On Selfies

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Towards the end of “Samurai X” – OK, “Rurouni Kenshin” – the dojo was supposed to have its pictures taken by a photographer in the village.  In the group, it was only Sannosuke who was averse to the idea of still pictures, claiming that the camera will “suck the soul” of anyone who may gaze into the lens.  He or she will be frozen, he claims.  A lot like a mechanical Medusa of sorts, that the blinding flash of the light will momentarily turn you to stone.

I’m not sure about the statistics of Instagram, but I bet that a majority of the pictures there are selfies.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s word for 2013 was “selfie.”  Their definition: “A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or web cam and uploaded to a social media website.”  But we all know that there’s more to the selfie than just merely being a photograph.  It’s not an ID picture, but a filtered, saturated, “artistic” self-portrait.  It’s the self-image – in the strictest sense of the word “image” – that we want to project.

The selfie is the closest approximation we have to show the world how we see ourselves in the mirror.  The touch-ups, the angles, the filters and the colors and the hues are touches of personality that a clear eyesight prevents us (perhaps even betrays us) from seeing in the real world.  There’s a somewhat obvious subtext to the selfie: the way we see ourselves, is the way we want to be seen.

Like Randy David, probably, I’ve never been one for gratuitous selfies or whatever.  I guess most of it comes from an unhealthy self-image.  But ultimately I think the selfie does not assuage the fear of solitude, as much as it reinforces the self-image.  The selfie may be a “cheap form of instant self-gratification,” but so are a lot of things in the wonderful world of Instagram.  Take the corner of a Macbook, set against the plants of a Starbucks where a frappucino sits somewhere in the lower right third of the photograph.  Or pictures of nicely prepared food, with as many hashtags as there are sprigs of parsley on the plate.  Or the selfie itself: there’s self-affirmation in the kind of phone you use, too, when its image reflects in the mirror.  And none of those things, in the economic sense, are cheap.   But this being the kind of world we live in and all, even pricelessness has a cost.

Rarely, if ever, does someone tell a friend that his or her selfie is ugly.  Of course we want to be nice, but too many things go into the selfie.  To start with, we take pains in adjusting selfies with all sorts of smartphone applications and color and contrast filters in those applications.  And even before that, we take pains in adjusting poses, backgrounds, the width of smiles, the distance of the camera.  And even before all that, megapixels become a major consideration when buying smartphones.  The selfie can never be ugly.  It is as rehearsed and contrived, as it is outward and earnest.  The attack on the selfie is not only an attack on one’s looks, but one’s personality, one’s ethic, one’s aesthetics.  It is an attack on one’s taste, an attack on that moment of perfection.

I’m not one to impose and trumpet my own beliefs on something I scarcely understand, but I think the selfie isn’t about self-gratification or a symptom of the fear of being alone.  I think that we live in a world where media becomes more real than reality itself.  We live in a world where Facebook statuses have the ability to kill people, where we count “virtual marchers” in a million people march, where romantic relationships and dates become the subject of promoted blogs and Facebook pages.  The selfie is us: a projection of ourselves in the very thing we recreate and consume, in the very virtual world we eat.  To use the Medusa metaphor, it’s a way of turning ourselves into stone: to make happiness permanent, to memorialize moments of sadness, to immortalize our achievements, that the moment we take the selfie is a moment that we find ourselves perfect.  Perfectly #happy, perfectly #sad, and maybe even #blessed.

And that’s why we don’t call anyone ugly or fat or squalid in a selfie: it is our moment of perfection in a world made increasingly transient, vague, in constant motion.  Maybe in the perfect selfie we see the “real” us, we project the people we want to be, mostly because the rest of the day we’re never seen.  We’re never as beautiful or as handsome or as #blessed as that moment where that selfie is taken.

But that’s just me. I could be wrong, but hey.

I think Susan Sontag sums it up best:

“While many people in non-industrialized countries still feel apprehensive when being photographed, divining it to be some kind of trespass, an act of disrespect, a sublimated looting of the personality or the culture, people in industrialized countries seek to have their photographs taken – feel that they are images, and are made real by photographs.”

– On Photography

Maybe Sannosuke was right all along.

* – with apologies to Roland Barthes

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