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…

Gendering Photography

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A lot of the problems I am researching, about the discipline of subjects in relation to their photographic habits, can be directly traced to the gendering of photography, namely the way in which certain practices are seen as ‘for girls’, and others are perceived as ‘for men’. The image above demonstrates this, being taken from an online quiz that asks ‘What is your true gender mix?’ The assumption is that ‘Snapchat and Selfie’ and ‘Mostly Call’ are behaviours associated with different genders.

I’ve collected a number of examples to demonstrate how the selfie has become discursively associated with women, and how this permits a targeted form of criticism. Many of these examples have already appeared on this blog at some point, but I’ve featured a few more here that were particularly interesting, in terms of this gender split.

This infographic from dating site Zoosk demonstrates that although selfies are deemed acceptable for women, they result in a lower rate of user engagement with men who take them. The implication here is that taking selfies is an unattractive behaviour for men, as it has a perceived connection with women.

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This perceived division between subjects’ smartphone activities or photography usage repeats patterns in society we see all around us, where women’s pens and even women’s beer is offered for sale, and which acts to enforce the broader demarcations between men and women. There’s plenty of examples, in the form of memes or even t-shirts, where selfies have been explicitly demarcated as Not For Men:

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This often features the added coercive dimension of stating that Real Men don’t take selfies, thereby underscoring the spoiled identity of the selfie-taking male.

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But as I’ve identified elsewhere, the gendering of types of photography – such as selfies – goes beyond simple divisions and demarcations, in that once a certain activity is identified as feminine, it becomes delegitimised and subject to numerous prescriptions. The next example, from The Left Fielder, demonstrates this:

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This comic says a number of interesting things. Firstly, we are told that the selfie is not something you can just take, instead you have to follow these steps. Selfie-taking is therefore constructed as being inherently regulated. Secondly, there is a contrast between the instructions in the text and what is depicted in the image – where a woman slaps on make-up and does a duckface – that perpetuates this sense in which selfie-takers are chaotic and misbehaving. Thirdly, the voice of authority expresses disdain, by correcting the  woman who is duckfacing, or by identifying the woman who is shooting from above in order to look ‘like a big googly baby’. Therefore the techniques which women are seen to be employing when taking a selfie are subject to criticism, in that they are either inauthentic (contrasted with a ‘genuine, warm smile’) or make the subject look infantile. Lastly, we move onto the ‘men’s section’, which features a horrified proscription ‘NO STOP THAT WHAT ARE YOU DOING’ in reaction to a handful of males doing the duckface.

This reaction to men adopting behaviours which have been constructed, within the same strip, as not just feminine but abjectly so, demonstrates how the gendering of the selfie is enforced. For the selfie to be used as a technique of discipline (“take selfies here, not here, like this, not this, this many, too many” etc.) that is particularly effective against women, this kind of patrolling of the borders is necessary. But it is not who actually takes selfies that interests me, rather than the discursive limitations which conceive of selfies as feminine, and as a problematic kind of feminine.  Men are discouraged from engaging in behaviours that are not just for women, but somehow emblematic of problematic women. A piece on the website Elite Daily expresses this particularly succinctly, by stating that selfies are not for men because they are “strictly for women”, they are for “shallow people”, and they are for “attention seekers”. Men cannot, therefore, be permitted to take selfies as to do so would devalue them as shallow and attention-seeking: i.e. it would make them a bit like women.

The following article from Jezebel takes this devaluation and proscription against male selfies a step further, labelling them as ‘repellant’ (leaving aside the discussion of the piece’s controversial author):

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This article recycles the same tired old association between selfies, self-obsession and a devalued subject position, asserting that “male vanity, at least the kind made evident by too many smart phone self-portraits, is a major turn-off”. It is not questioned that selfies could do anything other than indicate an unattractive neediness. The author quotes a source: “The more selfies a guy has, the more obvious it is he craves validation…The more validation he needs, the less likely it is that any one woman will be able to give it to him.” This is asserted despite the author referencing an article by Emily McCombs in which she states that, for her, taking selfies is a positive tool for generating self-esteem. McCombs, interestingly, asserts that although selfie-taking serves a valid purpose for her, this option isn’t available for men, as “while I champion vanity in women, I find it kind of off-putting in men…I’d rather a man be thinking about how pretty I am than worrying about how pretty he is. I don’t dislike vain men as people, but I wouldn’t want to date one.”

This is astonishing, and remains unquestioned in the Jezebel piece, as McCombs is accepting that insecurity should be gendered differently for men and women – an acceptable quality for women, but “repulsive” in a man. The idea that a man cannot express insecurity about himself is part of the maintenance of untenable gender norms, which – as we can clearly see here – is damaging for both men and women.

If selfie-taking is to be an accepted and validated practice for women, as McCombs would argue, then it must equally be so for men. The gendering of the selfie doesn’t just constitute a means for criticising women (in terms of ridiculing the duckface, the assumed inauthenticity and the triviality) – it also contains a loathing of the ‘wrong’ type of men: men who do not follow the rules prescribed for them, and who make the mistake of appearing weak, or engaging in activities forbidden to them. Therefore the selfie is emblematic of the discursive regulation and punishment of men, as well as women.

NSA: National Selfies Agency

Following on from last week’s discussion of the way in which selfies are used to exemplify problematic forms of data, this tendency is also evident in a comparison between a news story as reported in Tech Crunch and by the New York Times. Back in May, both reported that the NSA was using images harvested from the web to build facial recognition software: an emerging technology for the identification and tracing of suspected individuals. The contrast between the two reports is interesting.

The New York Times details how documents leaked by Edward Snowden show an NSA emphasis on obtaining data to develop its facial recognition software. Facial images, we are told, are being incorporated into data collection along with other types of information, such as fingerprints. Although the article makes it clear that the focus would be on communications outside of the US, there’s a high likelihood that US citizens could have their image data collected too. The article expresses concerns over privacy issues, not just relating to the data, but also to the facial recognition technology in general, which one source terms as “very invasive”. The story concludes by adding that other projects have sought to locate subjects using satellite images, as well as acquiring biometric data, such as iris scans, from border crossing across a number of countries.

So this is a story about data gathering, and the uses government agencies have for such data, through compiling and cross-referencing across huge databases. This prompts significant concerns for civil liberties, especially considering the inaccuracies in identification the documents noted.

But these issues – of governments engaging in non-democratic practices of monitoring subjects – are obscured within the story as reported by Tech Crunch. Here, the NSA’s practices are reframed as further exemplifying the problem of selfies. The headline sets the tone by stating that “Your Selfie is a Mugshot for the NSA”. Your selfie. This is not a transgression against your civil liberties – rather, you are doing this to yourself.

Both articles quote an NSA document that details an “approach that digitally exploits the clues a target leaves behind in their regular activities on the net to compile biographic and biometric information [that can help] implement precision targeting”. So why are selfies singled out as the ultimate example of this problematic and exploited data trail? The answer lies in the public conception of selfies as problematic. Selfies are so abject, so borderline criminal, that it becomes almost logical to imagine that the NSA would be viewing them. Tech Crunch readers can therefore gain a sense of false security by separating themselves from a devalued photographic practice. It is much easier after all to conceptualise the problem of NSA monitoring in terms of personal responsibility, rather than in terms of state oppression. Selfie-taking again becomes a target for sublimated fears about something else entirely.

Furthermore, presenting selfies as a dangerous folly implicitly shifts the blame away from intelligence agencies, onto the subject, for creating this data in the first place. The article’s emphasis on selfie-blame is evident in a flawed correlation between selfies and passport photos – saying that if the NSA has the former, that’s almost as good as having the latter, which the agency does not have access to. But such images are not interchangeable, as selfies on sites such as Instagram have little useful identification data attached to them. It is not simply pictures that are the problem, but the cross-referencing that can be done with them. There’s no point shaming selfie-takers, again, when blame lies with those who are responsible for devising unorthodox methods of population surveillance.

Rating the Unworthy

Despite the majority of this blog being about selfies, that’s really not all I study! My thesis is about how discourses of photography are used to discipline people. The popular discourse about selfies is just such an excellent example of this, in that it identifies selfie-takers as having certain characteristics, which then is used to excuse a sort of free-for-all of condemnation, criticism and humiliation. But selfie-discourse is far from being the only example which does this.

I recently saw a version of the Top Trumps card game, in which the topic was ‘mingers’.

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For anyone not familiar with the term, ‘minger’ is a word used to identify a subject who is regarded by the viewer as excessively, almost comically unattractive. Besides the construction of a product which labelled individuals in this way, and used their (presumably unauthorised) personal photographs, I was struck by the sense in which judging people has been explicitly turned into a game. And as an example I discussed previously demonstrates (in which photographs of women were arranged into a hierarchy and scored from 1-10), photographs are an integral component of this process. The prevalent assumption that the photograph provides access to the ‘truth’ of a person’s nature is here used to excuse a range of insults, relating to the subject’s style and smell.

The purpose of a game of Top Trumps is to deploy the ratings on one’s cards in a way that betters those of your opponent. By encouraging the players to think about strategy and competition, the game normalises the categories it is using, so by using the odour score on the card, players are accepting the legitimacy of a connection made between a series of undesirable characteristics – all linked back to the image itself. 81sG5Yzq+xL._SL1500_Furthermore, the deeply unpleasant prejudices expressed through this game, against certain body types and gender performances, are both obscured and cemeted by the system of numerical scoring. As number values have been assigned to each subject prior to the game commencing, players can assume they are only deploying judgements that have already been made. But through the act of comparing scores, and doing so in a way which depicts one as the ‘winner’, players act to reify wider social processes of hierarchical ordering and marginalisation. The score is also used as a means to convert subjective opinion into objective ‘fact’, in which the assessment and grading of subjects is presented as producing a definitive and truthful valuation. The ‘ugly-o-meter’ in particular references this sense of objective measurement. The final score allotted to each subject, according to their ‘minger power’, reinforces the sense in which people – especially people of low status – can be feasibly assigned numbers.

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Whilst we are encouraged to accept that these people, who look like this, are legitimate targets for mockery, through accusations of poor style or bodily hygiene, the viewer is kept safe from similar judgements. By making comparisons, sorting and ordering, players are placed in a viewing position that separates them from the people they are judging. The inequality reinforced by this distinction, between judge and judged, was conceptualised by Tagg, who noted the separation between those who have “the power and privilege of producing and possessing” meaning, and those who were reduced to merely “being meaning” (1988: 6, original emphasis). Through their reproduction on these cards, their valuation, and their use within a game of social ordering, these subjects are in the unempowered position of “being meaning”. Players, in contrast, produce meaning through accepting the assessments made by these cards, and through using them as a form of entertainment.

This last factor – entertainment – is most important, as it is evident across the range of examples of photographic discipline I have been researching, from duckfaces to involuntary pornography. It is not enough to grade subjects, or to share their images against their will – humiliation of others must now constitute a form of leisure, in which we are encouraged to enjoy mocking others through viewing galleries of ‘ugliest selfies’, or visiting sites such as People of Walmart. I am not going to suggest that enjoying laughing at other people is in any way new, but the affordances of social media make the process of collating and sharing images in order to do this much more straightforward. And perhaps most interestingly, is the degree to which the disdain for certain types of people, and certain types of photography, have been normalised online, to the point where the expression of prejudice seems little more than a game.

Zombie Selfies and Data That Won’t Stay Deleted

So a prevalent theme of selfie discourse relates to danger – selfie-takers presented as doing dangerous things in the pursuit of the perfect image or selfie-taking shown to be regulated by chance or by humans in ways that make it dangerous. But this week emerged a new danger, in the form of selfies that won’t stay deleted and can therefore return to haunt the hapless selfie-taker – zombie selfies, if you will.

Internet security firm Avast bought 20 secondhand phones from eBay, and found that even on devices that had been wiped using the factory reset option, there was still an awful lot of data left over. Avast found that:

 “of 40,000 stored photos extracted … more than 750 were of women in various stages of undress, along with 250 selfies of what appears to be the previous owner’s manhood. There was an additional 1,500 family photos of children, 1,000 Google searches, 750 emails and text messages and 250 contact names and email addresses.”

This news story is interesting in that it was repeatedly reported in a way that framed selfies as the most volatile and therefore newsworthy type of data. Headline after headline referenced  the dreaded prospect of “naked selfies” being released, unwittingly, into the public domain:

‘Factory wipe’ on Android phones left naked selfies and worse, study finds – The Guardian 11th July 2014
Naked selfies extracted from ‘factory reset’ phones – BBC News 11th July 2014
‘Wiping’ Android phones does NOT delete your naked selfies – The Daily Mail 9th July 2014

Snapchat has demonstrated in the past the considerable problems that stem from deleted photos being anything but deleted – and, if you ask me, the even greater ‘problem’ of claiming to create a technology that protects people, but that makes them susceptible to victim-blaming and humiliation when it doesn’t work. But this news story takes selfie-panic, and selfie-disgust, in a new direction.

Firstly, the story focuses on the selfies that the researchers found, adding almost as an afterthought all the emails, texts and contacts that were also retrieved in huge quantities. Not to mention the fact that there were photographs of children on the phones, which one might expect would cause considerable alarm. A few years ago, this story would have been reported in terms of the potential for identity theft which these phones represented. But attention has shifted within popular news discourse to focus on the selfie, using it as a kind of modern folk-devil to symbolise a range of social problems and anxieties.

Secondly, the prospect of ‘naked selfies’ that cannot be deleted recalls other, much older forms of social stigma that cannot be removed. Rather than approach digital technologies as offering something liberatory and fun, we are encouraged instead to view every act of photography as a potential burden that can mark us forever, the shame lingering long after we had hoped to eradicate it. This is simple fear-mongering, evident in The Daily Mail‘s assertion that wiping phones does not delete your selfies. The ‘you’ referred to is both assumed to take naked selfies, and chastised for doing so, the fear of shame being used as a means for curbing behaviour.

The not-so-subtle subtext of this story is that the limitations of technology are to result in limitations in our own photographic practice. This recalls Eric Schmidt’s laughable statement that “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”.  If you don’t want everyone to see your naked selfies, then judging by this story, you must never take them at all. If we, as users, cannot ensure our own safety through doing what we assumed would wipe the phone, then extra preventative steps are needed.  Because if naked selfie-taking is not ‘safe’, or any behaviour one might assume, then presumably it should not be done at all.

Of course this is an absurd limitation on personal freedom, and conceptualises things in simplistic terms of safe / not safe. One cannot stay indoors every day for fear of what might happen outdoors, and the same applies here. Instead of presenting selfie-taking as something to be feared, and as an uncontrollable monster, we need a reframing of the conversation, that conceptualises data breaches such as this without resorting to shaming. But that would require a shift in the perception of selfies, away from corrosive notions of embarrassment or disgrace, towards an acceptance that – gosh!- some people like to take photos of themselves. I’m not going to hold my breath, though.