An interesting aspect of discipline in relation to photography is that it is not necessarily a shameful body or appearance that need be depicted (as seen on People of Walmart, for example) in order for the subject to be devalued. Instead, the act of photographing in itself can be the grounds for shaming the photographer. This complicates the notion of selfie-taking as empowering and democratic (perhaps deliberately so) as it reinstates the authority of the external, social voice over personal photographic acts. Rather than digital technologies offering the possibility of photographing oneself in any way desired, this type of discourse constrains the realm of what is legitimately photographable.
The selfie is frequently identified as connoting undesirable qualities in the subject, from narcissism and insecurity, to arrogance and a detachment from the ‘realities’ of life. This concept of the selfie is primarily based on a set of assumptions regarding the individual’s participation within social life and social spaces, relating to where interest in and concern for the self should end, and attention instead be directed towards others. Whether or not taking selfies indicates a genuine lack of concern for others is, of course, not something which can be firmly established or contested here. But it is the manner in which they are assumed to be indicative of selfish behaviour that is significant, in that it enables certain photographic behaviours to be regarded as legitimate grounds for criticising the subject.
The following examples demonstrate this discourse of the selfish selfie, linking selfie-taking with inappropriate behaviour within a specific context. The first image, taken by New York Post photographer Paul Martinka in December 2013, depicts a woman taking a photograph with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background, on which a man is being persuaded by emergency services personnel not to jump. The assumed event depicted by the photograph is that the woman is taking a selfie of herself with the suicidal man. The outrage prompted by this image led it to be called The Worst Selfie Ever, as it was seen to depict a quintessential instance of the selfish urge to be the centre of attention, even during a life-or-death situation. That photography can be interpreted in this way, as not just a breach of etiquette, but also indicative of some sort of pathological need for visibility at the expense of others, illustrates its use as a basis for evaluating and disciplining others.
The alternative explanation for the image received little coverage in comparison with the ‘selfie-ish’ interpretation, presumably because it does not fit the wider narrative where a) selfies are equated with selfish behaviour, and b) women’s photographic practice requires regulation. Nevertheless, examination of the image suggests that the angle her phone is pointing at could not capture the scene on the bridge behind her. Her phone would need to be where the newspaper photographer is standing, in order to frame the shot she is assumed to be taking. It should also be noted that she is standing at a popular spot for taking tourist images, and might well be snapping herself with the bridge’s famous towers. The photograph we see, taken by the reporter, has likely been framed in order to suggest a selfish selfie, knowing that this references wider discourses of photography and propriety, and therefore constitutes a story.
The next image, taken at the Nelson Mandela memorial in Soweto on the 10th December 2013 by Roberto Schmidt, shows three world leaders leaning in to take a picture of themselves on a mobile phone. The Sun’s headline sums up the hysterical reaction to the image in the media, stating that it shows “No Selfie Respect”. Condemnation of the image suggested that, like the previous example, it exemplified a problematic lack of decorum, made worse by the authority of the figures involved, and the assumed lack of respect such behaviour showed to the deceased. Referred to as ‘Selfie-gate’ and as sparking an ‘international incident’, both the pun here and the wider criticism rely on the public discourse of selfies – that they are acts of self-centred glorification, whose triviality and frivolousness does not prevent them from profoundly conflicting with and undermining the solemnity of the occasion.
The conflict between what selfies are perceived to connote, and the socially-required behaviours of certain events and contexts, is the subject of two related sites: Selfies at Funerals[i] and Selfies at Serious Places [ii]. Here, the symbolic clash between the connotations of the vapid, self-aggrandising selfie, and the expectation of solemnity prompted by certain contexts, provides ample fuel for viewers’ condemnation, and much hand-wringing about the state of today’s youth. The first site features images taken at funerals, such as that shown left, in which the subject has tagged the image “#boyfriend #gorgeous #funeral #grandad #wake #hipster #tags for likes #photo of the day #like #follow”. This incongruous list of concerns, regarding “likes” and “photo of the day” does suggest an apparent lack of comprehension of the event they are attending.
The second website mentioned, Selfies at Serious Places, features selfies at Auschwitz, Anne Frank’s house, the Berlin Holocaust memorial, the Twin Towers site, Pearl Harbour, Iwo Jima and the Vietnam memorial. As with the funeral selfies, a conflict arises between the depiction of self-interest, as represented by the selfie, and the contextual requirement for contemplation of and compassion for others. This rather tasteless and touristic view of humanity is extended through other images, which feature selfies in front of accidents, fires and the homeless. These sites have an explicit disciplinary effect, by publicly shaming subjects who have used photography in a way that is presented as unsociable, and by making statements about appropriate behaviour. An apology, from a young man who took a selfie, complete with thumbs-up, in front of the Holocaust memorial, makes this discipline apparent:
I know you probably think I’m just an idiot who is willing to put pictures like that on the internet, and you’re not too wrong. You’ve really made me think about it, and I’d like to thank you for that.[iii]
Discussions relating to such selfies call for a revised approach to intergenerational discipline, with comments strongly advocating physical punishment counterbalanced by those who promote educating children about the social implications of photography, particularly during such a sensitive occasion. Although the focus on the needs of the self, to be amused and to be visible even at such a time of mourning or contemplation, will likely strike most as inappropriate, it is unlikely that this indicative of some kind of generational degradation. Rather, it is more a case of young people having yet to acquire an understanding of the social mores that apply in different contexts, particularly with respect to the use of mobile phones. It is not surprising that a teen who cannot help but text and tweet during their lessons, also continues such behaviour during a funeral. Without adequate guidance and understanding of how photography acquires social meaning, both young (and old) will continue to incorporate photography into contexts not usually sanctioned. Learning how to use these new technologies courteously is a learning process for everyone, not least of all those who are still familiarising themselves with social expectations.
These examples show that the rules relating to selfie-taking are vigorously enforced, and that perceived mistakes are used within a much wider conversation about how certain groups – particularly young people and women – should behave. Although I do not support the use of photography for disciplining subjects’ identity, I would also find it hard to defend selfies taken at funerals. Whereas I argue that the disciplinary discourse regarding selfies in general is deeply problematic, in that is supports generalised social control, the funeral selfie constitutes problems of its own. By displaying a specific contextual inattention, where the positive functions of taking such an image (as identity negotiation etc.) have been prioritised within the unique circumstances of mourning and loss, and which remove the subject’s claims for legitimacy. Selfie-taking is therefore neither universally positive or negative, but like any other creative practice, is context-dependent. To address this specific problem requires a greater sensitivity, both when using one’s camera, and when assessing the images, and identities, of others. Shaming, on the other hand, bypasses the fostering of understanding, in favour of simply repressing certain behaviours – which is what makes shame, in relation to photography, such an effective and prevalent tool for discipline.