Month: August 2014

“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.

 

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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.

Zoe Williams poses in front of one of the original selfies: Rembrandt's Self-Portrait at 63

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.