There was a period when I didn’t know what, exactly a “selfie” was. It sounded like a euphemism for something. Now I know that it’s just a self-portrait — our medium of choice for Facebook and Instagram (RIP). Two recent phenomena, faked selfies, and art critic Brian Droitcour’s #artselfies, take the format to the next level.
For a new ad campaign, South Africa’s Cape Times has turned a series of iconic photographs into selfies by editing an outstretched arm into the foreground of the image, as if the subjects had taken the snapshot themselves. The tagline: “You can’t get any closer to the news.”
Winston Churchill presents proper selfie style with a nice picture of himself mid-cigar, while Prince William shoots a romantic moment with Kate Middleton at the royal wedding. The famous “kissing sailor” is featured in the series, though that might not make such a good selfie — the kiss was apparently more akin to sexual harassment than celebration for many people.
The edited photos aren’t really art, per se, though the photos themselves might be shown in an artistic context. It’s more about how the idea of the selfie warps how we think of the veracity of a photograph. After all, these aren’t true self-portraits and were never intended to be read as such, unlike the staged selfies of Cindy Sherman that mingle truth and fiction, portraiture and self-portraiture.
What these images remind me of is the change in how photography and photojournalism is created and distributed today, as opposed to decades ago. With the popularization of smartphones, we all carry around cameras in our pockets all the time, while for much of the last century, photography was the solely the province of professionals. The subjects of these edited photos for the most part didn’t have the ability to depict themselves, and the visual format of the selfie didn’t exist. It’s a new aesthetic archetype that really does put us closer to the action.
That’s something Brian Droitcour picks up on in his essay for DIS Magazine, “Let Us See You See You.” “If the mirror creates an image of the self, then social media is like a mirror hooked up to a telephone, communicating the self-image to others and creating new ones in a remote dialogue with theirs,” Droitcour writes.
“The aestheticization of everyday life in social media … has leeched the authority of image-making from mass media and from art,” he continues. Cape Times‘s fake selfies make a similar point: Photojournalism has less authority and less immediacy than us taking pictures of ourselves in real time and sharing them over social media.
Droitcour’s #artselfies are self-portraits taken reflected in pieces of art — a slew of examples are collected on DIS. The snapshots are kind of dual self-portraits: They reflect what their takers look like, but also where they are and what kind of art they’re looking at, which artists they choose to publicly affiliate themselves with. These selfies aren’t art in and of themselves; rather, they comment on the social side of the art world and the potency of social media as a communication and branding platform. Selfies define an image and a personal brand in an easy, effortless package.
The selfie both forms and communicates identity. It’s a potent package that, I expect, is only beginning to be understood as a cultural meme.