Month: March 2014

A Selfie By Any Other Name Would Be Just as Despised…

It’s remarkable how many news articles and magazine features seem to need to crowbar into their story something discussing selfies. It seems to be regarded as a guaranteed way of getting readers’ attention – particularly if the article is bemoaning some kind of dreadful new selfie-related behaviour (kids getting head lice ‘due to selfies’ being one of my favourite recent stories), and then enables readers to chime in with their own stories of selfie-hatred and disdain for Those Types of People. A trend I’ve noticed over the past few months is the habit of coining new selfie-related terms, so I thought I’d make a list:

Belfie: perhaps the original variant, meaning a selfie of one’s behind. Articles about this new term and trend are a great excuse to collect numerous images of bottoms.

Delfie: a photograph of a man’s genitals.

Elfie: the person who takes a selfie-like photograph of the subject on their behalf.

Felfie: a selfie taken by a farmer. Hailed by some journalists as a valuable means for countering the problems of isolation some farmers face as part of rural life.

Gelfie: a selfie in the gym. Viewed as the ultimate in narcissism, yet to me this displays a type of honesty that is missing from other similar images of the self. To look like this, the images states, I had to work hard. Visibly working on one’s appearance, however, is often cause for ridicule – one need only look at the fashion for ‘natural beauty’, and the mockery of ‘fakeness’ to see how artifice must be concealed and denied. The gym selfie is therefore a rejection of the coercion to hide this effort, this deliberate transformation – “I didn’t wake up like this” it says “I had to do something about it”.

Melfie: either an image of a mother, or a male subject.

Nelfie: a nude selfie – which, as I’m writing in my thesis at the moment, is arguably the most logical of all selfies, in that it embodies the coercion to speak of one’s sexuality as a core component of the ‘truth’ of one’s identity (Foucault, 1978). Additionally, it is a response to and acknowledgement of postfeminist rhetoric which defines empowerment in relation to sexual confidence. Helfie: a photograph focusing on the subject’s hair.

Pelfie: an image of one’s pet (so not strictly a selfie at all, but just a way to draw attention what you’re doing), or a photograph of oneself eating a pie.

Shelfie: another early variant, this time as a rejection of photographing one’s face, in favour of one’s bookshelf. The binary opposition between appearance and intellect is reinscribed with pride, and the shelfie-taker has managed to present their identity for social validation without making themselves vulnerable to criticism. Performs the same role as selfies, but pretends that it’s better.

Refie: an image with a member of royalty, or taken whilst running.

Telfie: images either taken on the toilet, or with a tractor.

Velfie: a short video clip of oneself.

Welfie: either a workout selfie, or a term to denote someone who takes a lot of selfies.

These terms not only reflect a wish to define specific activities – if it were only that, we would have special words for other types of photography too. Instead, these cutesy terms contribute to the overall mockery of selfies, by establishing it as a photographic practice in which fads are so abundant that neologisms are required simply to keep track. The ultimate test of this is quite simple: read out any of these definitions to someone and note their reaction. Laughter at these terms, and a roll of the eyes, is a means for ratifying and joining in with the more generalised attack on young women’s photographic practice. “A ‘Belfie’ you say? Ha! What silly thing will they think of next?”

 

 

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Natural with a hint of wings

A while back I wrote about my time spent working as a makeover photographer. Although at the time, the job was a learning curve in many ways, what I ultimately took from it was an awareness of of the interconnection between photography and gender discipline. As my thesis has taken shape, looking at various examples of photographic discipline, I have often thought back to what we called ‘the keycard’ – a quick reference guide for clients to pick their favourite style of photography. This card was a perfect example of discipline, in that it not just shows you the range of options that is open to you, but expects that you choose and inhabit them.

The first side of the card featured a number of categories, and examples of how each style rendered images of femininity, from ‘sexy’ and ‘pretty’ to ‘funky’ (the category of ‘art’ always amused me).

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Next came the selection of montage styles, and the optional addition of wings:

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Before I worked at the studio, I had no idea that photography would ever be regarded in this way – as a product of cut-and-paste techniques selected from a pre-defined shortlist. But it was not so much the images that were being produced in this way, but our clients. By asking them to choose and recognise themselves in these categories, we were reinforcing the processes that sort and grade individuals according to taste, class and lifestyle.

The choice of what you wanted to be obscured the fact that you must choose.  ‘Be yourself’ is revealed to be a coercive demand, rather than a statement of liberation.

Needless to say, a client ticking all or none of the boxes was an act of rebellion, and meant that we didn’t know what to do with / to them. As with wider discourses of gender presentation, multiplicity or non-conformity renders the subject unreadable, and a problematic target for control. ‘Art mirrors life’ becomes more a case of art reducing life to a limited range of forms and meanings.

Arise, Selfie Olympians

Back in January, there emerged a trend for taking selfies with an unusual or complex subject matter. Such images were shared and gathered together under the title Selfie Olympics. This trend follows on from other photography-based displays of physical or creative prowess, such as planking or extreme ironing. What interests me about the Selfie Olympics, however, is what it adds to the discourse of selfies, and photography more generally.

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Firstly, using the notion of ‘the Olympics’ connotes competitive ways of defining and limiting photographic activities. A number of comments about the Selfie Olympics identify certain images as ‘having won’, suggesting that people can ‘stop taking selfies now’ (interestingly, the Ellen Oscar selfie was discussed similarly, as if it represented some sort of apex which would signified an end point). Selfie-taking is therefore a practice with a limited time-frame and a conclusion, through which a hierarchy of excellence is established, and which then negates the need for further activity.

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Secondly, the Selfie Olympics displays an extraordinary amount of creativity, in which subjects balance on door handles, arrange complex sets and go to considerable lengths to make their images both amusing and impressive. Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 15.47.13

Others even put themselves in danger, such as @inhalecj:

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This creativity (and bravery) of the Selfie Olympians is understood as being special in relation to ‘normal’ selfie-taking. The Olympic selfie which makes its subject look funny or ridiculous, yet also conveys their adept manipulation of cultural tropes, performs two functions: it enables them to present themselves socially to generate peer esteem and enable self-reflection (arguably the purpose of most selfies), but does so in a way that protects the subject from typical selfie criticism (narcissistic, boring, samey etc etc) by virtue of being unusual or amusing (image below by @mykittygobang).

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And here lies the ‘problem’ with selfies – the Selfie Olympics images are perceived to be giving something to the audience, whereas ‘normal’ selfies are seen in comparison as too personal, and therefore ‘giving’ nothing to anyone other than the subject. This demand, for the audience to be ‘given’ something, demonstrates that to see an example of self-involvement we need not look at selfie-takers, but their critics. Because the selfie is of no interest to them, the image is dismissed.

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Thirdly, the Selfie Olympics, as well as acting divisively in the ways suggested above, also problematises the notion of selfies or selfie-takers being a homogenous group. This is important for my thesis, as I am arguing against the reduction of certain photographic practices to certain meanings and functions. The idea that the selfie ‘is’ something or other is a way of defining and limiting those who take them. Here, we can see that a range of purposes and identities, from the political and culturally-savvy, to the surrea (image below by @imgeezus).

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But of course, a lot of these subjects are mocking selfies at the same time as taking them, ridiculing the prevalent bathroom pictures and hand gestures by taking them to an extreme. This connects with my wider argument of social media providing a context for distinguishing oneself through mocking others. The Selfie Olympics is therefore a striking example of photographic practice being used to comment on itself (image below by @djgetbizzy).

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