I’ve held off writing about Ellen DeGeneres’ Oscar selfie for a while now. Partly because I like to consider things for a while before I write about them, but also because there’s just too much else going on in selfie-land to be up-to-date all the time (could people stop doing new stuff just for a moment and let me catch up? No? Ah well.)
But something I read about Ellen’s selfie shortly after it was taken stuck with me. It was just one line of comment, on the website Jezebel:
Selfies: officially over, now that this one has been taken. Everyone go home, no more selfies. (2nd March 2014)
And it just struck me as interesting, that this gathering of celebrities, crowding in to take a picture together, was being used in this way – to tell readers, albeit informally, to stop taking selfies. The implication being that once a group of film stars does something, we can’t hope to do any ‘better’, and therefore should stop. The Ur-Selfie had been made, and all we could do now was just look at it. This sense of selfie-taking being a competition is unique within photography – who, for instance, would say that since Ansel Adams photographed Yosemite, no-one else should do so? But of course it’s not a question of quality, it’s a matter of accessibility to the public sphere – something selfies seem to override with infuriating pervasiveness. Telling people to stop taking selfies because celebrities have done so, is tantamount to reserving public life for only those who are famous. The rest of us should presumably know our place… This reflects an interesting correlation between cultural practice and interest – because a lot of people globally were interested in the Ellen selfie, it is received as a valid instance of an otherwise maligned photographic form. But because few people are interested in the selfies taken by someone they do not know, then this becomes something abject and marginal. The accusation of selfies being narcissistic has always struck me as odd, seeing as outrage at something which one doesn’t find interesting is perhaps more suggestive of self-interest, in that it suggests a wish for the world to be tailored to you, and you alone.
The comment above, however, does not reflect what intrigues me most about Ellen’s selfie, which is that when watching the actors assemble to take their picture, we can see the excitement that photography brings extends even to those who might well be relentlessly over-documented otherwise.
What this relates to most is choice – these stars here have the choice to be included, and are falling over themselves to do so. Whereas any one of these stars is probably all-too-aware of the relentless scrutiny of photographers following their daily lives, in this context, when they are asked and when they can decide for themselves and have agency, photography becomes fun again. Because taking photographs with other famous people is probably still exciting, even if you’re famous yourself (we can see Liza Minelli, for instance, in the background – also wanting to join in). And because capturing the moment, especially one that feels silly and frivolous, is immensely enjoyable, just because. Kevin Spacey waves two fingers behind Julia Robers’ head, who herself goes pink with laughter. It’s certainly messy, and a few of them look far from their best, but unlike with a paparazzi shot which seeks to capture the off-moment, to make a story about it, here that isn’t the point. They were joining in with something, and clearly relishing it. Meryl Streep’s excited “I’ve never tweeted before!” testifies to the fun one can have doing something widely regarded (and maligned) as trivial, and ephemeral.
Apart from this agentive quality of this image, and of selfies generally (you can hardly force yourself to take your own picture), I enjoyed watching how the Ellen selfie became re-appropriated. Their referencing of a common cultural moment, in itself became a cultural moment. A few of my favourite re-imaginings are here: