The selfie that defines the Wikipedia selfie entry. Image via Wikipedia.

The selfie that defines the Wikipedia selfie entry. (image via Wikipedia)

CHICAGO — What’s it like to be on the other side of the mirror? Selfies are contemporary self-portraits shot through the reverse-mirror effect available through smartphones and webcams. We see ourselves reflected back into the smartphone or webcam mirror, snap the shutter, and appear. We have access to the other side of the mirror, and by uploading our images to social media sites the people who look at us become our mirrors. Seeing life through a prism is the underpinning of selfie theory, which posits that as we increasingly live in public, our selfies are our networked identities, connected, refracted, and devoid of context — and those who see us are our mirrors, reflecting how we look back to ourselves, and out to the internet world.

The selfie is preceded by the self portrait, which has been well-documented throughout art history. And as a recent study on selfies by Intel notes, “selfies reflect narcissistic, creative self-expression and social broadcasting, the fulfillment of social expectations, or a developmentally important means of identity construction.” The study continues to note that “identities are constructed throughout life as one explores new social roles.” In my ongoing selfie coverage, I consider the selfie as creative self-expression and an important means of identity construction for artists, adolescents and anyone on the internet who is interested in the process of becoming. Check out our selfie picks for the week.

Sabina Ott

Sabina Ott's selfie

Sabina Ott’s selfie

Occupation: Artist

Location: Chicago

“I have been photographed a lot over the years, and I always felt as if I had no control over my own image. Once, I was asked to sit on a stool in front of one of my paintings of a canon and when I saw the photo printed in the LA Weekly, the canon was pointing right at my head. Another time I ended up looking like Stevie Nicks (during my long blonde hair and all black period) and that wasn’t good. I remember arguing with a French photographer for a magazine shoot — I didn’t want him to photograph me from above, didn’t want him to be ‘looking down’ on me, and he made sure I was squinting into the sun. I began to try to take control of my image — became semiotically aware of how images of myself were constructed, but was always frustrated by the results, having to depend on the photographer. The selfie is one of the few actions on can take and have of total control. Fast and easily deleted if I don’t like the picture. I took this photo (recently) during an drawing event / exhibition by Anne Harris called “come draw with me” at Julius Caesar Gallery. We were to draw ourselves, there were lots of mirrors around and I wanted to photograph myself photographing myself surrounded by the drawings of others. I love this image — I am not object, but active subject playing with being an object/drawing. This photo gives me agency but a place in a social structure as well — I am with others or at least surrounded by the artwork of others, in a community, one of many makers.”

Dafna Steinberg

Dafna Steinberg

Dafna Steinberg

Occupation: Artist/Fashionista

Location: Washington D.C.

“Almost every day for close to three years, I have taken a picture of myself in the mirror by the elevator of my condo building. This all started because I don’t have a full length mirror in my own apartment. If I was wearing a particular outfit that I liked, I snapped a pic so I could remember what it was (in case I ever wanted to wear it again). I never actually posted them anywhere at first. But one day, after I realized how many I had, I decided to be frivolously self absorbed and created an album on Facebook. The response was ridiculous. I had friends asking me if this was a new art project I was working on. Some asked if I was going to turn the album into a Satorialist like coffee table book. Others just told me how much they loved the whole concept. Friends who visit me at home get out of the elevator and ask if the mirror in front of them is the ‘famous mirror.’ Some even want their photo taken with me in the mirror, so they too can be part of the project.

I have close to 300 photos and now, with Instagram, I have access to an entirely new audience as well as a new way to label myself: Through hashtags.  I’m not thin. Or slender. Or skinny. I use hashtags like ‘fatsionista’ or ‘fatgirlsofinstagram’ . . . insulting? Perhaps. But these photos have helped me examine and accept my body in ways I never thought I could. They have helped me find other people who, like me, are not the epitome of ‘fashion-sized’ but who also love fashion. They have also helped me with my own artistic practice, leading me to try out other forms of self portraiture.

The selfie is a form of expression that can help people figure out how they feel about themselves. It’s not always about narcissism. In some cases it’s about building up self-confidence and when you put your image out in the public sphere that is the Internet, you are letting your image go while simultaneously taking control of it.”

Natasha M.

Natasha M.

Natasha M.

Natasha M. likes to mock the selfie culture – and there’s no last name or occupation required to do that.

“I like mocking the selfie culture. So, naturally, I use the medium itself as the vehicle of mockery. This one had the caption ‘man, isn’t my wallpaper terrible?’ to address the selfie provocateurs on my Facebook feed as they use veiled attempts at distracting the viewer from the true subject of the photo. I don’t know exactly where my resentment from selfies comes from, but I do know that I dislike taking them. This picture I had in my phone for a month before I decided to use it to poke fun at something else. Otherwise, it was just another picture on my phone, at times one that I had been either itching to delete or confident of the result.”

Thomas Blair

Thomas Blair

Thomas Blair

“I was very interested in ancient Egyptian culture when I took this picture, so I decided to give myself the iconic beard of pharaohs. Looking back now, the photo seems quite depressive; my eyes look very dejected and my arms reach out in an unfulfilled embrace. The tiny oval of light in my fingers’ shadow is definitely the highlight of the photo for me; it makes the mass of hands appear as appendages instead of a lump.”

*   *   *

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], along with a brief explanation of why you shot it and what it means to you.

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Alicia Eler

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED...

6 replies on “Selfies as the Other Side of the Mirror”

  1. The most annoying thing about selfies is the sudden and mostly rather shallow obsession art and culture commentators have developed with them.

      1. Its self-indulgent in a mostly non-commercial way, which seems anathema to our society. It also feeds into the myth of the self-obsession and self-involvement of young people today… which I personally think in large part stems from the good old principle of hating in others what you most dislike about yourself… because lets face it.. in a capitalist system like ours that is so centered around commerce and glorifies wealth and celebrity above all else, what can we really say are our overarching cultural descriptor but self-involvement and self-interest?

        Then, of course there are body image issues which are involved in self-presentation which one could write a multi-volume dissertation on, really.

        1. I think it’s interesting to see how people frame themselves in an online public space. I’m continually fascinated by the responses I receive! It’s like 7th grade art class gone public.

        2. I think of them as a cry for a connection. The world is full of lonely people. They are screaming silently. “This is ME!”

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