Photographs and Threats: Emma Watson and the Allure of the Non-Consensual

The recent threats against actress Emma Watson demonstrate several interesting things about photography and the humiliation of women:

1. This case make absolutely explicit how intimate images (even the idea of intimate images) are used as a weapon to control and silence women. At no point did the media coverage question why anyone would respond to Watson’s address to the UN with a threat to reveal photographs. Why? Because the connection between “woman gives feminist speech” (or in fact, woman does anything at all) and “people threaten her with images” has become absorbed and normalised by a society that implicitly blames women for whatever happens to them.

Despite the widespread outrage at this threat, and at the earlier celebrity photo leaks, a study of the comments beneath the line on social media demonstrates that there is still a strong tendency in popular discourse to just shrug, and say that she should have expected it. And you can be certain that had photographs emerged, we would have again seen numerous voices chiding her for taking such pictures in the first place.

As I have observed extensively in my research, this knee-jerk response is voiced by good and rational people as well as misogynistic trolls, demonstrating that explaining away the abuse of women, or denying it through making it seem rational and normal, is something that people feel a very strong need to do. Presumably, otherwise one would find it simply too difficult to function within society. This brings to mind Sherry Turkle’s description of people’s attitudes to privacy violations online, in which “people simply behave as though it were not happening” (2011: 261).


2. As Valenti points out, despite the story turning out to be a hoax, it nevertheless reinforces a connection between outspoken women and humiliation. The use of the countdown clock and the website name “emmayouarenext” seem drawn from either the playground or a spy novel. But this use of a prolonged and unspecified threat nevertheless demonstrate the effectiveness of psychological forms of harassment, in which the mere prospect of something happening is enough to alarm and coerce. The countdown clock here performs a similar role to the warden in the Panopticon – he might be there, he might be watching, punishment might be about to happen, therefore the conditioned response is to assume that this is the case. Although none of Watson’s images were leaked in the end, it would be ludicrous to assume that she has not been affected by these threats. The effect of her wonderful speech has been overshadowed by the spectre of her humiliation.

3. The (unreliable) figure of 48 million page views of the site speaks for itself. It might be inflated, but its also believable that this website received huge volumes of traffic. The media’s eagerness to report on the story, even with very limited amounts of information, is both depressing and unsurprising – the humuliaition of women is news and entertainment at the same time. As with the earlier celebrity photo leaks, there are large audiences for these types of private images. Audiences that are actively seeking out photographs that have caused their subjects pain and humiliation. Audiences who understand the value and the thrill of obtaining non-consensual materials, in comparison with conventional forms of pornography. And it’s the audiences that really make this story possible: if there wasn’t this enormous hunger to access people’s private lives, then photographs of women could not be used in this way. If women’s nude photography wasn’t a source of shame, outrage and most of all prurient fascination, then they couldn’t be punished for, or with, such images. If this process of humiliation and punishment is ever going to be addressed, it needs to start with the audience, which is why the prevalence of articles calling on people not to look at private images was particularly heartening.

Lastly, it seems that photography, for women especially, is a dangerous business. The only way to protect oneself from this kind of threat is not to take pictures, and add this precaution to the enormous list already given to women: don’t go out alone / wear a short skirt / get drunk etc etc. But what I find particularly sad about this, is that the proscription against photographing oneself – such a harmless piece of fun in itself – is just another way in which women are denied a full social presence. Because what these threats and leaks and warnings to women suggest is that as society, we believe that being kept hidden – off the streets, away from the camera and certainly away from the UN – is apparently the only way to stay safe.


Dogs and Babies: The Happy Fantasies of Photography

I’m currently writing up my PhD thesis, and am working on a chapter on involuntary pornography. As you can imagine, this is not exactly the most cheery of topics, so this week’s blog post is going to try to be a bit lighter than normal to balance things out.

There’s an advert on UK television at the moment for the Halifax bank, which features a female photographer taking a series of heart-warming shots of dogs, families and babies.

These scenes of her hard work are presumably used to connote the bank’s commitment to its customers. As someone who worked as a photographer, shooting portraits and weddings and the like, I can assure you that the work is hard. I often went home exhausted, covered in grime and with a thousand-yard stare. But lots of people work hard – so why choose a photographer for this advert?

I think the answer lies in the public perception of photography – as tricky, maybe, involving a lot of vague notions of ‘creativity’ and technical expertise – but ultimately as something we could imagine ourselves doing. It’s interesting, but not threatening. That’s why mannequins in shops hold cameras and not microscopes.


Despite the hipster fetishization of film cameras in shops such as Urban Outfitters above, the photography industry has been radically transformed over the last 15 years, with the role of photographer being seen as less of a profession than a demarcation given to someone who is using a camera. But so too has the role of photography itself radically altered, with images incorporated into everyday life and communication in ways difficult to imagine a generation ago. Which is why I think this advert presents an interesting time capsule of what we want photography to be, despite the ever-increasing gap between the warm-and-fuzzy photographer, and the darker figures observable online of the creepshot photographer and revenge porn user.

In this advert, we are reassured about photography on a number of levels. It is friendly and funny:

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It is patient and gentle:

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It is well-prepared and determined to make others look good (although who needs that many lenses to take an indoor portrait of a dog?):

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And it is reassuringly old-school, as conveyed by a medium-format camera on an unnecessarily-huge tripod:

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Two things struck me about all this. Firstly, this list of qualities of the ideal photographer seemed to emulate many of the traditional attributes of femininity, in terms of being welcoming, empathetic, self-sacrificing, and considerate of others. The woman photographer is therefore reassuring to customers because she is the quintessential  figure of feminine warmth (with the exception perhaps of the nurse or teacher). Secondly, the artifice of this construction is obvious not just in terms of its cultural wish-fulfilment, but also in the straightforward way in which it is enacted. As I watched the advert, I wondered why she had studio flash lights but no flash cable or wireless flash trigger on her camera (pedant alert!). Maybe she was just using the modelling lights to take pictures (odd), but in this behind-the-scenes shot, we can see the flash light being simulated off-camera:

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Now, I’m not going to say “it’s an advert and its presentation of life is not realistic, what a shock!” – but rather point out that this provides a handy metaphor for the fabricated nature of cultural assumptions about photography more generally. The view the Halifax advert presents of photography – as a lark, and as a site for developing empathy with others – is very different from the uses I see photography being put to in my own research. There, photography is used as a way of punishing, shaming, and bulling other people, in order to maintain a state of inequality between ‘us’ (those who ‘do it properly’, whether in the form of the photos they take or in terms of identity more generally) and ‘them’ (those who ‘do it wrong’, and who take selfies, or do duckfaces etc).

I don’t want to undermine the more gentle aspects of photography – far from it – but I want to expand the definition, to encompass the bad as well as the good. Because the warm and fuzzy perception of photography maintained by examples such as this advert is ultimately quite damaging, in that it presents images and the people who take or use them as harmless, when they are often, unfortunately, anything but. For society to only think of photography in terms of babies and dogs is to further marginalise the people who suffer as a result of what is said about or done with photographs. Although I have loved photography since I was a child, I am certain that it is important to confront and understand the nature and extent of the darker side to the practice, as much as we might prefer the friendly fantasy that is presented here.

Channel Four Wants You to “Shut Your Facebook”

I watched a Channel 4 programme on Monday called Shut Your Facebook. As I was watching it, I couldn’t sit still for my excitement – here was social media discipline at its absolute zenith.Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 11.04.10The programme looks at the social media habits of young people, considering how each could be problematic in terms of getting a job, damaging the person’s reputation and so on. But it is really nothing more than an excuse to have a good long gawp at the behaviour of young people, and to tut tut at their drinking, their sexual innuendos and their apparent lack of control. And the show’s main message, a lesson solemnly and repeatedly imparted, relates to the importance of control, particularly self-control. Subjects are instructed in how to main a disciplined approach to one’s online persona, rather than ‘let it all hang out’. Thereby, a sublimated rage at young people’s freedom, and a disgust with their bodies and behaviours, is funnelled into a form of benevolent guidance. It’s very similar to other makeover shows, particularly What Not to Wear, in the way that it presents the correction of problematic subjects as a form of entertainment. For a wonderful analysis of What Not to Wear, considering the makeover show as a legitimation of gendered class disdain, I recommend Angela McRobbie’s book The Aftermath of Feminism.

Ok, so back to our undisciplined Facebookers. To truly capture what the show is doing, I’ll describe its main scenes:

The show starts with a montage of some images and video clips, featuring young people passed out, vomiting, bearing their bodies, sitting on the toilet and so on. The voiceover states that:

“we want to find the nation’s worst social media sinners, from online obsessives, to extreme oversharers, from the positively hopeless, to the startlingly stupid. We’re going to show them how their online antics can affect their real life prospects, and see if we can shock, shame or surprise them into thinking again.”

As a statement of intent, this does two things – it describes the techniques it will be using (e.g. shame) and positions the recipients as meriting this intervention, this punishment.

First up is “party-boy Christian”. We see a sequence of shots from his Facebook page, featuring drinking, nudity, blow-up penises and so on. He states that he’s not bothered about being private, or about other people’s perception of him in relation to these images. The voice over tells us that in real life (a statement in itself) Christian is a recruitment consultant, and sets up a bizarre sequence in which Christian sits in a couple of mock interviews. His manner is professional, and he reveals he is good at his job and exceeds the targets set for him. He states that “as long as you’re professional outside of work, what goes on outside of work doesn’t matter” – and who wouldn’t agree that we all have the right to a private life? Well, this show apparently, as it supports the invasion of privacy that is employers looking at online profiles (cue scenes of shock and disgust, and yet another excuse to look at naked bodies). Sure, Christian might be wise to make his profile private, but the shaming he is subjected to by one mock-interviewer left me stunned. “Repulsive… he’s a no-hoper…sic. End of the day, it’s shit… This is terrible, this is really bad”

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The interviewer, above reprimands him saying “that’s not professional Christian, that’s not going to get you a job” – as McRobbie and Foucault argue, contemporary discourses of the self encourage a self-monitoring and regulation which makes the subject fit for work, productive, and able to engage with the demands of global capitalism. Christian’s partying ways clearly prevent him from being able to fulfil this objective, so he must be corrected. Although the message is being delivered in relation to his images, it is clear that he is being shamed for the behaviour itself. The interview concludes with a warning: “carry on doing what you’re doing in your own sweet way, but you won’t go anywhere.” The message is clear: do as we say, or you don’t get the life you want.

Next up is Charlie, a young woman who, again, loves to party with her friends. Cue montage. The problem, we hear, is that her friends like to tag photos of her which she finds ugly or embarrassing. Cue more photos. We are encouraged to see that yes, Charlie does seem to do a lot of embarrassing things, from pulling funny faces, to passing out on the floor. Not entirely unusual for a woman her age. But here such behaviour is presented as problematic, and in need of correction. But rather than ask her friends not to tag her, cue the arrival of a photographer who will take some more flattering snaps of Charlie for her profile.

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“Being camera-ready is clearly a concept Charlie has yet to master” we are told. The photographer will “give her, and you, tips for taking a profile pic to be proud of” – contrasts of pride and shame further the programme’s claimed objective to regulate viewers, as well as the subjects depicted. Also, rather than address anti-social group behaviours (her friends after all know that this tagging distresses her), the message is that she should change herself, and make her profile less embarrassing by being less embarrassing. In essence, she should be the photo she wants to display to the world. “By me telling you to turn away” says the photographer “you’re losing three inches” – the fact that this is ludicrous for someone Charlie’s size is lost beneath a wink shared with the viewer, in which we all want to look smaller, don’t we, eh?

To impart these messages, the programme also sends “fellow photo disaster area” Chelsea Healey to speak to Charlie. This exchange reminds me of a page on the defunct revenge porn website Pink Meth, where victims were encouraged to submit stories of their comeuppance as a warning to other women to “lock down their dirty pics”. In both cases, we have those who have been punished according to society’s rules of photography, imparting the need to be regulated to others. A perfect circle of discipline. Chelsea asks Charlie how she feels in relation to her new photos – “more classy” is the answer. The class-dimensions of this narrative, and the taming of her wild, sexual persona online, are another thesis in themselves… “She now looks more hot stuff, than hot mess” the narrator concludes.

There follows a bizarre section featuring a ‘Naked Nerd’ – a naked man whose role it seems is to impart advice and coerce viewers into agreeing with the show’s edicts, whilst giving the camera something to focus in on. “You can trust him, because he’s naked” we’re told. The connection between any form of ‘oversharing’ and physical nudity is one that’s been made before, such as by Ben Agger. But here it serves merely to up the flesh content of the show, and provide and interestingly hypocritical contrast between good public bodily display (when used by a TV company to prove a point) and bad public bodily display (when done by young people).

The next subject is Brayden, whose social media use conflicts with his boyfriend’s wish to have a conversation. Cue a scene where he is shown to be a “dick @ dinner”, by virtue of texting and snapping throughout a meal at a restaurant.

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Now, there is a big difference, in my mind, between the subjects discussed so far in this programme. Whereas Charlie or Christian’s behaviour is labelled as “sick” or “embarrassing” and in need of correction, Brayden’s use of his phone causes a different problem, in that it distresses his partner, and makes him feel ignored. It’s Brayden’s lack of consideration for his boyfriend’s needs that’s the problem, not his social media use per se. The programme continues by asking if we, the viewers, are “phubbers” – i.e. phone snubbers, people who focus on their phones instead of those around them. We are then asked to report the worst “phubbers” by tweeting to the programme, via #shutyourfacebook.

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Interaction with the programme is doubly disciplinary: either in the form of following a link to read their advice, or through reporting their friends’ transgressions. Peer regulation, through tweeting, is therefore naturalised as a fun accompaniment to watching television.

The next section addresses a problematic selfie-taker, in the form of Dominique, whose sexy selfies, we are told, despite being liked by scores of men, “haven’t helped her find a man in the real world”. The voiceover wonders whether it’s because Dominique in person looks different from her photographic self (mostly because she’s wearing more clothing). There follows a strange conversation between her and Chelsey Healey, in which Chelsea questions what Dominique enjoys doing, and marvels at the answer: extreme sports. Chelsea says “I’d never have guessed”, implying that Dominique’s “sexy” online persona should be read as encompassing the totality of her interests. This ties in with a troubling feature of discourse regarding online identity performance, namely that we should strive to present one ‘authentic’ self. Mark Zuckerberg is a central proponent of this, repeatedly stating that “you have one identity”. Here we see the limitations of this norm, in that identity is never singular, but must be understood as shifting, multiple and unstable. Dominique is a perfect example of this – she enjoys sports and sexualised self-performance, but the coercion towards embodying one coherent self might lead her to favour presenting one aspect of her life over others. Which then, paradoxically, means that people like Chelsea get puzzled when they hear she is actually a more complex person that her pictures imply. The problem is not the pictures – it’s how we interpret them. Assuming that we can know anyone from their pictures, no matter what they look like, is a fallacy.

But the programme persists, and displays Dominique’s images on a wall for the judgement of “the local lads”. One set of images displays her sexy side, one her interest in sports. The interpretations the male critics make of the images is predictably vapid, in that the ‘sexy’ set is “not as natural” and “off-putting”. The fact that they are asked to choose which “girl” depicted they would want for their girlfriend makes a mockery of the whole ‘experiment’, in that they condemn Dominique’s sexy pictures for looking too focused on finding a man, whilst firmly reinforcing the sense in which selecting and presenting these images should be with a male viewer in mind. Presumably Dominique will find such advice more compelling when it’s offered by a male? The voiceover concludes that “Blokes in real life want a girl who covers up online”. Generalisation, tick; slut-shaming, tick; hypocrisy; tick. And the programme cannot resist one last swipe at Dominique, for not following their advice. We are told she continues to upload sexy photos, and concludes that “who needs one boyfriend when you can have thousands of strangers giving you the thumbs up?” Her refusal to play ball and ‘tone down’ thereby places her in a devalued position, where intimacy is foregone in favour of the empty esteem of strangers. That the show delivers such a blatant moral condemnation almost as an afterthought demonstrates the prevailing sense of disgust which motivated its creation. The point is hammered home by the Naked Nerd, who advises with some statistics produced as if from thin air, that men like girls who keep their clothes on. And to unpack that statement would require yet another thesis.

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 10.35.33The last subject is Caolan, a young man who has become popular on Facebook through producing short videos of himself and his friends acting out dramatic storylines set within a series of hotels and bars. It looks like a young person’s version of Dynasty, so no wonder people watch it. He speaks quite frankly about wanting fame and luxury, is depicted drinking champagne, and reveals that he uses credit cards and loans to fund his tastes. He’s fairly dismissive about his debt, and indeed nothing seems particularly abnormal about his behaviour – young people enjoying life, spending too much money, looking for approval and notoriety. But again this must be turned into a morality tale, and Caolan is given two large bags of pound coins to carry around, a symbolic version of his debt. Caolan expresses dismay at his debt seeming “more real”, his punishment apparently working.

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But again, the voiceover reveals that he went back to his old spending ways. The concluding comment delivered to Caolan, however, is notable for its comparable lack of venom. None of the moral disgust levelled at Dominique, but instead a shake of the head and tsk in the form of “he calls himself a student”. Discipline in relation to online behaviour is therefore highly gendered, and not distributed equally. Economic transgressions are presented as being not as problematic as sexual impropriety.

I feel I should submit this programme instead of my thesis, and just point at it.

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).


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


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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No photos please, we’re eating properly

Susan Sontag makes the link between photography and distance, where by taking a picture, we are removing ourselves from whatever it is we are looking at (1977: 9). I’ve never quite agreed with this, as it makes quite problematic distinctions between different types of experience, with some, therefore, being presented as better or more authentic than others. But it’s a view of photography that persists extensively, and which reinforces the denigrated view of photography generally, where taking pictures isn’t ‘really’ living / enjoying something / being in the moment / having a life etc etc. This sentiment is often found in relation to selfies, as I’ve mentioned before, but this week a news story centred on food photography as an example of ‘not doing it right’.

Two French chefs – Alexandre Gauthier and Gilles Goujon – publicly expressed concern at their customers photographing their food, with Gauthier adding a discouraging symbol to his menu, depicting a camera with a line through it. The problem for him was that:

“They used to come and take pictures of themselves and their family…Now they take pictures of the food… And then the food is cold… I would like people to be living in the present”.

This quote is interesting in that he doesn’t seem to have a problem with photography per se, but what is photographed. Pictures of family = fine; pictures of food = not fine. Additionally, his wish for diners to “live in the present” encourages certain behaviours (photography) to be marked as “not living in the present”. Like Sontag, he sees photography as putting oneself at a distance, and an obstruction – but only, presumably, if the subject is food, as after all in his narrative, photographing one’s family is still fine and unproblematic.

As with a lot of the discourse about what constitutes good and bad photography, and what this then implies about the photographer, these distinctions rest on a number of underlying divisions: between social photographic practice, and practice which is viewed as individualistic; between living well, and not living well; and between doing what others expect of you, or not.

The reader comments that appear in response to two articles on this matter, in The Guardian and The Daily Mail, further demonstrate the way in which certain photographic behaviours are curtailed and labelled as devalued. Many of these sentiments are recycled from wider condemnations of contemporary photographic practice, regarding quality and volume:

Taking photographs is just too easy nowadays. People point and click at any old rubbish. Perhaps if there was a threshold for the numbers of pictures you could post on social media before being executed.[1]

The theme of violent prohibition (interestingly, both instances here referring to a judicial sentence passed on exceptionally abhorrent criminals) recurs frequently:

The trouble is that the silly c*&^ts post the effing things everywhere, and even send them to you in emails. restoring the death penalty is the only answer.[2]

Those who take such photos, besides being “silly c*&^ts”, are also found to be living a life with little value, tying in with Gauthier’s assumption that photography is an obstacle to “living in the present”:

People who take photos of their dinner and then post them on facebook have very shallow lifes (sic)[3]

The following commenter makes an interesting distinction between behaviours he can legitimately do – and which do not reflect badly on him – and those which, although identical, indicate a severely impaired mentality for others:

Iv’e been retired almost thirty years – can indulge myself in this nonsense – but the rest of you – nothing better to but photograph food and banter on about it for days – is there no one left with an IQ of over 39?? (sic)[4]

By extension, this devalued subject is not just stupid or unsociable, but also selfish and mean – displaying how a wealth of assumptions can be built up around a certain behaviour:

This is generation [look at] me; far to busy being hipsters to socialise with, yet alone treat their family to a slap-up meal”(sic)[5]

Somewhat surprisingly, besides all these accusations of not enjoying your food properly, or being unsociable, appears the old encouragement to eat up as a sign of respect for those who cannot:

I think that as there are people starving in the world, that the least those people who are lucky enough to be able to enjoy food at the best restaurants in the world can do, is to be appreciative enough to eat it while it’s hot, and forget about taking photos and tweeting.[6]

This adds guilt to an already potent mix of condemnation and derision, implying that enjoying one’s food in a certain way (by photographing it), becomes morally problematic and disrespectful. The implication that a starving person would be affected one way or the other by whether someone else is photographing their food is simply fatuous, as well as curiously egotistical. Shaming others in this way, for overstepping the mark, is a means for regulating behaviour, in which nebulous imagined ‘others’ are used as tools of coercion.

For me, the act of photographing one’s food (like photography generally) is no one single thing, and instead fulfils a number of varying objectives: identity negotiation, taste display, maintaining relationships and so on. But most importantly, it is not an impediment to enjoyment, and must be reframed as a legitimate component of celebrating and appreciating one’s life. I am not, of course, advocating behaviours which limit the freedoms of others – photographing, like talking on one’s phone in public, is a question of etiquette, and needs to be sympathetic to one’s environment. The problem arises when even behaviour conducted discretely is labelled as problematic and objectionable, as such universal attitudes towards photography perpetuate generalisations about people.

Tolerating and perpetuating these views of photography is therefore not harmless, and is certainly not evidence of a concern for others’ enjoyment of their food or life, but is rather a mechanism for ascertaining who is ‘doing it right’ in comparison to maligned and mocked others.

People Who Take Selfies Are “…”

Much of my interest in the discourse around selfies, and women’s photography more generally, relates to the way in which certain practices are aligned with certain subjects, leading to statements like “if you take selfies / do the duckface / engage in sexting, then you must be …” The naturalization of this connection – between photographic practice and a certain “type” of person – has concrete social effects, in that it enables the maintenance of stereotypes and hierarchies. To exemplify this process,  I explore here some of the ways in which selfie taking is characterised as evidence of a devalued subjectivity.

Through circulation and repetition, this association between the selfie and the ‘typical selfie subject’ is rearticulated, and in so doing attains a degree of legitimacy.

Selfies, are taken, liked and commented on by immature people, craving the attention of like-minded fools. …Rather than blame others, take some personal accountability and steer clear of this behaviour. Un-friend repeat offenders and follow ‘I f***ing love science’ instead. [i]

Such comments relating to the selfie demonstrate the means by which subjects are created discursively. Here, they are presented as ‘immature fools’, whose behaviour is so problematic that their abuse is to be expected. That these sentiments are widespread and automatically understood to relate to certain subjects, in ways that perpetuate stereotypes, prejudices and marginalisation, demonstrates how attitudes towards selfies act as part of a mechanism which legitimises oppression. The comment above opposes selfies against a science website, asserting that impersonal science news is an obviously more valid use of one’s attention than the all-too-personal selfie.

Other comments support this sense of the devalued selfie-taker, whilst vigorously distancing themselves from such behaviour:

I don’t know ANYONE who does this. Must be something that only plebs, Americans and people who work in the media and entertainment business do [ii]

This critics’ declaration of knowing no one who does it, followed by an identification of “plebs, Americans” and media workers is overtly prejudiced and generalising, but is able to do so by virtue of the extent to which the selfie is ‘understood’ to be devalued. In addition, this comment demonstrates the degree to which critics are confident to align certain practices with certain subjects, despite openly admitting to knowing nothing about them.

The subject of the selfie is viewed as inferior by virtue of the type of attention associated with such images, which positions such photographs as being unable to communicate anything beyond the visual:

We’re not just talking the type of notoriety you can get from a viral YouTube video, which tends to require at least a sliver of talent… these kids are amassing huge followings just for being attractive.[iii]

A concern with one’s appearance is associated with femininity, and is positioned as being of lesser value than presenting one’s internal qualities. The opposition of talent and attractiveness, above, tacitly references this gendered demarcation of self-presentation, in which certain qualities are held to be ‘obviously’ superior to others. This further genders the selfie, as being an expression of superficial feminine concerns (attractiveness) rather than more significant masculine capabilities (talent). Besides denoting a lack of ‘worthwhile’ skills, selfies are also held as evidence of much wider social problems:

Social media has only added to [a sense of] degeneracy by fostering a society of status-updaters and tweeters. To find examples of real people with backbone, character and class; look to those who are now in their 50’s and 60’s … The more ‘me’ technology gets produced, the more society degenerates into a populous of lazy, socially awkward, selfish people.[iv]

This irate swipe at technology and contemporary society contrasts “lazy, socially awkward, selfish people” with the “character and class” of the older generation. Social media, and those that use it, are held to be deeply anti-social and generally reprehensible by those that set themselves in opposition, as superior, and who seek easy answers to explain a society they no longer understand. Another commenter extends this theme, by asking:

Did all the greatest industry titans that built America use Instagram? Or how about all the CEOs, presidents, leaders in general. Did they need Instragram to be who they have become?[v]

The use of a particular photographic web site is therefore aligned in opposition to success, both at the level of the person, and at a national level. The implication is that Instagram is a distraction from becoming a leader, and prevents the formation of a new generation of great industry titans that America needs: a fatuous connection that again serves to designate certain persons, with certain habits, as being somehow ‘obviously’ inferior, and not leadership material.

Selfies as Distraction from Life

As well as stunting the social growth of a generation, and inhibiting the development of their potential, the taking of selfies is also framed as being a distraction from life itself:

Do not take so many photos that you forget to live in the moment, or your memories will not be so enjoyable, as they will primarily be of the taking of pictures.”[vi]

The opposition between ‘living one’s life’ and engaging with social media or taking photographs demonstrates the degree to which such technologies are conceived of by those that do not use them. In contrast, the users of social media do so as a part of living their life, not despite it, and the taking of photographs is a compliment to enjoyment, rather than an obstacle. But rather than signifying interest and engagement with oneself and one’s environment, taking photographs is often held to be just plain “weird’ and somehow tragic:

Just go about your day-to-day without documenting it, it’s just self-absorbed and weird, imo. [vii]

Such condemnation again demonstrates the way in which certain photographic forms are held to be symbolic of certain subjectivities, primarily by those that do not like or see the point in them.

People aren’t experiencing life these days; they are looking at it through a lens.[viii]

This opposition between living and looking perpetuates the hierarchical division between real and virtual, an increasingly tenuous separation that nevertheless is perpetuated because it serves to devalue those behaviours and subjects that are associated with the deficient ‘non real’. Nothing can make this bias against certain forms of cultural consumption more overt than the exhortation to ‘get a life’, a taunt levelled at all those who do not share similar interests to their critics:

What a waste of time. Get a life, already. Hint: life is not an app.[ix]

The devaluing of everyday photography makes an important distinction between photography as practiced by professionals or serious-amateurs, and that enjoyed by amateurs and those that would never think to class their practice in relation to other forms of photography. Namely, that taking photographs, when done in a way that is deemed ‘serious’, is an addition to life, a practice which allows subjects to develop their ways of seeing and to creatively express their own perspective and personality. However, when photographs are taken in a manner that is ‘not serious’, it is somehow held to be degrading their engagement with life and with other people, demonstrating nothing more than their self-obsession, rather than their personal point of view.

Perceptions of Narcissism and Insecurity

The dominant criticism of the selfie is that it is emblematic of a problematic subjectivity, typically characterised as insecure and narcissistic:

Selfies are pure narcissism and represent everything that is wrong with kids these days[x]

As I argue throughout this thesis, by regarding certain photographic practices as ‘evidence’ which supports their prejudices, critics use the selfie as a tool for social dominance, enacted through censure and the creation of hierarchies. In a Telegraph article lamenting the ‘loss’ of the family album, a connection is made between an interest in oneself and a disengagement with others[xi]. The family album, it alleges, is disappearing due to young people’s narcissistic obsession with pictures of themselves, despite the more obvious explanation being that web photo hosting makes printed albums a comparatively costly and unnecessary expense. The habits of a certain demographic – such as young people’s use of selfies – can therefore be misleadingly reappropriated to account for a perceived ‘decline’ or ‘loss’. Distinctions made between different, and better, forms of practice, further mark off selfie-taking and sharing as problematic:

Taking selfies = self-expploration. Sharing selfies = narcissism (sic)[xii]

Contrary to the prevalent sense in which selfie-taking is inherently self-obsessed, this comment conceives of narcissism as a relation one has with oneself in public. The public nature of selfies is seen to be a crucial factor in what makes them objectionable, suggesting a degree of anger at certain aspects of the private realm being made public. In high volumes, the personal images of others are held to be frustratingly useless for the spectator, supposedly asking for more than they give. Selfie critics conflate offense with uninteresting, which then legitimises an attack on ‘others’ who seem to be taking up improper amounts of space, in a manner which is viewed as tastelessly self-aggrandising.

When you have an entire generation who think the world revolves around them… of course they’re going to flood the net with selfies.[xiii]

The sense of there being ‘too many’ selfies (discussed previously) here becomes an outright flood, and acquires both a physical and catastrophic dimension. Critics make divisions between themselves and others – in this case, an entire generation – by describing their ‘proper’ use of selfies, which predominantly involves keeping them private. The retaining of such images is held to signify a degree of personal control and self-reliance, in contrast to the “self-obsessed hags” who choose to share their images:

I admit to the occasional selfie, but on my camera roll they stay. Because…in the long term, my soul would erode and I would become a self-obsessed hag, living from one excuse to take a selfie to the next. [xiv]

The act of taking selfies takes on an addictive quality, in which subjects are seen as moving continually one selfie to the next. The enjoyment of sharing selfies is characterised as a ‘high’, in which the “feedback loop of positive reinforcement…could be giving us more reason to act out online, for better or for worse” [xv] (Wortham, New York Times, June 2013). Seeking social approval in this way is presented as characteristic of those who lack self-esteem[xvi], as well as a catalyst for wider problematic and attention-seeking behaviours:

Selfies are fine for profile pictures and advice on new looks, etc. but anything rude, ‘chavvy’ or saying “I look awful” just to get nice or sympathetic comments is just stupid – have some self-respect! [xvii]

Presented as open and cynical demands for praise, selfies are linked with being “rude” and “chavvy”, bringing a moral and class dimension to the discourse. The selfie-taker is therefore not just a devalued individual, but also part of a marginalised social group. In this way, through repetition and association, the connection between photographic practice and devalued subjectivity – whether in the form of narcissism or “chavvy” sexuality – is naturalised and made logical. The notion of the narcissistic selfie-taker acts as a regime of truth, which critics can cite in order to position themselves as superior to the selfie demographic – namely, young women. Narcissism and femininity are repeatedly presented within the logic of the selfie as being inter-linked:

The western female is the most narcissistic demographic on earth. It’s no surprise that they would flood the internet with inconsequential pictures of themselves. It is simply an evolved form of attention whoring. It gives these women access to endless flattery and narcissistic supply. [xviii]

Psychologist Jill Weber makes a demarcation between the “healthy” seeking of validation, and the “problematic” basis of this approval in one’s appearance, which is positioned as separate from “who you are” [xix]. She describes this as particularly significant for young women, who are both “socialized toward seeing themselves as lovable and worthwhile only if others value them” and encouraged to foreground one’s appearance as a marker of their worth.

The selfie therefore becomes emblematic of the often limited resources and skills women have at their disposal, which prompts some critics to express their social advantage and personal strength by not having to rely on such positive feedback concerning their appearance:

I have one friend who often post pictures of herself with her butt pushed out in totally unnatural poses. I just feel sorry for her. She’s beautiful and amazing without having to cry out for that type of attention. [xx]

Women are therefore placed in a double-bind, where the selfie appears as a rational vehicle for attaining approval, through an accepted means for young women, but nevertheless penalises the subjects as attention-seeking and shallow. This equating of visibility with “crying out” for attention ignores the degree to which the approval of others influences one’s social status and relationship with the self. Taken to a ludicrous degree, one critic asks whether there was any point being you in the first place, if there’s no-one about to like one’s image:

If you look hot in the forest and no one takes a photo and puts it on the internet and calls you a #babe, is there any point in looking hot?[xxi]

This extreme vision of dependence on the praise of others acts as a deterrent, and cautions the reader not to seek the approval of others, lest they eventually feel they do not even exist without it. A desire for the approval and esteem of others, although a factor in social interaction and identity performance beyond the taking and sharing of selfies, is here presented as typical of subjects who are insecure:

Were it simply narcissism we could laugh it off …But this faux empowerment is bedded in a neediness to be seen, validated, “liked”.[xxii]

Additionally, the quest for social status, which users are held to be claiming through their sharing of themselves, is framed as part of a trivial popularity contest, in which selfies are:

about social status [and] group pressure – jumping on the safe bandwagon…So basically pathetic crap. 😉 [xxiii]

These critics position themselves as somehow above such concerns, forging their own path, independent of what others may think. But this is a problematic stance, especially when used to chastise women, who are socialised to be very aware of the importance of the perception of others, despite the prevalent encouragement to pretend it does not exist. The comment below asserts that the selfie user has the ability to “just not think any of these things”, displaying a strikingly callous lack of empathy or understanding of identity, concealed beneath a veneer of concern and helpful advice. The selfie user, like any recipient of unsolicited advice, is therefore automatically positioned beneath the one who advises, and who ‘knows better’.

Don’t you realize that our bodies are just a vessel and not who we truly are? And that what someone thinks or doesn’t think of you makes absolutley no difference? (sic)[xxiv]

But despite what these comments might assert, identity is nevertheless a social construct, and is fostered in relation to others. The criticism that selfie takers should just have confidence and self-knowledge, without interacting with or being influenced by others, is deeply obtuse, as well as hypocritical. These comments are, after all, just as much a vehicle for a shared identity as selfies, embodying a similar wish for recognition and social connectedness (Van House, 2011: 426). A counter-critique expands on this notion of hypocrisy, labelling the detractors of the selfie as the true narcissists:

The delusion that “kids these days” are more narcissistic is narcissistic. [xxv]

Selfie criticism therefore becomes reframed as a way of deflecting one’s insecurities and anger onto the cultural habits of younger people:

“Selfies” aren’t half as narcassisitc as the sorts of people who who feel the need to constantly, loudly declare themselves above selfies… especially if they overanalyse it to the point of concluding it’s the downfall of civilisation itself (sic)[xxvi]

The following comment details a sublimation of rage and dissatisfaction with a loss of power and personal status, onto younger users of social media:

There is an outlying element that is furious about people’s usage of social media. …[These people] who may have once had more control over the social lives of young people are seeing that control slip away as the youth, family members, friends can now befriend other like-minded people using social media connections. Nobody likes the loss of power. [xxvii]

These assessments highlight the arbitrariness of the focus of the critics’ target (photographs, and social media) as well as the underlying hierarchies which they express, in terms of youth vs age, as well as women vs men. Potentially, this rage could be an expression of insecurity and the fear of obsolescence in in a world that is changing so rapidly, with technology they no longer understand, that threatens to undermine their authority and experience with automation and sheer volume – none of which, incidentally, is the fault of those that they blame.

Perceptions of Loneliness

Besides being a marker of self-obsession, the selfie is also emblematic of a sense of loneliness and social isolation:

‘Selfies’ are what I name the ‘loner photo’, as it’s pretty sad that one cannot get a friend to take a photo for you…[xxviii]

Selfie-taking can be held to entail a distance from oneself as well as one’s peers. Esquire writer Stephen Marche quotes Susan Sontag in his article Sorry, Your Selfie Isn’t Art, stating that such images are a “disengagement from the self as much as … a promotion of the self.” [xxix] The sense of distance between oneself and one’s image – important for a sense of critical self-reflection, and useful for the development and negotiation of identity – is reconceived as problematic, as if seeing oneself as an image entails losing one’s ability to live in and enjoy one’s own body.

Besides implying a lack of friends, the selfie is also held to be obstructive to obtaining a sense of genuine friendship – summarised in Angela Mollard’s article Real Friends Don’t Take Selfies. This heavily proscriptive article describes a perfect friendship of the author’s, which is “built on words, not images; on how things feel, not how they look”[xxx]. This hierarchy of how one achieves and maintains a friendship displays an arbitrary disdain for images in favour of the spoken word. The image here is held to be nothing more than a vapid vehicle for personal self-aggrandisement, whereas a message “carefully crafted and lovingly sent, is about them” [xxxi]. This distinction is nonsensical, in that a message can be as self-obsessed as any photograph, but it perpetuates a sense in which some people’s photographic habits – and by association, their lives, their friendships, their selves – are somehow just better than others.

Although Mollard and Marche are adamant that the selfie connotes an isolated and self-interested subject, the commonly-expressed enjoyment for viewing selfies taken by others overturns their theory. Here, instead of alienating, the selfie becomes a tool for knowing others, in which sharing and viewing are reciprocal processes and signify an interest in, and engagement with, a wider social world:

I love selfies! I love seeing what other people look like or are wearing, and heaven knows I post plenty of them myself. [xxxii]

This enjoyment of seeing others, no matter how banal or how numerous, suggests the true value of selfies lies in simply that – seeing and being seen, and fostering an interest in others. It is those who disdain selfies, and who do not take an interest in the faces and lives and others, who are perhaps the most solipsistic in this respect. Furthermore, since selfies are usually seen either by searching for them (using a hashtag such as #me) or by having friends who take selfies, this suggests the ‘problem’ is perhaps in fact the critic’s – where they should either stop searching for selfies, or admit that they just don’t like their friends very much.

Defining the Selfie

I went to a talk this week by Dr Emma Rees, author of The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History.

She references many texts, from television, literature, film and advertising, but the source that struck me most was the dictionary.

We assume dictionaries to have at least some semblance of objectivity (which is itself another discussion), but her quotes from dictionaries displayed an alarmingly persistent bias and desire to present certain ideas and things as marginal, and devalued. One quote, from an 18th century dictionary, defined the word ‘c*nt’ as ‘a nasty word for a nasty thing’. This immediately reminded me of something I had noticed a few months back, regarding the inclusion of the word ‘selfie’ into the Oxford Dictionaries Online. Although it was certainly interesting that the word was  included, it was the example of the word’s usage which was most revealing (in italics):

Selfie (noun): A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.

occasional selfies are acceptable, but posting a new picture of yourself every day isn’t necessary[i]

When even the dictionary definition of ‘selfie’ is prescriptive, we can see how regulation has become naturalised as part of public discourse. Much like the 18th-Century dictionary and its assessment of a ‘nasty thing’, the selfie definition demonstrates a much wider set of assumptions and prejudices, in which problematisation is given a sense of legitimacy.


#BeautyIs Selfie-Esteem?

Dove’s new ad campaign uses the hashtag #BeautyIs, and features a video of young women and their mothers taking selfies of themselves, alongside discussion about how they feel about their appearance.

Rather than discuss many of the interesting features of this video, such as the glaring incompatibility between a project promoting self-confidence, and its use as an advert to hock beauty products, I am instead going to consider the choice to feature the selfie, and its construction as a tool for generating self-esteem. The comments I am including here are from my research into the selfies discourse, as evident through user-generated comments on social media.

After some discussion of anxieties and insecurities, and the need to fit in with a certain mold of beauty standards, the selfie is introduced as a means for the young women and their mothers (both of which are identified as having troubled relationships with their looks, suggesting an endemic, long-term problem rather than something that can be so easily fixed as is presented here), to look again at themselves.

Focus on ‘Beauty’

The selfie is here described as being a means for redefining beauty. It is interesting that the conversation never moves away from beauty, to consider what else the photograph can capture, or construct. The young women’s achievements or personalities is not discussed, as an antidote to the corrosive effect of the beauty tyranny. the advert’s construction of these women is one-dimensional, in that only once do we see a glimpse of an interest beyond their looks, when a series of rosettes features on the wall behind a young woman looking at her phone.

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Instead of looking beyond beauty (or even besides beauty as the persistent binary of ‘looks’ vs ‘brains’ is particularly damaging) these young women must be encouraged to join the fold and see themselves as meeting the criteria for social validity. But after all, this is an advert, and it is selling a democratic ideal of universal beauty, so it is not that surprising.

The photographer in the advert suggests that her pupils incorporate things into the image that they might not necessarily like about themselves, prompting a discussion of the worries these young women have about their face shape, colouring and dental braces. There follows a sequence of mother-daughter selfies, with the younger women showing their mothers how to use their camera, and making statements about their mother’s beauty. The selfie here, therefore, is a marker of agency and knowledge, where younger people can be shown to guide their parents through an affective issue.

At a photography exhibition, large prints of selfies serve as a point of interaction, where viewers attach comments and bestow praise. This use of selfies to elicit positive group feedback is significant, and testifies to the importance of social approval in the development of individual identity.

Screen Shot 2014-01-26 at 16.16.54

Reflection on oneself, particularly via a medium which enables control and choice, is shown to be a means for generating confidence. One young woman states that: “I was looking through my selfies last night and I realised that I am beautiful. I’m pretty cute.” The photograph, here, prompts a particular kind of positive self-awareness.

Objective Self Awareness

Objective Self Awareness is a useful theory for exploring the potential for photographic sharing and viewing to be a subjectivity building practice (Duval and Wicklund, 1972). Viewing oneself, whether in the mirror or as depicted in a photograph, adds to a subject’s capacity to reflect on the self as “the object of its own conscious attention”, and in so doing develop reflexivity (Ickes, Wicklund and Ferries, 1973: 202). This theory suggests that stimuli which cause the subject to become self-aware can prompt “a temporarily impaired self-esteem” by highlighting any “real-ideal discrepancies” (Ickes, Wicklund and Ferries, 1973: 203).

Research by Gonzales and Hancock (2011), however, indicates that selfies and social media more widely have forced a rethinking of this theory, as rather than prompting a lowering of self-esteem, viewing one’s online image and profile was found to be of benefit to the subject. The camera, unlike the frank and brutal reflection in the mirror, is within the subject’s control, allowing angle, pose and crop to be altered at will. Subjects frequently reference this sense of power over constructing their positive self-presentations, viewing selfies as:

an empowering tool that grants us a modicum of control (or at least the illusion of it) over our own ephemeral identities.[i]

For young people actively developing and experimenting with their identity, the photograph is a vital tool in gaining a sense of acceptance and even pride in their emergent identities:

i get into a weird headspace where i don’t even want to look at myself in mirrors because i hate how i look. taking selfies helps me work against those feelings. [ii]

By enabling the user to control their self-presentation, and to overcome the otherwise negative aspects of reflexivity, selfies demonstrate the potential for photographs to be used as “a unique source of self-awareness stimuli”, where the degree of control positively affects the subject’s satisfaction with the self (Gonzales and Hancock, 2011: 82). This is particularly important for subjects who otherwise might have a particularly problematic relationship with their appearance:

A large part of my own journey in learning to accept myself and what I look like (as a fat, “unconventionally attractive” woman) came with sharing photos of myself… It’s an experiment in interaction and self-reflection. [iii]

As the commenter above suggests, this self-knowledge does not occur in isolation, as social approval and acceptance are vital components in the development of self-esteem. Sharing one’s images, and the feedback one receives, is therefore both a deeply social and personal experience. Therefore, the use of photographs as part of “a series of performances strategically chosen by an individual” is not evidence of insincerity, but a logical wish for control over the impressions such images convey to others, and our selves (Papacharissi, 2011: 254). As this commenter suggests:

we’re all documented online so relentlessly … why wouldn’t you want to control the narrative of your own image?[iv]

Agency and Confidence

The connection between photography and agency is evident in the joyous uptake of selfies, and in the contrast they make with photographs taken against the subjects’ will:

I grew up having my picture taken all the time without my consent, and/or being cajoled into posing for pictures I didn’t want taken. Selfies feel safe to me in a way that most photographs don’t.[v]

As a guarantee of consent, where the subject has not had their boundaries ignored or transgressed, and as a vehicle for the expression of personal agency, the selfie is the potentially the ultimate expression of feminist goals possible in photography.  A key component of this feminist potential relates to the attainment confidence:

selfies = vanity = confidence = fuck you, patriarchy? [vi]

As a reaction to the negative images of women which populate the public sphere, and as a reframing of one’s own image in contrast to such messages and demands, the selfie acts as a statement of, and conduit for, personal confidence:

I see every proud selfie as an accomplishment and a step in the right direction in the fight for body positivity. [vii]

The positioning of selfies as part of a quest for self-worth directly challenges the understanding that marks low self-esteem as attractive:

What makes us beautiful? When we don’t know we’re beautiful … in a world where women spend decades just learning to like ourselves, I consider succeeding an accomplishment, not an embarrassment. [viii]

‘Not knowing we’re beautiful’ implies a reduction in self-knowledge and agency, where the subject remains ignorant and unable to capitalise on their personal attributes. Emily McCombs, above, angrily challenges this celebration of female ignorance and disempowerment, rejecting the idea that women “liking themselves” be considered anything less than “an accomplishment”. She continues by questioning why women’s quest for self-esteem is so routinely maligned, with cultural norms of the ideal, self-reliant subject acting to penalise those who display vulnerability, or an interest in and care for the self:

I sort of don’t get why it’s worthy of ridicule. “You have low self-esteem and need people to remind you not to hate yourself! HAHAHAHA WHAT A JERK!” [ix]

In contrast to the sense that only certain themes and subjects are ‘worth photographing’, selfies reappropriate the legitimacy that photography conveys. Rather than passively waiting for legitimation, the selfie is an active declaration of worth, taking for itself the power to decide what is beautiful, and directly engaging with cultural notions of value.

The Politics of Visibility

Aside from enabling subjects to develop a sense of agency and self-confidence, selfies are also a means for considering the politics surrounding acts of looking and making oneself visible. Some subjects simply report that without their selfie-taking, they would not be photographed:

I take my selfies because I am that guy who, unless he takes the picture or suggests it, doesn’t get his picture taken…[x]

The photograph serves as evidence of “that which has been” (Barthes, 1981), making the act of taking images a defense against being absent from this important visual record:

Sometimes I take selfies just so I can remember I existed. I mean, there is nobody else who is taking photographs of me so when I look back on these years, the only photos that will exist will be my stupid selfies. [xi]

On a wider level, selfies have the important effect of promoting a broader representation of society, consisting of “images of real people – with beautiful diversity.”[xii] This process of enabling people to become visible within the public sphere has political implications, in that it allows voices and faces that were previously hidden, and marked as ‘other’, to be brought forward. With these implications, the selfie becomes anything but trivial:

When you belong to a group that’s oppressed or derided, the selfie becomes something else entirely. [xiii]

In normalising diversity, and, as Rutledge suggests, making it ‘beautiful’, selfies challenge the narrow prescriptions on women’s bodies and identities:

I think it’s valuable and important to post photos and be visible online as a fat lady like me. Selfies…help to normalise fat bodies… [xiv]

Negative Constructions of the Selfie

Returning to the Dove advert, the video concludes with one mother stating that her daughters have taught her that social media is “widening the definition of what beauty is”. But despite the positivity, and the encouragement to use selfies in order to see oneself as valued and attractive, the wider discourse concerning selfies discredits this practice of self-validation.

The value of such presentations, however, is often undermined by two key criticisms. Firstly, even within an context that seems designed to promote a shifting, postmodernist conception of the self, there exists a strong rhetorical drive towards the modernist self – stable, reliable, and ‘authentic’. The selfie is presented as embodying a wish to be deceptive, through enabling self-conscious posing and styling, implying that the only way to be ‘really you’ is to be, or at least give the appearance of being, unaware of doing so. Other images appear to imply deception purely based on the clash of incompatible concepts, such as ‘looking good’ and ‘exercising’:

OH PLEASE, no one looks good when they’re actually exercising. Give it a rest. [xv]

Secondly, a concern with one’s appearance, even within an environment where encounters are primarily visual, is still associated with narcissism. The reliance on using one’s appearance to communicate certain values, despite being a necessary and obligatory factor in defining one’s position and identity in society, is held to be typical of the poverty of the social media environment:

Social media has become image/visual based much more than text based. It’s also very much a brag-a-thon. The most accessible thing to brag about in a visual medium is your own appearance… You can’t [as] easily demonstrate how intelligent you are, say, or how funny, or how kind, in a photograph. [xvi]

The use of images is interpreted as subjects communicating in a devalued and crass manner (constituting a “brag-a-thon”), about limited aspects of their person (i.e. appearance) which are of less importance than others (intelligence etc.). Selfies, therefore, are both beneficial and problematic for their subjects – performing important functions in everyday identity work, and useful for generating confidence and a healthy relationship with their body, but also marking them with negative connotations of insecurity and narcissism.

Running counter to the potential for personal and political advancement as exemplified by the selfie, exists a demand that women somehow ignore the significance of their appearance, and instead ‘rise above it’:

Wow, I feel really sorry for you. Imagine all you could get done if you didn’t spend so much of your thoughts and mental energy on how you look. … You can choose to just not think any of these things.[xvii]

Here, the selfie is maligned as reaffirming negative expectations of women, and perpetuating unhealthy expectations. Meghan Murphy suggests that instead of showing approval for women’s sexy selfies, men should seek to support self-presentations which “are witty, interesting, smart, stupid, or that include puppy dogs and donuts”. By encouraging the men to stop ‘liking’ sexy selfies, Murphy suggests that women will begin to shift their self presentations towards those that focus on themselves as rounded, complex people – but people, one supposes, that do not express their sexuality. No matter how well-intentioned this kind of advice, it nevertheless perpetuates the core assumption that certain behaviours are universally ‘bad’, rather than questioning the logic behind such value judgements.

Against this proscriptive advice, which urges young women to present their achievements and personalities instead of their appearances, numerous commenters express a wish to have both:

I still like being told that I’m smart and witty, but sometimes I feel especially cute and I want people to tell me I’m pretty[xviii]

This presents an interest in one’s appearance as being part of a balanced whole, rather than conceptualising it as self-defeating behaviour. In the previous example, this would mean encouraging the male viewer to click ‘like’ on the sexy selfie and the images with dogs and donuts. Rather than prescribe an either/or division of human subjectivity, this approach would encompass a much wider idea of what subjects could, rather than should, be. It also acknowledges the enduring legacy of women’s relationship with their appearance, and the very real effects that this has on their life. The alternative, to just ignore the importance of one’s looks and how they affect others’ perception, creates further problems:

Much as you may raise your children with an ideal, you mustn’t forget the fact that you’re also preparing them for a society which has certain systems…telling girls they’re only good for their looks is shit, but the opposite/never telling them they’re pretty is JUST AS SHIT. [xix]

The comment below demonstrates the degree to which selfie taking can be used to shore up a sense of self that is somehow missing. To dismiss this person’s use of selfies as narcissism or insecurity they should shake off, is to dismiss the complexities of each others’ lives, and to expect that everyone has the same life experience. Here, the selfie fills a lacuna, giving the subject the perspective on herself which her upbringing failed to do:

I was brought up never being praised for either my looks or my achievements… The result has been to make me feel angry, alienated, and not worth very much…I take tens of selfies a day… and spend a lot of time mentally comparing my looks to other women’s. [xx]

The selfie reflects the character of much of the identity work which is carried out both on and off social media, in that it is symbolic of the inter-personal nature of identity, in which a performance of self (the image) requires an audience (such as Instagram). Ultimately, in terms of mediating identity, the selfie-taker is negotiating between the importance of social acceptance, and the resistance of social norms – creating both push and pull factors towards and away from selfie taking. In this way, the selfie is not a simple case of either / or, but demonstrates the complexities of self-expression within a wider social context. The following comment support the selfie-takers right to share, supporting the wider cause for subjects to represent themselves within the public sphere:

It is no one’s place to reply to the selfie-poster, “don’t you think you’re objectifying yourself by sharing this photo?” …It is the poster’s right to put up any content of themselves. [xxi]

It is revealing that the search for self-awareness is subject to repeated criticism and accusations of narcissism. Politically, the reframing of a process which can empower the individual, as evidence of vapidity and weakness, suggests a wish to prevent subjects obtaining knowledge and power.

In using selfies for their advert, the advertisers for Dove have tapped into some of the issues I have discussed here, such as their potential for generating confidence and self-esteem. It is unlikely, however, that their intention relates to the wider political implications of representation and the restrictions around visibility. Nevertheless, this video is an interesting contribution to the discourse of selfies, and demonstrates that as a practice, it is much more complex and important than its critics might maintain.

The Camera as Desirable Prop

My study looks at how photography fits within discourses about society. As I’ve talked about before, photography itself is a site of contestation, where certain people are accorded the ‘right’ to take photographs more readily than others. So because of this, I find it interesting to note where cameras appear within advertising, as they would seem to suggest having a particular subject position.

CameraTo give a subject a camera is to convey certain authorities on them, to look and record, and define reality on their own terms. The woman in the advert above uses her camera to suggest an ability to look back at us.

Camera4The shop display to the right uses the camera as a fashion accessory, desirable for its connotations of creativity and adventure, but also perhaps (call me a cynic) because it fits so well with the colours of the ensemble. But aside from questions of colours, the camera here conveys cool by suggesting the position of flâneur, perpetually about to do something or go somewhere interesting, and who can record and interpret life on their own terms. The camera is therefore a potent signifier of ability – to do, to see, to know, to show.

But it is also emblematic of a desire which reaches beyond the acquisition of personal agency – placed within the fantasy of the advert, photography reiterates the process of looking, and signals the ability to make real that which is observed. This ability to ‘make real’ is the same as that which is promised by the purchase, where the picture and the transaction imply having attained something – whether a product, or a state of being, or both.

The shop display below uses an overtly vintage-esque camera, combined with maps and trunks, to connote a fantasy golden age of travel and leisure, back when both high-end camera equipment and the transatlantic flight were only available to the privileged few. The oversized camera here is therefore inviting us into this special world, a world which is worthy of being photographed (purposely, with difficulty, in contrast to the devalued ubiquity and ease of the camera phone), and that is brought into being by our looking along with the camera and desiring what it sees, and achieved by the purchase of a Fred Perry cardigan.

Camera2The camera, therefore, is anything but incidental when appearing in advertising. In conveying an authoritative look, a look with agency, that can command the possession of that which it sees, the camera is a powerful marker of a desirable subjectivity. And by highlighting attention, or attention-worthiness – whether looking at cardigans or pointed out at you, the customer – the look of the camera indicates (and designates) importance.