I’m talking at a conference this Friday in Sheffield, called ‘Picturing the Social’. It’s connected with the ESRC project of the same name that is happening as part of the Visual Social Media Lab at the University of Sheffield, and I’m lucky to be joining them in January as a research assistant.
In advance of the conference, a journalism student contacted me to ask me some questions. As I answered ‘why do people take selfies?’ with an annoying vague response – tl;dr version: ‘for lots of reasons’ – I thought of one possible motivation for taking selfies that hadn’t occurred to me until then: selfies are safe.
I had previously considered the post-9/11 effect on social media as being a question of authenticity, in which people are encouraged to not just be visibly present and knowable online, but also to be truthful. This discourse of authenticity has now reached its zenith, in that the NSA/MI5 surveillance of social media is predicated on the assumption that the information provided there is reliable. Additionally, Mark Zuckerberg’s insistence that ‘you have one identity’ also supports this drive towards authenticity, but only so that he can provide advertisers with ‘real people’ who can be approached as predictable and therefore malleable.
But what if this rise in security and anxiety had a different knock-on effect on social media? What if it made people look at themselves because they are the most inoffensive and unproblematic subject they can think of? In a climate where photography has been problematised and pushed out of so many spaces – from malls and airports to railway stations and schools – is a selfie the safest photograph you can take?
The Met Police’s website states:
“We encourage officers and the public to be vigilant against terrorism but recognise the importance not only of protecting the public from terrorism but also promoting the freedom of the public and the media to take and publish photographs.”
Photography and terrorism are here connected in a way that suggests that the former may legitimately be interpreted as a technique of the latter. Photography has a long history of being problematised in a way that is unlike any other form of artistic practice: it is seen as too easy, too automated, and in this case, it is too dangerous. When complains are made (such as by Vilém Flusser in Towards a Philosophy of Photography) about the repetitive nature of amateur photography, in which similar photographs are taken again and again, perhaps the law needs to be taken into account? Are repetitive photographs perhaps to be regarded as safe because lots of people are taking them? The threat of being punished for taking photographs of the wrong things cannot be discounted, and whereas photographing other people, buildings, cars etc. might get you into trouble, a photograph of one’s face contravenes no regulation: except the social injunction against vanity. And therein lies the problem – in seeking to avoid one form of social condemnation, selfie-takers are then vulnerable to another type of criticism…