underwater selfie

Like wearing trucker hats and reading Snooki’s books, seflies have become a semi-ironic trend. They’re the most self-conscious of photos, made possible and ubiquitous by the reversible smartphone camera. Plenty of selfie-snapping individuals take pictures of themselves quite seriously, without any claims of “irony”, but even if you’re the kind of person who makes the duck face to make fun of people who make the duck face, no one takes a selfie unless they want to say something about themselves. It is yet another tool for self-selection and it is, perhaps, the most obviously intentional and transparent. As Casey N. Cep of Pacific Standard magazine says,

Controlling one’s image has gone from unspoken desire to unapologetic profession, with everyone from your best friend to your favorite celebrity laboring to control every word, every pixel of himself or herself that enters the world. Self-portraiture is one aspect of a larger project to manage our reputations.

But, as we’ve heard regarding Facebook and other social media sites, personal image manipulation isn’t as much about what other people see as how we want to see ourselves. Cue Cep, again.

We cherish the possibility that someone, anyone, might see us. If photographs possess reality in their pixels, then selfies allow us to possess ourselves: to stage identities and personas. lohan selfieThere is the sense that getting the self-portrait just right will right our own identity: if I appear happy, then I must be happy; if I appear intellectual, then I must be an intellectual; if I appear beautiful, then I must be beautiful. Staging the right image becomes the mechanism for achieving that desired identity. The right self-portrait directs others to see us the way we desire to be seen.This has always been the power of self-portraiture. Rarely a documentary genre, self-portraits have always allowed us to craft an argument about who we are, convincing not only others, but also ourselves. While so often selfies are denounced as exercises in narcissism, I’ve always experienced them as experiments in solipsism. A selfie suggests that no one else in the world sees you as you truly are, that no one can be trusted with the camera but you.

Cep is optimistic about the future of selfies, however. Like autobiographies and memoirs, Cep hopes that selfies will come to adopt the courage that it takes to honestly depict yourself. She gives the snapshot examples of someone spooning peanut butter out of the jar or standing in line at an unemployment office. Perhaps images like these are the future of the selfie genre. However, over at Patheos, Martyn Jones has a different idea.

frida-kahlo-daft-punkMy hunch is that the sort of honesty [Cep] describes may prove to be the genre’s white whale. Going to Cep’s examples, I can’t imagine an Instagrammed self-portrait of a person spooning peanut butter into his mouth that lacks a humorous sense of self-deprecation about it. I also can’t help but feel the staged dignity and resolve of the person in the unemployment office, whose discreet selfie narrativizes and strengthens herself in ways that downplay the more impersonal and embarrassing realities of her situation. There’s nothing wrong with either of these scenarios; the second one is actually empowering in an important way for its subject. However, in both cases, the subjects have cut away or subverted the aspects of their situations that they find unflattering, and asserted control over their identities. This suggests to me that courage and honesty might be even more difficult to come by in a selfie than Cep imagines.

Jones, a Christian, also shares some cool insight into Christian selfies and Instagrams.

A popular template I’ve noticed is as follows: a cup of coffee on a table in a public space, the saucer set next to some devotional literature that lies open with a couple of sentences underlined. “Getting in some time with Jesus at my favorite coffee-shop,” the caption might read. The actual person in this selfie looms in the background, fuzzily.

What does this photo convey to the viewer about the subject? That the subject is devout—or rather, that the subject wishes to be seen as devout, by himself and his audience. His selfie essentializes his devotion, making it a fact about him—but a person’s devotion is hardly a fact. It’s a constant struggle. The faithful one in the relationship between God and ourselves will always be God, who loves us first, and in spite of our constant resistance to his love.

bathroom selfieI don’t mean to say that the person taking his devotional-time selfie means to be dissembling about his spiritual stature. It’s more a case of his intention getting hijacked by the medium. I’m sure plenty of people have taken selfies in good faith, as it were, and tried to use their self-shots to capture a true dimension of their lives as Christians. But perhaps this is one genre that will never allow its content to come out the way we want. When a devotional pic is posted to Instagram for others to see and comment upon, it’s hard to avoid understanding it as essentially a promotional for the person’s piety, whatever the intention.

Jones suggests a solution—a lens through which we can interpret the selfies of others without feeling bad about ourselves. We should look at a selfie as a picture of that person’s aspirations; this selfie shows us who they wish they could be, who they want to be. The whole selfie genre can, then, be seen as one of hope and desire, like tossing Polaroids into a wishing well.

The problem with this suggestion is that it probably won’t work. We all know, at least on some level, that what we’re seeing in someone else’s selfie is not a completely accurate depiction of who that person is. We know that they chose that moment, that angle, and that outfit because it shows them at their best—or their goofiest, fittest, most pensive, etc. Despite all of the #nofilter’s, we all self-filter all the time—selfies have just made it easier. The key to a healthier interpretation of these photos, perhaps, lies not in how we interpret the efforts of others but in how we value ourselves. I’m reminded of one of Dave’s sermons from a while back called “Asking the Question.” Because our need for affirmation and love is endless, we all seek answers to the questions, “Do you love me? Am I good enough?” in every interaction. When we browse Instagram accounts for longer than we had ever intended or stare at friends’ bright selfies on our isolating screens, the question might look more like, “What is my value, compared to you? Am I as good as you?” We will continue asking these questions of every interaction and every photo until we understand that the answer to all of these questions has always been, before we even asked the question, a resounding yes. And it’s a good thing to because I know from personal experience that the peace sign/duck face combo can really do a number on your self-esteem.

[audio https://mbird.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Asking-the-Question.mp3|titles=Asking the Question|]