

The keynote speaker for the event was Martin A. Berger, Professor in History of Art and Visual Culture and Associate Dean, Arts Division, University of California, Santa Cruz. Berger set the tone and historical context for exploring issues of self/other documentation within the realm of photography, particularly with regard to emotional responses to race. Berger discussed several important images that depicted Frederick Douglass, the famous African-American statesman, social reformer, and orator. Douglass often posed for portraiture throughout his life, it has been asserted, as an alternative to portrayals of him made by whites that often appeared in print.

Through these portraits, which exhibited different emotional expressions and reflections of his aging body, Douglass attempted to take back his image and provide alternatives to his documented identity. While not a “selfie” (and I’ll speak later on the discussions that were held at the symposium over this definition), Berger’s discussion frames the historical context of what it means to produce one’s own images within a sea of others that purposefully or accidentally write one’s own perceived self-identity and history out of the picture.

In another thought-provoking aspect of his lecture, Berger analyzed responses to civil rights photographs, particularly the Pete Harris photograph of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the “Little Rock Nine,” being pursued by a mob as she enters Little Rock Central High School during desegregation in 1957. Berger described a pedagogical technique that he used to understand his students’ reactions to this image. Students were to take an index card and draw a horizontal line through the middle. One the top half, they were instructed to state the emotional reaction that they had to the image. On the bottom half, they were to account for their emotion. A small percentage claimed that they experienced no emotional response since it happened so many years ago.

A much larger proportion of responses could be interpreted as exhibiting feelings of shame or guilt, which are not the same emotion. Although it is often stated that feeling shame over depictions of such incidences in our nation’s past provoke action, in fact Berger quoted some interesting scholarship from the psychological literature that differentiates between the ramifications of shame versus guilt. Whereas guilt is about focusing on harm done to another, and how people might imagine righting the situation and what they might do differently to have avoided causing harm, shame’s focus is internal. Feeling shame stems from feeling a sense of diminished self-worth, and people feeling shame are often more concerned with managing their wounded self and addressing their own pain, rather than reaching out to others.

Berger’s technique is simple, yet provides a meaningful exploration not only of individual students’ emotions, but also yields a rather fascinating set of social science materials for interpreting how emotions connect (or fail to connect) to civic action when images confront us with social injustices. Berger’s conclusion is that emotions might prompt action, but we must be more attentive to exactly what kinds of emotions are being produced. Saying that emotions from images produce action is too vague; much work needs to be done to understand what types of emotions are being produced, and pinpoint how emotions serve as a barrier to or facilitator of civic action.

I am looking forward to experimenting with this technique in my own course on New Media and Civic Action, and exploring how people might react to images, for example, that have been used in social media-driven social movements such as the Arab Spring. What kinds of reactions might students offer when responding to images of the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page, in which the beaten, dead body of a young student who had video taped officers–who were later convicted of engaging in police correction–was used to incite civic protest? The circulation of this disturbing image, among other events, was said to play a role in the eventual toppling of the Mubarak regime in Egypt in 2011.

Symposia of this kind often benefit from break-out sessions that allow a smaller group to engage more deeply in the thought-provoking ideas being explored during formal papers and lectures. Break-out sessions included topics such as authorship and the archive; images, agency, and self-determination; class politics and social media; print culture as photobomb; and the session I attended entitled, From Self-Portrait to Selfie. First on the agenda was teasing apart how self-portraits and selfies seemed to differ, which quickly lead to a discussion on their similarities. As the discussion on selfies matures, we will no doubt see a number of sub-branches and competing categories, but those that stood out for us during our discussion included:

• seriousness/having fun or being silly
• seeking eternal qualities/ephemera
• intentionality/experience
• careful crafting/impulsiveness
• beauty/ugliness

We wondered if selfies were a form of what reality TV producer Alexis Hudgins referred to as “digital hoarding,” in which people feel compelled to keep amassing vast amounts of images, for fear that lack of such image retention may cause personal harm. I wondered also whether such “digital hoarding” might be a proposed antidote to ward off the enactment of a posthuman era in which we are culled into a singularity, where individual identities are absorbed and ultimately unrecognizable. Of course many visions of a “posthuman” condition exist, but are these images being used to prove the existence of a publicly-stable individual identity that can be shown to have existed at a particular point in time? Or is this hoarding leading us toward a different version of the posthuman, in which different “alters” or versions of ourselves proliferate in an amorphous network? It was also astutely pointed out that perhaps having such a stable public identity is, after all, a type of socio-cultural luxury that not all people with marginalized status can afford to exhibit.

We enjoyed discussing the idea of the “ugly selfie,” in which people post a picture of themselves exhibiting an “unattractive” facial expression or pose. We were assured by a teen participant that ugly selfies were not necessarily spontaneous at all. Indeed, she pointed out that it was not uncommon for some people whom she knew to take some 60 images before they settled on just the right “ugly” selfie to publicly post. Some ugly selfies are quite charming and funny, and I wondered whether such charming images were truly aesthetically ugly.

Our group also explored the technical aspects of a selfie. While some media articles are calling anything that one takes of the self as a “selfie,” (such as a shot taken by holding the camera up to a mirror), other discourse suggests that the genre refers to an image taken with a device by one’s own hand, as the device is angled and positioned toward the self (a special skill), and ultimately the photo is posted to social media. Our technical discussion reminded some photographers of old discourses from “chem boys” who only considered people who intimately embraced photographic development processes as true photographers. Will there be a similar discourses about the technical manipulation of what constitutes a “true” selfie, as a photograph taken by particular devices with one’s own hand?

The online dictionary we consulted described the selfie as “a photo one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” Of course, dictionary definitions only serve as a theoretical starting point. But there is something interesting about operating the camera on one’s own, rather than having someone else take one’s picture. As an anthropologist, I have already noted some interesting discourse emerging on what are now being called “groupies” or selfies that include other people. Our visual autobiographies inevitably incorporate biography of those whom we love and wish to show affection through mediation.

I also had the pleasure of participating in the closing session of the symposium which was a conversation between myself and photographer Anna Shteynshleyger, a Graduate Lecture Series artist at SFAI. Our conversation was facilitated by Miki Johnson, a cofounder of Job Portraits, which tells visual stories of open positions at Bay Area companies. We discussed how our work linked to discourses about identity and selfies and other ethical aspects of documenting bodies. We pondered the limits of identity, and what it might mean for a photographer such as Shteynshleyger to be first identified as a Jewish photographer or Russian photographer by exhibitors, and the ways viewers projected their own issues onto her work. We also discussed issues of ethics of “video groupies” and what parental responsibilities might be to children in the age of social media.

I could not resist making the meta-obsveration that Shteynshleyger said that she could not, in her work, “talk about herself,” so she often talked about others. Ironically, I had only recently taken my first selfie, upon my visit to YouTube headquarters to give a talk. I had not felt a particularly strong interest in creating a selfie, and when I mentioned that I posted my first, many peers were shocked that I had not yet done so in the social media I have studied for many years.

I find it interesting that amid the unrelenting discussions of rampant “narcissism” in today’s social media, it is interesting to hear women of a certain age express seemingly encultured reluctance to engage in certain forms of public autobiography. Given these reluctances to publicly exhibit one’s achievements, perhaps it is not surprising that controversial books such as Lean In focus so much on how women should be more assertive in inserting themselves in public activities and discourses where they have been discouraged from “talking about themselves.” Could the age of the selfie open doors for people to express the self in empowering ways? Or will accusatory discourses of “narcissism” threaten to neutralize even the exploration of the potentially empowering aspects of sharing one’s achievements through self-imagery?

I enjoyed the experience of exploring the parameters of the selfie, and I look forward to hearing and seeing how the story of the selfie unfolds. Will it be a long-lasting genre or a flash in the social media pan? What do you think?

I look forward to hearing more about SFAI’s future symposia, which are free and open to all. This is a space to watch for those interested in exploring exciting new trends in media creation that lie at the intersection of art, sociality, and civic progress.

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