In Defense of the Selfie (with a Little Help from Rodchenko)

by - Sunday, March 30, 2014

Back around Thanksgiving, my cousin Rachon talked me into finally signing up for instagram, after years of staunch app-resistance. I have to admit I find the whole thing weirdly addictive, though I am still not sure what photos people would actually want to see. Especially ones that I also wouldn't mind just having with my crappy cell phone camera. Now that I am getting the hang of it, I do notice that "selfie" thing people keep talking about is definitely happening. A lot.I don't follow all that many people, but at least once a day, somebody has put up a picture of themselves, looking fresh and gorgeous and otherwise wonderful. Rachon is just about the queen of this, and her mastery of the selfie (I do hate the word, but alas, I hate lots of words, so let's move on) is something to behold in its own right.

You don't have to look far to see a some sort of reference to or critique of the selfie. It's reflective of our generation's narcissism. We don't take the time to be present and appreciate what's around us (leading to horrible incidents like the one this week where someone destroyed a statue trying to take a picture with it). It all stems from the digital jealousy that we all feel for eachother, because we all think everyone else is having cooler, more attractive times than we are (because we somehow forget that we also do not post pictures of our bed head or times laying around watching movies?). We are all super self-centered.

This whole line of argument is bullshit to me (other than people who knock over statues- that is clearly foolish). Also, incredibly boring. We get it, technology is evil, blah blah blah. But I feel absolutely certain that there is actually something good going on here. I don't think anyone should be ashamed of their selfie-mastery, and here's why.

1. It is a good thing to treat your life (and the ways you grow) as important. I think it was that icon Oprah that said if you treat your life as valuable, than your life will be. It's that simple and that complicated all at once. I am an avid believer of this philosophy (though I am not as committed to Oprah)- I have a camera with me at all times, not because I am particularly talented as a photographer, but as a constant reminder (and active habit) that where I am and what I am doing matters.

The difference between this and the selfies is that in taking selfies, in different times, places, and even outfits, you as the author/sitter makes the argument that you matter. And not a simplistic version of yourself, but a constantly shifting and nuanced portrait that you curate yourself. The proliferation of selfies taps into an old argument about the value of photography (over painting) that no one can be summed up effectively by one image or moment, but instead are a summation of these moments.

In 1928, Rodchenko made an argument in "Against the Synthetic Portrait" that a single photograph can't effectively synthesize the aesthetic (and we can assume the general personhood) of a sitter. He said "Don't try to capture a man in one synthetic portrait, but rather in lots of snapshots taken at different times and in different circumstances!" (oh yes, he used an exclamation mark. Or at least the translations usually have an exclamation mark) Rodchenko is known for innovating photography by shooting from new angles. He rarely used the straight on, eye-level photographs we take instinctively to mimic our own visual experiences. Instead, he shot straight up ladders or downward, using angles that required highly simplistic or strangely complex perspectives, abstracting and defamiliarizing the wold in his photographs.

Much like some of these angles, now familiarized into types we all recognize, Rodchenko's suggestion of the power in numbers, to value multiple easy snapshots about the overwrought singular portrait may seem obvious. Thanks to the now-ubiquitous technologies barely in their infancy then (film first of all), it makes sense to us that we can better capture something with multiple images than one.Maybe this trend is just taking the idea to the ultimate end. If you take a picture of yourself everyday, in different places, situations, and angles, no one of these pictures might sum you up (this is an idea pushed by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida, if you want to theoretically uphold your opposition to everything I am saying), but the whole lot of them will.

Now, photography theorists would probably slit their wrists if they thought Rodchenko was advocating for people to take pictures of themselves, their cleavage, their muscles, etc. Of course, I am not exactly looking out for art historians right now, so let's go with it, shall we? Rodchenko argues that the idea of the synthetic portrait is like looking at someone from the same keyhole over and over again. He says instead different angles and moments can capture them in radical and profound ways.

 In this way, instagram and facebook allow us to access not just a fragmented, knowingly public version of ourselves, but a deeper vision of how we've changed and how we want others to see us has changed. It charts us as a subject, author, and audience over time. Just go click through someone's profile pictures, and you will know them better. 

2. Seeing yourself as beautiful (and seeing other people treat themselves that way) is holy cow valuable. It is a powerful act to say "hey, I feel beautiful/ happy/ just fucking proud about who I am at this moment."  Is it narcissistic? Maybe, but so what? We spend so much time, especially as women, bemoaning how women are portrayed. We talk about the problems of low self-esteem or how we internalize unfair expectations. So to me, having people put out to the universe that they feel like they look good today could not be a more radical act. I don't really have the guts to do that.

We hear people bemoan the lack of visibility "everyday" or "real" or "non-modely" women, but we actually see them all the time through social media. Plus, we love them. Plus, they are fucking beautiful, and there is no reason why they shouldn't present themselves in the way they feel best. I hate the suggestion that real women don't have the right to look good in whatever that means for them. This is true for guys too, but as a lady, I feel it for the ladies more. I like that Rachon takes pictures that basically say "damn, i am cute" (and the picture is right!). We would probably all be better off if we weren't ashamed to be excited about how we see ourselves, whether it be silly, happy, or beautiful. Does that mean we have to be like this everyday? No, crazypants! What kind of sad clown life would that be?

3. Because the whole thing goes to show Obama was wrong and everyone should grow up to be an art historian. Being able to see critically has never been more important, because we are constantly looking at and making our own images.You know where you can find tons and tons of self-portraits through time? Art, peeps. The self-portrait is about as old as the mark itself. Right now, some people are even saying that the Venus of Willendorf is a self-portrait made by a woman (God I love that idea). Despite just how way back the selfie goes, the tremendous mass of pictures being produced today make constant arguments about what we find important, what we think is attractive, what our style is, and how we want others to see us. These things have an ethic, and you should think about yours. How we see and what we make directly contribute to who we are as citizens in the world, and you can't take that lightly, even when you are just using your shitty camera phone.

So, everyone go take a selfie tomorrow, because screw every other thing written about selfies ever. Narcissism is the jab thrown at anyone who is brave enough to openly say they find their own lives interesting. Just keep in mind that even if you don't think you are saying something with that picture you posted, you are. Every single image we produce has an argument. In fact, it has the one we may have intended, and then others on top of oodles more.

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