#93: Don’t Picture This: The Trouble With Selfies

My phone’s front camera is probably very confused. It has been severely underused. The back camera is not very happy either, but it gets used occasionally when I have forgotten to take my regular camera with me and need to take a picture. Very rarely does the front camera get to make a video call, but I prefer to use a real computer for that.

I don’t even really know what a “filter” is on the phone or one of these photo apps, or why I should be using it. That’s what Photoshop is for, isn’t it? Of course, I know, and I mockingly pretend not to know. Somehow. But somehow, I also don’t know.

It’s not that I don’t take any pictures ever. I’m a pathological picture taker, and I have spent quite some time thinking about Susan Sontag’s book On Photography, which successfully and disturbingly analyzes said pathology. Ideally, this reading is combined with Plato’s discussion of the power of writing as well as his metaphor of the cave, Walter Benjamin’s article “The Work of Art in the Time of Mechanical Reproduction,” Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, and Neil Postman’s Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Combining the insights gained from this tour de force of media theory, it becomes clear that it is too simplistic to cling to the idea that technology would be basically neutral, would just be tool, and that it would depend on how to use it. Technology is far more than that. Its influence on our lives is thoroughly transformative. It lets us believe that it does our bidding while in fact we yield to its influence and needs just as much. We do have some control over how to use it, but even its availability changes the very ways we can think about it.

Do I need to know something by heart, or is it just enough to look it up? Do I focus on experiencing something in real life, or do I focus on recording it, transforming it from a continuum of active being to a frozen moment in time, a mere snapshot, something that will serve as a substitution for reality? What does this kind of technological reductivism do to the world thus captured, what does it do to what we think about this world and the living beings contained therein? What does it do to people if they are mainly understood through their media representations? What does it do to their notions of self if those representations are created by themselves even?

Whoever sat pretty for Leonardo when he created the Mona Lisa may rest safely in their grave shrugging off whatever Leonardo may have seen in them and showed of them in his famous painting. But what does this do to the person conducting a self-portrait? We know that Vincent van Gogh probably did not gain in personal happiness through his painting of self-portraits. He represented himself as himself. If you subscribe to the idea that Leonardo actually may have painted himself as a woman, as Lillian Schwartz suggests (and which sounds actually fascinating and has some level of plausibility), then Leonardo perfectly understood that any visual representation is always an interpretation. Certainly, Van Gogh knew that also.

Artists understand that even if you depict yourself or represent yourself, you are never being authentic: There is always something else happening. The self on the page, or in the picture, always has to be seen as a lyrical I. The “me, myself and I” that you see in self-reflective and self-portraying art is never the real self. It is a deliberately chosen perspective, a snapshot at a specific time, a setting in a particular scene, an inauthentic moment posing as authentic for a very clear artistic and dramatic purpose.

Reality cannot be captured, it can only be represented. Umberto Eco illustrates this in his short story ridiculing the creating a map of the empire in a 1:1 scale. The map would completely cover and crush the reality beneath it, as it would take over the entire space of the empire itself. Similarly, if we rely on nothing but representations of reality in order to understand it, we will limit ourselves to understanding the representations rather than reality itself. Granted, sadly, we need media and representations to even be able to conceive of reality. Our perception itself mediates the world around us. We are always sitting in Plato’s cave, we can never access reality as such. But we can understand that our tools of perception and the media we use to facilitate our perception in turn influence that perception also.

As Susan Sontag describes it, “Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.” This acquisition, this pictorial conquest, this obsessive need to claim some form of ownership of the world by possessing it through images eventually destroys our relation to the world. We substitute experience with representation, concreteness with abstraction, the world with pictures of the world, the self with pictures of the self.

This act of substitution, of representation, certainly affects how we see reality. The self, specifically if it is mainly communicated through pictures, will eventually conform to the pictures. As with many things, this is probably not a problem unless done to excess, but it can still fundamentally change how we see ourselves.

There is a reason – probably more psychological than religious – that some cultures have looked with suspicion at photographing people, or at depicting an image of divinity. That which can get captured, depicted, and represented so easily will lose its mystique, its transcendental qualities or – following Benjamin – its aura. Something happens once we fixate our selves through pictures. It happens both for others and for ourselves. But how do you represent yourself without losing some sense of self? Especially if this is a constant exercise in the performance of the self?

Should we see self-photography as an art form? For some, it certainly is; for others, the definition of art would probably have to be stretched a bit. But art certainly can be an escape clause here: it requires though – as illustrated above – a conscious act of deliberate self-distancing from the image of the self as performance.

Yet the context of such pictures of the self certainly matters also, whether we should see them as more artistic self-portraits or what is commonly described with the less high-brow term as selfies. As soon as a selfie is posted on social media, the battle for audience reactions begins. How many people like my picture? How many don’t? How many are seeing it? Is the picture being noticed? At what point though do these questions into something more personal? How many people like or dislike or notice me? Am I, as a person, liked, or is it the representation that is liked? Should my self – if a specific representation is liked – conform to the representation? Should I myself become the image I have put out there as an allegedly authentic image of myself (or of my self)?

Maybe this is the key: if the pretension of authenticity is taken at face value, selfies may well turn from being a possible work of art to an act of introspection through outside judgement, and become an exercise not of play but of masochism (or its psychological twin, narcissism). We know that social media itself should probably be better described as anti-social: They all too frequently are an exercise themselves, and not in sociality but in sadism. Artists all throughout time have suffered from bad reviews, and have tortured themselves through their art. Maybe we should thus see the selfie as the revenge of the self-portrait: May the same level of scorn be heaped on John or Jane Q. Public now as it was heaped on artists throughout the ages.

But that is certainly not something to be endorsed. Personally, I am staying out of the selfie game. There are plenty of ways to indulge in self-loathing; I certainly don’t need to document this in pictures on a regular basis.