Policing the Selfie

I’m surprised I haven’t seen selfie disipline like this before. In a You Tube video by Jena Kingsley, the presenter plays a prank on visitors to Central Park by dressing up as a cop and telling people not to take selfies. A surprising number comply, as if such an order could in any way be rational.

Kingsley starts her video by emoting to camera about the evils of selfies, and the need for someone to step in to stop the madness. Behind her, a sign declares that this is a ‘selfie-free zone’ from 7am to midnight, and that violators are ‘subject to $50 fine’.

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The details are something we are familiar with – directives with time limits and penalties – which goes some of the way to explaining why this prank is possible. Forms of micro-discipline guide our behaviour every day, from no-smoking areas and grass that cannot be walked on, to the no-touching or no-photography rules in art galleries. So we are used to being told what, when, where and how we can do things. But these directives have a limit, and mostly relate to one’s harmonious participation in social spaces. So I would also argue that this stunt relies upon the cultural messages regarding selfies, which problematise the practice as something socially objectionable and worthy of condemnation. As a result of the kind of texts I have been examining on this blog, people’s enjoyment of taking selfies is always tempered with the understanding that they are some way illicit, leaving a space in which ‘no selfie zones’ could possibly be feasible.

Consider the reaction were Kingsley to have started forbidding people to wear hats, or drink water. The looks of confusion that people give her here would soon turn into outright anger, and she would very quickly be revealed to be just someone dressing up issuing strange and arbitrary orders.

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She only lasts as long as she does precisely because her target is selfies. And only selfies – plenty of people are shown to be snapping away in the background whilst she is explaining to someone how problematic selfies are – using some flimsy rationale concerning young women’s self-esteem. Is the answer to young women’s low self-esteem to bring in more regulation concerning their behaviours? Her argument makes no sense, but then I assume it is not meant to.

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At one point, Kingsley asks that people delete their selfies whilst she watches. A few are shown to comply, albeit grudgingly. In the last 15 years, photography has increasingly been problematised in a way that regards it as a potential security threat. One only needs to start taking pictures in a shopping centre or in airport security to see how vigorously ‘no photography’ rules are enforced. But here we see how this regulation has become normalised as a (potential) force enacting upon every type of photography. This is not a question of national security, but rather of enforcing social rules regarding conduct in public spaces – but yet both, at least as far as this prank goes, involve the use of the law to restrict photography.

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Several people are shown to take selfies with Kingsley in the background, an act that demonstrates their understanding of the regulation she espouses as being ridiculous, as well as using selfies as a means to undermine her assumed authority. The young man’s act of selfie-taking, below, is therefore both a confirmation of Kingsley’s understanding of selfies as mischievous and uncontrollable, and an act of resistance to that interpretation.

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Towards the end of the video, Kingsley offers to take photographs of several of her victims, reaffirming that some types of photograph are acceptable in contrast to the selfie. I would love to hear her explanation for this – for why it is so objectionable for a couple to photograph themselves, but yet it is fine for her to take a picture of them? It is at points like this that the ‘logic’ of selfie-taking as devalued starts to break down, and it becomes most apparent that these rules and assessments are purely arbitrary.

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At the end of the video, Kingsley is confronted by a member of the park security and told to leave the area. After all, in his eyes, she is a nuisance to visitors; marching around micro-managing people’s leisure time whilst dressed as a cop (in itself a problematic and possibly illegal behaviour, I would have thought). By asking her to leave, the park guard is not just reasserting the park’s status as a space for personal relaxation, but also confirming that the social rules that ensure every visitor’s safety and enjoyment do not include anything regarding selfies.

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The arm outstretched in a gesture of dismissal is therefore a means for protecting the right to similarly reach out one’s arm and take a selfie.

Blaming Selfies When Things Go Wrong

I was reading an article on the site Psychology Today, that was a response to the show Selfie (see my article on Selfie here. I would have written a follow-up on the series as a whole, but after watching the first episode, I don’t believe I could put myself through any more of that. It was quite spectacularly objectionable).

The Psychology Today article aimed to present quite a balanced view of selfie-taking, explaining the practice as something that exemplified the importance of social relations and esteem to our wellbeing. It seeks to mitigate the negative effects of selfie discourse by challenging the generalisations and gender bias, importantly highlighting the contradiction in the demands on young women, to be seen as attractive and yet not to be perceived as ‘vain’.  But the article is problematic in that it explains the importance of society in forming and experiencing identities, and then asks whether it is a ‘good thing’ that selfies have become part of this – this seems like a loaded question. Surely social motivation can neither be universally good nor bad, but entirely dependent on context, outcome etc. And why does the incorporation of photography into a pre-existing social process pose such an enormous threat? The piece concludes by reinstating a problematic and excessive view of selfies and social media use more generally, as something that needs to be modified and controlled. To understand how specific this kind of discourse is, consider the number of articles that problematise books, music videos or films in this way, as something to be limited and as a target for continual outrage and concern. But then they do not constitute unruly entries into the public sphere, in that way that selfies do, and it is that participation, rather than what they ‘do’ for selfie-takers, that is the real ‘problem’.

But the real surprise was yet to come. There was only one comment underneath the article. I had to click on it to read it, and I was amazed:

Joan Rivers got killed during a simple proceedure because her “vain” Dr. took a “selfie.”

When it was suggested in the press that Rivers’ personal ENT doctor, Dr Gwen Korovin, took a selfie with her unconscious patient, there was outrage. Underneath one article, a commenter suggested:

What a complete breach of trust and professionalism. This doctor should lose his medical license permanently, in the very least, and possibly even face criminal charges for the selfie alone. Can doctors no longer be trusted with their unconscious patients?

This outrage entirely eclipsed the accompanying suggestion that alongside taking a photo, the doctor concerned had also performed an unathorised biopsy on Rivers. Taking photographs in this context would indeed be deeply unprofessional, but moreso than conducting procedures which the patient had not agreed to? Both accusations – of selfie and of biopsy – were heavily denied, as the product of hearsay at the clinic. The New York medical examiner ruled that Rivers died from oxygen starvation after she stopped breathing. It was reported that negligence was not found to be a contributing cause in her death, and that there was no biopsy. But this comment demonstrates the degree to which selfie-taking has been catastrophised within popular discourse – here, it is the selfie that killed Rivers. Not the use of anaesthetic at her age (81), not the fact that she wasn’t in a hospital and that treatment for her cardiac arrest was, as a result, delayed. It was the selfie – the quintessentially abject example of human depravity – that was to blame, for the popular understanding of selfies is that they do not have merely the capacity to annoy or engrage, they can also be lethal. Never mind any other contributing factors – it was the selfie. I only wish we could have heard what Rivers’ witty and acerbic reaction to this would have been.

Safety and Self-Responsibility: The Game!

I have just been looking at the website Cyber Streetwise. The site describes itself as:

“a cross-government campaign, funded by the National Cyber Security Programme, and delivered in partnership with the private and voluntary sectors. The campaign is led by the Home Office, working closely with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Cabinet Office.”

So what does this UK government initiative say about privacy and social media? It says:

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It struck me that this government-sanctioned advice concerning social media was in fact consolidating the problem. Because the statement “never upload or say anything in social media that you don’t want the world to know” conceives of privacy as binary: you are either private with your thoughts, or you are sharing them with everyone. And this dichotomy – besides missing the point entirely regarding how people use social media in a way that acknowledges different contexts, audiences and identities – is precisely what lies behind the kind of victim-blaming that I have been studying for my thesis. Because if you think of privacy in terms of an on/off switch, then what is to stop someone sharing another’s data – after all, if it’s been shared at all, it might as well have been shared everywhere. So despite the good intentions of this website, the sentiment it expresses here is exactly the same as we see regarding victims of involuntary pornography. Don’t share unless you “want the world to know”. Therefore instead of helping to guard readers against privacy transgressions, this simplistic approach is cementing the right to commit such acts of aggression, by presenting it as to be expected.

Aside from this heavily problematic sentiment, the rest of the site is a bit of a puzzle, as it is laid out like some sort of video game that you scroll through and click on:

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I can’t really think who this is designed for… Who learns about online banking like this?

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And this “Threat Hunter” game… Who is this for?

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The site also has a strange philosophy behind it, encapsulated in the warning “you wouldn’t do it on the street, why do it online?” (on the red bus below).

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Like the warning not to share unless you “want the world to know”, the sentiment seems to present itself as common-sense, but again this misrepresents what people do with social media and computing. After all, there are plenty of things I do online that I wouldn’t do in the street, such as playing games, displaying photos and offering opinions to no-one in particular, such as here.

What this site tells us is that online security advice is still lagging a long way behind where it needs to be, if it is actually to be effective, and if it is to avoid making the problem worse rather than better.

Celebrity Explotation and the Selfie

Kirsten Dunst appears in a recent short film entitled Aspirational:

The film has been reported as being “about selfies”. Vanity Fair even suggests it is “anti-selfie”. And indeed it features selfies, but again they are used as a technique for expressing something else; something – surprise surprise – negative about young women.

Two young women notice Dunst standing by the side of the road and stop their car to take photos with her:

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But despite the story ostensibly revolving around photography, and tangentially social media, it is in fact about rudeness and entitlement. For the women who run up to Dunst and take selfies with her neither ask her permission nor say thank you afterwards. There is no conversation, only the act of taking photographs. The process is made more excruciating by virtue of the young women’s posing, their moody faces in contrast to Dunst’s smile:

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Dunst asks the girls “do you want to talk about anything?” The response is just blank stares and a request for Dunst to tag them, which she mutely refuses to do. An encounter of any kind that is based to this degree on one party’s gratification rather than mutual interaction is of course problematic. But why is the selfie being used to express this? I would argue that it’s because the selfie is culturally understood to be something, and to be somebody – to be the quintessential example of a problem that has long preceded it. After all, autograph hunters presumably have always been a problem for celebrities, with the added dimension that the desired signature could also have a cash value. The predatory, even hostile, stares they give Dunst are therefore not typical of selfies, but of the relationship between celebrities and the public more generally.

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At one point Dunst asks whether one girl taking a selfie wants her friend to take the photo for her – the young woman replies “I don’t trust her”. The selfie is therefore not just representative of selfishness and poor social skills, it also implies inter-personal relationships that are lacking. Presumably they’re not very close because … they take selfies?

A glance of one girl’s phone shows the screen to be cracked: a little touch that reinforces our perception of them as problematic and irresponsible users of technology:

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The girls drive off, enjoying the likes and “random followers” which this encounters has already brought them, blithely unaware of just how awkward and exploitative this social interaction was. And we as viewers are again instructed in what not to be, and how that is specifically expressed through an attitude that maligns and rejects selfies and those who take them.

Photographs and Threats: Emma Watson and the Allure of the Non-Consensual

The recent threats against actress Emma Watson demonstrate several interesting things about photography and the humiliation of women:

1. This case make absolutely explicit how intimate images (even the idea of intimate images) are used as a weapon to control and silence women. At no point did the media coverage question why anyone would respond to Watson’s address to the UN with a threat to reveal photographs. Why? Because the connection between “woman gives feminist speech” (or in fact, woman does anything at all) and “people threaten her with images” has become absorbed and normalised by a society that implicitly blames women for whatever happens to them.

Despite the widespread outrage at this threat, and at the earlier celebrity photo leaks, a study of the comments beneath the line on social media demonstrates that there is still a strong tendency in popular discourse to just shrug, and say that she should have expected it. And you can be certain that had photographs emerged, we would have again seen numerous voices chiding her for taking such pictures in the first place.

As I have observed extensively in my research, this knee-jerk response is voiced by good and rational people as well as misogynistic trolls, demonstrating that explaining away the abuse of women, or denying it through making it seem rational and normal, is something that people feel a very strong need to do. Presumably, otherwise one would find it simply too difficult to function within society. This brings to mind Sherry Turkle’s description of people’s attitudes to privacy violations online, in which “people simply behave as though it were not happening” (2011: 261).

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2. As Valenti points out, despite the story turning out to be a hoax, it nevertheless reinforces a connection between outspoken women and humiliation. The use of the countdown clock and the website name “emmayouarenext” seem drawn from either the playground or a spy novel. But this use of a prolonged and unspecified threat nevertheless demonstrate the effectiveness of psychological forms of harassment, in which the mere prospect of something happening is enough to alarm and coerce. The countdown clock here performs a similar role to the warden in the Panopticon – he might be there, he might be watching, punishment might be about to happen, therefore the conditioned response is to assume that this is the case. Although none of Watson’s images were leaked in the end, it would be ludicrous to assume that she has not been affected by these threats. The effect of her wonderful speech has been overshadowed by the spectre of her humiliation.

3. The (unreliable) figure of 48 million page views of the site Emmayouarenext.com speaks for itself. It might be inflated, but its also believable that this website received huge volumes of traffic. The media’s eagerness to report on the story, even with very limited amounts of information, is both depressing and unsurprising – the humuliaition of women is news and entertainment at the same time. As with the earlier celebrity photo leaks, there are large audiences for these types of private images. Audiences that are actively seeking out photographs that have caused their subjects pain and humiliation. Audiences who understand the value and the thrill of obtaining non-consensual materials, in comparison with conventional forms of pornography. And it’s the audiences that really make this story possible: if there wasn’t this enormous hunger to access people’s private lives, then photographs of women could not be used in this way. If women’s nude photography wasn’t a source of shame, outrage and most of all prurient fascination, then they couldn’t be punished for, or with, such images. If this process of humiliation and punishment is ever going to be addressed, it needs to start with the audience, which is why the prevalence of articles calling on people not to look at private images was particularly heartening.

Lastly, it seems that photography, for women especially, is a dangerous business. The only way to protect oneself from this kind of threat is not to take pictures, and add this precaution to the enormous list already given to women: don’t go out alone / wear a short skirt / get drunk etc etc. But what I find particularly sad about this, is that the proscription against photographing oneself – such a harmless piece of fun in itself – is just another way in which women are denied a full social presence. Because what these threats and leaks and warnings to women suggest is that as society, we believe that being kept hidden – off the streets, away from the camera and certainly away from the UN – is apparently the only way to stay safe.

Dogs and Babies: The Happy Fantasies of Photography

I’m currently writing up my PhD thesis, and am working on a chapter on involuntary pornography. As you can imagine, this is not exactly the most cheery of topics, so this week’s blog post is going to try to be a bit lighter than normal to balance things out.

There’s an advert on UK television at the moment for the Halifax bank, which features a female photographer taking a series of heart-warming shots of dogs, families and babies.

These scenes of her hard work are presumably used to connote the bank’s commitment to its customers. As someone who worked as a photographer, shooting portraits and weddings and the like, I can assure you that the work is hard. I often went home exhausted, covered in grime and with a thousand-yard stare. But lots of people work hard – so why choose a photographer for this advert?

I think the answer lies in the public perception of photography – as tricky, maybe, involving a lot of vague notions of ‘creativity’ and technical expertise – but ultimately as something we could imagine ourselves doing. It’s interesting, but not threatening. That’s why mannequins in shops hold cameras and not microscopes.

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Despite the hipster fetishization of film cameras in shops such as Urban Outfitters above, the photography industry has been radically transformed over the last 15 years, with the role of photographer being seen as less of a profession than a demarcation given to someone who is using a camera. But so too has the role of photography itself radically altered, with images incorporated into everyday life and communication in ways difficult to imagine a generation ago. Which is why I think this advert presents an interesting time capsule of what we want photography to be, despite the ever-increasing gap between the warm-and-fuzzy photographer, and the darker figures observable online of the creepshot photographer and revenge porn user.

In this advert, we are reassured about photography on a number of levels. It is friendly and funny:

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It is patient and gentle:

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It is well-prepared and determined to make others look good (although who needs that many lenses to take an indoor portrait of a dog?):

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And it is reassuringly old-school, as conveyed by a medium-format camera on an unnecessarily-huge tripod:

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Two things struck me about all this. Firstly, this list of qualities of the ideal photographer seemed to emulate many of the traditional attributes of femininity, in terms of being welcoming, empathetic, self-sacrificing, and considerate of others. The woman photographer is therefore reassuring to customers because she is the quintessential  figure of feminine warmth (with the exception perhaps of the nurse or teacher). Secondly, the artifice of this construction is obvious not just in terms of its cultural wish-fulfilment, but also in the straightforward way in which it is enacted. As I watched the advert, I wondered why she had studio flash lights but no flash cable or wireless flash trigger on her camera (pedant alert!). Maybe she was just using the modelling lights to take pictures (odd), but in this behind-the-scenes shot, we can see the flash light being simulated off-camera:

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Now, I’m not going to say “it’s an advert and its presentation of life is not realistic, what a shock!” – but rather point out that this provides a handy metaphor for the fabricated nature of cultural assumptions about photography more generally. The view the Halifax advert presents of photography – as a lark, and as a site for developing empathy with others – is very different from the uses I see photography being put to in my own research. There, photography is used as a way of punishing, shaming, and bulling other people, in order to maintain a state of inequality between ‘us’ (those who ‘do it properly’, whether in the form of the photos they take or in terms of identity more generally) and ‘them’ (those who ‘do it wrong’, and who take selfies, or do duckfaces etc).

I don’t want to undermine the more gentle aspects of photography – far from it – but I want to expand the definition, to encompass the bad as well as the good. Because the warm and fuzzy perception of photography maintained by examples such as this advert is ultimately quite damaging, in that it presents images and the people who take or use them as harmless, when they are often, unfortunately, anything but. For society to only think of photography in terms of babies and dogs is to further marginalise the people who suffer as a result of what is said about or done with photographs. Although I have loved photography since I was a child, I am certain that it is important to confront and understand the nature and extent of the darker side to the practice, as much as we might prefer the friendly fantasy that is presented here.

Warning: Naked Selfie Detected

An article in the New York Times by Farhad Manjoo suggested that smartphones should be equipped with the ability to detect when the user is taking a naked photograph of themselves. The phone would then warn the user, and propose encryption, password protection and restriction on cloud back-ups. The aim of this, states Manjoo, is harm reduction, in that it enables the protection of potentially damaging intimate photographs. Despite criticising Snapchat’s faulty security features, Manjoo then proposes the use of a slightly different technology (using the iPhone’s fingerprint scanner) which he assures us will make copying pictures impossible. That is of course until it doesn’t.

A response piece in Forbes by Woodrow Hartzog and Evan Selinger pointed out that this approach was problematic, in that it proposed a technological solution to what should be a personal ethical choice. Their concern was that the technology would be replacing the user’s capacity to make decisions, although they concluded that the ‘opt-out’ idea was preferable, in which detection software would be automatically engaged on the phone, and it was up to the user to turn it off and take matters into their own hands.

What neither article suggested was that this is not actually an issue for smartphone manufacturers to solve, but rather a social issue. Although I am all in favour of users being given the ability to encrypt their photographs, we can’t expect technology to protect us if we are unwilling ourselves to change the very attitudes that do the real damage. For naked selfies are not the problem here – it is the means by which they are used to marginalise the people who take them. A photograph doesn’t mean anything until we ascribe significance to it, and the meanings given to naked selfies are reflective of much wider social inequalities, which create a paradox for women involving the expectation of / punishment for sexual display.

I suspect that the ‘change social opinions’ option is not mentioned in either article because it’s not straightforward. But the equivalent in the world of, say, motoring would be to emphasise car safety at the point of design and manufacture without enforcing any sort of driving code. We simply can’t expect machines to protect us, and other people, if we are not willing to put in the work too. Otherwise we’re blaming the person hit by another driver for not having a safe enough car themselves.

We can see the division between easy / hard solutions described by Manjoo:

So money can be quickly reimbursed, but a reputation is more difficult to repair. Does that mean we should try not to change attitudes, simply because it’s hard? Surely it’s much easier just to build an algorithm that can detect naked selfies and trigger a warning? But this technological quick-fix further consolidates the problem it is meant to be alleviating, by identifying naked images as wrong, dangerous and to-be-hidden.

The truly effective way in which reputations could be protected from the damage wrought by naked selfies is if we collectively resisted the urge to condemn users in the first place. If the knee-jerk reaction was not to blame the subject – for not encrypting their picture, for sharing, for taking it at all – then the problem would be radically reduced. But this seems impossible, doesn’t it, as there’s no feature on the iPhone that we can engage in order to make this happen.

So rather than ask our phones to scan and police the morality of our own behaviour, what these articles suggest is that we’re actually expecting technology to ameliorate our own prejudices against the behaviour of others. If we’re not willing to change our own attitudes and desires to punish other people’s use of photography, then presumably we can just get phones and code to do the hard moral work for us.

Involuntary Pornography and the Logic of Blame

There’s only one news story from the last week that I could cover here, relating to the theft and dissemination of private photographs belonging to a number of female celebrities. I’ve written about involuntary pornography before (in a paper to be published soon by Palgrave!) – and this label, rather than ‘revenge porn’, is the more accurate, as it is not necessarily an act of revenge that spurs these instances of privacy violation. Rather than exist only in relation to individual instances of jealousy or anger, involuntary pornography instead demonstrates a more widespread attitude towards women and their use of photography. Having traced the discursive reactions to victims of involuntary pornography – on websites that host such materials and across popular media outlets – I noticed that there are three distinct strands to the conversation:

1. The woman is blamed for having made a poor choice to take intimate photographs in the first place, as to do so apparently indicates that she is easy, stupid or reckless. This establishes her character as being lacking, and focuses on what the woman did wrong. The dissemination of private images is seen as inevitable and therefore to be expected. Any woman who does not expect her images to be circulated in this way is therefore dismissed as ignorant of the way things are.

2. Despite the woman’s complicity in taking images being used against her, the value of such material lies in the fact that she did not intend for them to be publicly shared. This interesting conception of consent reveals that a woman must be both seen to be consenting (“she took the pictures, it’s her fault”) and yet also not consenting in order for the images to have their unique value, as evidence of both assent and reluctance. The viewer can therefore enjoy symbolic violence against a woman – getting sexual pleasure from her against her will – whilst also disdaining the woman for ‘having asked for it’. An unpleasant combination of desire and disgust.

3. In contrast, the choice of the consumer of images is expressed and validated on involuntary porn websites, relating to their assessment of the bodies depicted. Despite the women being displayed there against their will, there is still a strong culture here of condemning women’s attention-seeking behaviour as well as their appearances. Within this context, the full force of misogynistic hatred is abundant, in which the consumption of women’s bodies co-exists with a loathing women themselves. In particular, ire is directed at the agency of women: who are hated for having sexual desires and sex on their own terms, who take photographs of themselves, and who react in horror at being circulated in this manner. In this context, a woman who expresses her sexuality in any sense is conceptualised as public property and inviting predatory attention. It really is victim-blaming (and -hating and -devouring) of the most exceptional kind.

I feel very sorry for the women who have been the victims of involuntary pornography – celebrities and non-celebrities alike, as all in this context suffer an unpleasant kind of infamy, where along with the indignity and humiliation of being consumed in this way, they also are made to endure ferocious criticism regarding their personal lives. Attention rarely focuses to the same degree on those who steal and circulate such materials, as I argue that this kind of transgression against women is in fact culturally permitted. Tracing the discussion of involuntary pornography back to its logical roots, we see that victim-blaming here rests on a number of social norms relating to women’s regulated entry into the private sphere, the double standard and the expectation of women’s role in satisfying male, heterosexual desire. Involuntary pornography is therefore a symptom of the inequality between men and women – rather than solely direct our attentions at combating this breach of privacy, the solution lies in shifting this balance in power. For if women were not regarded in terms of their sexual value, or chastised for having sexual desires of their own, or automatically blamed for their own abuse, then involuntary pornography would not exist, as there would not be the cultural support that exists today to sustain and legitimize it.

I think the best criticism, and ridicule, of the victim-blaming over involuntary pornography came in the form of a tweet sent by writer Chuck Wendig:

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“They Used to Call Me Snow White…But I Drifted”: Selfies and the Body

Snow White stares into the bathroom mirror, her right knee awkwardly placed on the counter-top, and her tongue poking out. She holds up an iPhone, taking a picture of herself with head tilted just so, and a seductive expression.

José Rodolfo Loaiza Ontiveros‘ reworking of Snow White is yet another example of the particular way in which photography is used within the construction of social hierarchies. The gallery hosting his work calls it “a celebration of creative freedom in our time”. I would argue that it is perhaps more a reflection of contemporary anxieties, with none more blatant in its condemnation than the image of Snow White. For she is that most debased of creatures: she is a selfie-taker.

What makes this image particularly interesting is that the artist has made specific changes to the character to – supposedly – fit with what she is doing. Her blue vest and red underwear barely cover her ample body, with the lines around her stomach particularly exaggerated.

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Given that selfie-taking is simply the practice of photographing oneself, it is telling to see in what ways Snow White has been physically altered in this image. The problematic connotations of the selfie are here written onto her very body, implying that in order to ‘be’ a selfie-taker, Snow White must also be made into whatever that type of person is: depicted here as considerably heavier and with clothing and pose that are unflattering. She is not like this unintentionally – the artist has chosen to specifically make her overweight and over-sexualised, as that is what selfies mean to him and to wider culture.

This kind of stereotyping should not be surprising to me, having collected so many examples that depict a connection between low-valued photographic behaviours and low-valued subjectivities, yet there is an added dimension to this specific condemnation of the selfie-taker.

Other Disney characters are depicted in controversial ways within this series, with same-sex couples kissing and getting married, Cinderella daubing graffiti and Mickey having apparently turned into Christ. But what I find most interesting is that two of the images, that show characters taking drugs and getting drunk, do so without these activities having changed their bodies at all. Belle and Sleeping Beauty can drink bottles of wine, and Goofy and Donald can skin up, but none of these activities affect them – they do not actually mark and distort them – in the way that selfie-taking is constructed as doing.

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This depiction of the body of the selfie-taker is fascinating, as it demonstrates the cultural values associated with certain practices. Drinking and taking drugs is here something that the characters do, whereas selfie-taking impacts upon – and is telling of – the character’s very self.

Although these images are humorous, the warning here is clear: you can’t take selfies without being a selfie-taker, and selfie-takers cannot help but be devalued, cheapened and rendered physically different from their former selves.

 

Selfies, The National Gallery and The Right Way of Appreciating Art

This week The National Gallery in London lifted its ban on photography, as the use of mobile phones within galleries meant that the rule was becoming too difficult to enforce. I won’t discuss the pros and cons of this shift here, except to say that this move brings it in line with other major art galleries such as the Louvre. Instead, I’m going to look at how the story was reported in The Guardian, by Zoe Williams.

For this article, Williams goes to the gallery and takes number of photographs of paintings. Her aim is not to explore the use or experience of taking photographs, but rather to criticise the ‘type of people’ who take pictures of art, by using the abject spectre of the selfie.

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Williams admits that she was the only person in the gallery taking selfies, and that others were either discretely taking photographs of “obscure tiny portraits of princesses” or the more famous images by Van Gogh. This information is far more interesting than Williams’ tirade against selfies, as it demonstrates that gallery visitors are not the thugs with cameras she assumes, but are rather engaging with works they find personally or culturally relevant.

Nevertheless, she perseveres in taking selfies, as if determined to prove how awful they are. She documents one person telling her off, as well as the shame she encounters whilst photographing herself with a Rembrandt self-portrait (incidentally, if I hear Rembrandt’s work referred to as a selfie one more time I might scream):

The disapproval in the room flooded towards me. I thought I heard someone hiss.

But despite agreeing with these critics, this disapproval does not discourage her, as she has a point to prove. In the next room she endeavours to frame a portrait of a male “so that it looked like he was my boyfriend”, and thereby depicting the act of selfie-taking as something a lovestruck teenage girl might do.

Her distaste for photographs being taken in this context is not so much about the potential damage to artworks caused by camera flashes (which is what concerns me), but relates rather to:

 the sheer sorry state of human nature. Nobody’s just going to take a picture of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, are they? They’re going to take a selfie, standing in front of it.

Such a statement is not only ridiculous – why should selfie-taking indicate “the sorry state of human nature” rather than, say, the bombing of civilians in Gaza? – it also demonstrates the cultural divisiveness of selfie criticism. Because if taking selfies in general is seen as bad practice, then taking them in an art gallery is the very epitome of vulgarity. Taking selfies denotes that you are not appreciating the art properly:

What’s this going to do to art? What’s it going to do to a generation? Even taking a picture of a painting itself changes the way you look at it – documenting rather than experiencing, thinking of posterity rather than the present. But then once you stick your big face in the foreground, the experience is different again, less like art and more like going to the seaside and putting your head above the body of a wrestler in a swimming costume.

Her simplistic conception of artistic appreciation opposes ‘experiencing’ with ‘documenting’, denying the possibility that the two practices could co-exist. “If you’re taking pictures you’re not appreciating it properly” is a warning that has been expressed for decades, with Susan Sontag asserting that the act of photographing places the viewer at one remove from their subject. Although I would not contest this shift in looking, who is to say this is negative, or more over, to prescribe how anyone should experience the world, with or without photography? For Williams, this process of photographing artworks extends beyond the aesthetic, to pose (unspecified) problems for an entire generation. This kind of hand-wringing over photographic practice has nothing to do with encouraging others to adopt positive techniques for enjoying art, but rather is a question of fostering social order. The figure of the selfie-taker – especially as it has been conceived of in the press – disrupts the art gallery as a space for a certain type of practice, and by implication a certain type of person. The anguish over selfie-taking is therefore akin to the hand-wringing over the new neighbours ‘bringing down the area’.

Her conclusion states that there is “nothing to fear, for either the art crowd or the custodians of the human spirit”: this is not because selfie-taking is not actually the dangerous threat to the social order that we have come to believe, but rather because the practice will be prevented by human decency:

The National Gallery will not be overrun by people taking selfies for the same reason it is not full of people in bikinis; we humans have a keen sense of humiliation, exposure, pride, vulnerability. That’s what makes us worth painting in the first place.

Selfie-taking is therefore positioned in contrast to virtue and to a sense of social propriety. But this ludicrous hyperbole – about what is after all a way of taking pictures – is really nothing to do with photography; rather it is concerned with establishing certain groups of people and their tastes as wrong, as bad, and as worthy of being disdained. The selfie-taker, this article would have us believe, is so problematic and shameful that it has no place in this gallery, and should be excluded from other culturally valued spaces and even, one might assume, positions of power. Because if selfie-taking is conceptualised as a threat a generation, and indicative of the “sorry state of human nature”, then it becomes a means for devaluing and excluding whole sectors of society.

I’d like to conclude by reproducing a picture Eminem took of himself in front of the Mona Lisa:

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Interestingly The Guardian did not critique this image using Williams’ approach, but instead cited it as part of a “selfie sub-genre” and one of the “dos” of selfie-taking. Evidently taking pictures of yourself in art galleries is only problematic and repellant if you’re not famous, rich or male…