Articles

Selfie Discomfort and the Public Gaze

CHICAGO — I have to be honest with you: I feel uncomfortable receiving your selfies. Even though I have asked you for them, and you offered consent through your action of sending them to me. You made a decision to email me something privately, and that I can assure you is viewed privately, by me, at my computer inbox.

"The mirror of the Japanese is not the gaze of the others" (image via Flickr)
“The mirror of the Japanese is not the gaze of the others” (image via Flickr user timtak)

CHICAGO — I have to be honest with you: I feel uncomfortable receiving your selfies. Even though I have asked you for them, and you offered consent through your action of sending them to me. You made a decision to email me something privately, and that I can assure you is viewed privately, by me, at my computer inbox. But then if I say so, if I make the decision to do so, your selfie will become completely public.

Not just Facebook public, which suggests that possibly only friends and others you’ve decided to tag can see, but completely public, on the internet, visible to all. It’s this blurring of public and private realms that make me, as the curator of the ongoing selfie series, feel uncomfortable exploring my interest in voyeurism. I am not alone, of course; all who spend too much time on the internet are voyeurs, and in using the web we also accept our voyeuristic tendencies. Otherwise we wouldn’t be such vigilant searchers, finders, seekers, losers.

In keeping with the ongoing question of where the selfie is located in terms of power, I revisit the question: Is sharing an image of yourself an act of empowerment, or just an indication of powerlessness? Is the land of selfie discomfort that I so describe actually just a place where mirrors suffice and reflections entice? Or is it a consensual public performance where emotional repercussions are only as real as we make them? Your selfies send me more questions than answers, and continue to surprise me. I love to look at you. So thanks for trusting me with your selfie. Or rather, allowing me to share this space of selfie discomfort with you.

Diana Cruz

Selfie by Diana Cruz: "Muay thai fighters *do* smile."
Selfie by Diana Cruz: “Muay thai fighters *do* smile.”

Occupation: Artist
Selfie type: Strike back selfie

“As I was taking the picture, one of my teammates told me, ‘muay thai fighters don’t smile.’ I shot this selfie after muay thai practice because of two reasons: 1) my mom wanted to see me in my muay thai gear and 2) I was so proud of myself for enduring 13 two-minute rounds of sparring. In the past, striking anyone, especially females, has always been a struggle for me; I started muay thai for self-defense after being assaulted abroad. While I recognized the best way to learn self-defense is through sparring, gaining sparring experience is difficult as a tiny female.  There aren’t many women my size who practice muay thai and men typically do not want to waste their time sparring with me.  To me, this picture represents my increasing comfort and progress with sparring and the adversity I’ve endured while learning muay thai as a female.”

Nick Stolle

Nick Stolle's selfie
Nick Stolle’s no-pants selfie

Occupation: Artist and security guard
Selfie type: Art historically responsible selfie

“I am a tall, pale, lumpy, thirty-one year old human being. This is a photo which I took with a little gray HTC phone. Not exactly a smart phone, but smart enough. This shot was taken in the front room of an apartment where I was living last year in Greenpoint. I’m wearing a black tee shirt and blue and white plaid cotton boxers. There is a tremendous hole in the crotch of those boxers which is, fortunately for all, obscured by shadow. The light is dim and the picture is taken from a curious angle. The better to shroud my shameful pudding-like body. I like the way this came out, though. I look vaguely attractive, if vaguely drunk.

But this is not just a bashful chubbo snapping a quasi-boudoir selfie, this is a thoroughly responsible formal arrangement, rife with art historical allusions. Dig the fleshy triangle of arm and thigh in the foreground bringing to mind the smooth surfaces and wonky geometry of Henry Moore. The subtle homage to Morandi on the desk behind me. The eerie manner in which my fat head emerges from a pool of all-swallowing blackness like an Odilon Redon drawing.

I put this photo on Facebook. I made it my profile picture. My friend Kate commented, ‘Where are your profile pants?'”

KB

KB

Occupation: Artist and photographer
Selfie type: From film camera central to Instagram land

“My friend and I climbed onto my apartment roof one day, something I hadn’t done since high school. It’s amazing up there — it’s so solitary and open. I made a return visit and took a self-portrait with my new dress, imagining myself wandering atop sand dunes searching for my own Paris, Texas.”

Tim Roseborough

Tim's morning selfie
Tim’s “just brushing my teeth” morning selfie

Occupation: Digital artist
Selfie type: Point-of-view morning selfie in the mirror

“I am interested in creating selfies that are far more elaborate than a simple iPhone shot. It’s part of the subtle competition that is engendered between friends on Facebook who consider themselves ‘special’ or ‘creative.’ When I post a new profile picture on Facebook, I want my friends to be amazed and amused. I got lots of ‘how did you do this?’ when I posted this ‘just brushing my teeth’ pic. At this point – and I don’t think I’m alone – I’m always thinking of new ways to pique my friends’ attention (and collect likes on Facebook) by concocting new and intriguing selfies that promote the way I hope to be seen: As a highly inventive, ‘interesting’ person. For this tooth-brushing selfie, I aimed for a melding of the mundane and fantastical in one shot, highlighting the fact that even the most ‘candid’ selfies we post are highly considered, posed and curated.”

Indigo Girls’ 2002 album, Become You 

Timothy Garrison taking a photo of an Indigo Girls album
Timothy Garrison taking a photo of an Indigo Girls album

Occupation: Musicians
Selfie type: For a worldwide album

Selfie trend pieces like this one on the BBC cite celebrities as contributing to the popularization of this form. If Bieber can gain recognition through posting a selfie, why can’t any ordinary human do the same thing?

The Indigo Girls were doing selfies in 2002, three years before the term was supposedly coined according to Wikipedia. Here’s a selfie-type photo from the Indigo Girls’ 2002 album, Become You, sent to us courtesy of Timothy Garrison. Some of their lyrics in the album’s title track explain the subject-object nature of the selfie: “It took a long time to become the thing I am to you. And you won’t tear it apart without a fight, without a heart. It took a long time to become you, become you.”

The selfie is an object, a thing — it takes a long time to snap the perfect selfie, and because the self is always in flux, in a state of becoming, it takes a long time to become the thing, the object to subject — or what I am to you, and for you to become yourselfie. The selfie is a mirrored moment of becoming … yourself. It is that momentary reflection, that decisive moment, that contributes to all of these moments. And that’s even more uncomfortable than voyeurism.

*   *   *

I, Selfie is a series of ongoing conversations around people working in the medium of the selfie. The selfie imagemakers are accepting themselves as objects and reflecting their images back through the smartphone camera lens. They control the images of themselves that float around these murky virtual waters, but they cannot anticipate how these images will be received or perceived by others who exist in the internet void, a space that we pleasurably and both selfishly and selflessly indulge in. 

Email Hyperallergic your selfie at selfies [at] hyperallergic.com, along with a brief explanation of why you shot it and what it means to you.

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