Jessica handed her toddler a smartphone to stop him from fidgeting. Ten minutes of peace. When she took it back, though, we were all shocked by what Jonathan had done. He didn’t erase her phone, nor did he place a call to Russia. No — it was much more surprising.
He’d taken a dozen selfies.
The first batch looked accidental; he cut off his face and blonde, downy hair. But then, as we flipped through the album, it became clear he had gotten the hang of things. It seemed he had a natural talent for photography. He began to pose. Then, his facial expressions changed, shot-to-shot, from oblivious to a clever self-aware grin, complete with artful angles. A couple of shots were absolutely adorable, even with the thin stream of drool that ran his face.
Jonathan isn’t alone in his natural love for selfies. Whether we admit it or not, we all take them. Maybe it’s a bit of narcissism, or an example of our shallow, image-obsessed culture. But if you think selfies a signpost of mankind’s decline, think again. They’ve become our medium of choice to share and communicate meaning, in ways that have little to do with vanity.
While Jonathan was ahead of his time, completing his set before his second birthday, the so-called “Selfie Generation” describes teenagers, young adults and even hipsters, who shoot reams of provocative poses, held at just the right angle, topped with a retro filter.
It’s a term award-winning designer Jim Krause, who produced works for Microsoft, McDonald’s and Levi-Strauss, is largely credited with coining back in 2005.
“As far as I can remember, ‘selfie’ was simply a word that my friends and I started using to describe digital self-portraits,” Krause, an author of several design, digital photography and creativity books, told me. “I don’t know who started using the word in our group… but we were all very excited about digital cameras and it must have just seemed like a word that fit the occasion.”
He used the word “selfie” in his book, “Photo Idea Index,” thinking that “the meaning would be self-evident in the context of the spread on which it appeared.”
And he was right. The term and practice skyrocketed into the stratosphere, paralleling the rise in popularity of smartphones. With a camera on every phone, and a phone in every pocket, we had a far simpler way to capture and share moments — of our events, our families and, of course, ourselves.
Millions of selfies are posted to social media each day, and everyone from the Pope to sexy starlets have added to the flood. In fact, a search of the hashtags #selfie and #me on Instagram returns nearly 75 million results, and according the Telegraph, selfies account for one-in-three photos taken by people between the ages of 18 and 24.
In fact, the New York Times reported that the Oxford Dictionary even added the word to its lexicon this August.
The practice of recording events is really no different from our need to write diaries or talk to friends over the phone. We do it to track major life events and explore our evolving identities. But instead of pen to paper, these days, we pull out the smartphone, snap a photo and upload it to social media, to save those memories, document our lives and cultivate our identities in all our facets and emotions.
But it turns out, there’s more to it than just the image.
“Part of the power of the selfie is that it celebrates individual differences,” Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, told me. “It allows people to show many different sides of themselves — to be silly, attractive, ugly, frustrated or passionate.”
“But what about the selfies that Jonathan took?” I ask. At 18-months, he’s too young to understand which side to project, and yet his montage shows we have an innate desire to take and look at pictures of ourselves, which transcends mere narcissism or daily documentation.
Are our brains somehow hardwired for selfies?
On a basic level, we’re simply drawn to human beings, and photographers have long known our eyes tend to fixate on faces. “The human brain is designed to be social,” Rutledge said. “Our physical and emotional survival depended on it and still does in many ways.” Babies prefer to look at human faces, especially with happy expressions and open eyes that make direct contact, and those preferences continues into our adult lives.
“From infancy onward, we are highly sensitive to facial cues and we use them as a way to structure everything from emotion to attraction,” she added, and we can infer a wealth of clues just from a glance of a face, she added, and our brains process visual imagery in much the same way, regardless of whether it’s in real-life or of a selfie.
But there is one face that we don’t see as often as we’d like: our own. And as result, the self-portrait can be validating, giving us a quick way to experiment with social presentation. “Seeing a photograph of yourself is reaffirming — it’s why little children love to look at picture of themselves in photo albums,” Rutledge said. “It’s normal behavior, but we tend to find fault with new ways of doing things that aren’t what we’re used to.”
According to the Chicago Tribune, author Robert Hughes called his propensity to take self-portraits as a “selfie loop.” “If Aristotle or Caesar or Shakespeare had owned smartphones, could they have resisted the selfie loop?” he wondered. “Isn’t it just human to want to see our own face, the one thing we can never see directly?”
Hughes may have hit on one element of how we develop our identities, called the “Looking-Glass Self” — the sense that “I am who I think you think I am.” And according to Mashable, Andrea Letamendi, a doctor of psychology at UCLA, believes we develop our sense of self based on the perceptions of those we interact with. So, in a way, selfies show us how we appear in the eyes of others, and when we snap and share one, we get immediate feedback on the way we’re coming across to our all-important friends.
“Now that we can interact with hundreds — no, thousands — of people simultaneously, we’ve strengthened the impact that others have on our self-value,” Letamendi said.
But there is a dark side. Hoping for people to “like” or rate our selfie, or posting to get attention or social validation, can be a deeper sign of insecurities — one that puts too much emphasis on the opinions of others to determine our own self-worth.
“These behaviors aren’t isolated to that individual’s use of selfies,” Rutledge said. “It will manifest in many aspects of their life.”
Taken too far, we’ve all seen selfies spiral into compulsion. Expressions become rote and practiced, photos lack spontaneity and authenticity and people roll their eyes as they pop up relentlessly on Facebook or Instagram. The most memorable ones, by contrast, are often the least polished and contrived. At least, those were Jonathan’s best shots — when he scrunched his face, trying to understand what he was doing.
Because really, it’s just a struggle to understand who we are.
Great artists have long used self-portraits to explore their own identity and mortality. In the 15th century, for example, Vincent Van Gogh produced 43 works of himself over a span of a decade. More than an innocuous way to hone his skills, the self-portraits often foreshadowed the crossroads and identity crises of his life.
“People say, and I am willing to believe it, that it is hard to know yourself,” he once wrote his brother Theo. “But it is not easy to paint yourself, either.”
While self-portraiture gave artists a canvas for reflection, the medium didn’t take off until the invention of the photographic camera. The first self-portrait photograph is thought to have been taken by camera pioneer Robert Cornelius in 1839, but according to Michael Pritchard, director-general of The Royal Photographic Society, whether it was a true selfie, is debatable.
“Although there were self-portraits back to the start of photography, they were not true self-portraits, as the technology and cameras needed an assistant to help the photographer,” Pritchard said. Even with the advent of film cameras, artists still needed to elaborately arrange equipment and settings, and stay very still to allow proper exposure times.
It wasn’t until innovations converged with changes in social patterns that the true selfie emerged, making self-portraits quick, casual and easy to share. “Technological advances mean now we can be captured quickly and informally,” Pritchard, who was a photography specialist at Christie’s auction house, said.
Specifically, three elements fueled and characterized the unique, selfie phenomenon, according to Pritchard: 1. The emergence of the camera phone. 2. Changes in society like increased single living. 3. The need to show others what we are doing via social media.
“The selfie is the latest manifestation of the democratization of photography that goes back to the Kodak and box Brownie camera,” he said. “The camera for many people will not exist as a separately device but simply as part of their phone. It will always be present.”
It’s that casual nature of the smartphone that created an off-the-cuff honesty and authenticity that other mediums simply could not imitate.
“The self-portrait has become easier and less expensive in terms of both cost and skill,” Rutledge added. “The current selfie trend owes a lot to the spread of smartphones with built-in cameras, particularly those that allow the lens to flip from front to back.”
She also credits apps like Instagram and Snapchat of helping the selfie to become “more about the process of life and less artificial.” With technology, self-portraiture became less precious, but more democratic. But in a way, they were also a backlash to the over-lacquered, airbrushed “professional” shots that fill the pages of advertisements. Selfies challenged the definitions of beauty, athleticism or intelligence, and gave us an empowering way to redefine our unique identities, instead of conforming to prescribed notions.
“As a celebration of real people, selfies can be normalizing and reaffirm the drive for authenticity that is the hallmark of social media,” Rutledge said.
If everyone with a smartphone can take a selfie, and then share it to hundreds, or even thousands, of people, collectively they must have a bigger, more immediate impact on our culture, beyond Facebook or Instagram. Everyone agrees there’s an impact, but not on the scope of that affect.
“I’d question the presumption that the selfie is an art form,” Pritchard said. “I’d suggest it’s more a new way or recording activity and people.”
But art historians and curators, like Brooklyn-based curators Kyle Chayka and Marina Galperina, see selfies as an emerging, democratic art. In their video exhibition, “The National Selfie Portrait Gallery,” they feature installations by 19 artists from both the U.S. and Europe.
“People are obsessed with themselves,” artist Angela Washko told The Daily Beast. “The selfie trend is driven by social media and viral content sites, and is perpetuated by endless ‘millennial’ think-pieces.”
But Krause, the designer who coined the term, thinks there is staying power in the practice. “It is certainly possible that the current rabid popularity of the selfie will cool over time — as fads do,” he said. “I do think that digital self-portraits will continue to shape people’s concept of what can be done with photography, and they will also affect how both photographers and non-photographers see the camera as an aid to personal communication and expression.”
Perhaps selfies are just another sign that we communicate in increasingly visual ways. Maybe they underscore our growing preference for photos over real-person, or even online, conversations.
“Society is certainly become more visual and people are generally more visually aware,” Pritchard added. “And I think the selfie taps in to that rather than drives it.”
When it comes to conveying information, selfies, especially when compared to text, are simply a more detailed and personal way to share an experience. “There is much more information in an image of an event, such as an image of a trail, rather than a text,” Rutledge said.
It’s not telling, but showing, our elation on a good day. When someone texts us, “What’s up?” sending a photo of ourselves grinning at a party, or relaxing at the beach, says more than a simple reply. A selfie, in effect, is worth a thousand texts.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean the death of the written and spoken word.
“In order to effectively communicate on a high level, images and moving images will have to be combined with language,” Mitchell Stephens, author of “The Rise of the Image, The Fall of the Word,” earlier said. “We already see a fair amount of that — words on-screen, narration — in the most adventurous forms of video.”
Moving video images will eventually dethrone snapshots as our primary way of interacting, but apps that combine text, images and movement to convey a more detailed message, Rutledge believes, will become the next method of communication.
“There will be some app that allows the ability to make multimedia collages that have the same ‘in the moment’ appeal that are also savable and sharable for a longer period,” she said. At some point, we’ll demand the ability to save those images, because once we engage creatively by producing, curating and annotating them, they’ll increase our sense of ownership and make them more valuable.
Jessica told me she saved those early selfies of Jonathan. As trendy as they seem today, selfies are no different from those quaint, old-fashioned Polaroids we took decades ago. In our image-laden future, we’ll gravitate to new ways to document our evolving selves. So it’s not a far stretch of the imagination to think of Jonathan, sitting at graduation one day, taking video portraits of the ceremony, while fondly talking about the good old days, when we used to take selfies. ♦