In praise of selfies

Real photographers (or those who think they’re real photographers…) always seem to mock selfies – self-portraits, usually made with a mobile telephone.  In particular, they mock people using selfie sticks – ugh, how crass! 😉

Man inflicting crassness on a woman at the Ataturk Mausoleum, Ankara, 2014

Man inflicting crassness on a woman at the Ataturk Mausoleum, Ankara, 2014

Actually, selfie sticks are crass. I can find nothing redeeming to say about selfie sticks.  They should be banned from polite society.  There is only so much crassness the world can take, and selfie sticks go too far.

However, I think selfies are inappropriately mocked.  Having previously had a rather snooty attitude to them, I’ve come to rather like them.  I’ve even started taking a few.

It seems to me that selfies undo certain power dynamics that are problematic in portrait photography, especially photographs of women by men.  In 1975 Laura Mulvey, a feminist film theorist, published a now-famous essay called ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (Screen 16.3 Autumn 1975, pp6-18 – it’s a closed access journal, so if you don’t have institutional access, you could try here or here or here…).  Not without its problems, and bearing in mind Mulvey is writing in an era of second wave feminism (Wikipedia article here), Mulvey’s essay is nonetheless really helpful in understanding images of people.

Mulvey argues that many films portray storylines from a male perspective: we identify with the main (usually male) protagonist, and want to see how he deals with the situation he is in.  In such heteronormative films, women are simply passive extras subject to the male gaze, manifested in camera framings that emphasise their body rather than their character. They are ‘to-be-looked-at’ (of that time: watch the opening of this awful 1975 interview, in which Michael Parkinson discusses Helen Mirren’s ‘equipment’). Mulvey says (section III.A):

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.

She discusses voyeurism and fetishistic scopophilia (which I don’t want to get into here in any detail), but in this regard she says (III.C.1):

… in psychoanalytic terms, the female figure poses a deeper problem. She also connotes something that the look continually circles around but disavows: her lack of a penis, implying a threat of castration and hence unpleasure. Ultimately, the meaning of woman is sexual difference, the absence of the penis as visually ascertainable, the material evidence on which is based the castration complex essential for the organisation of entrance to the symbolic order and the law of the father. Thus the woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified.

How does Mulvey propose to challenge this?

The image of woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of man takes the argument a step further into the structure of representation, adding a further layer demanded by the ideology of the patriarchal order as it is worked out in its favorite cinematic form – illusionistic narrative film… Going far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself. Playing on the tension between film as controlling the dimension of time (editing, narrative) and film as controlling the dimension of space (changes in distance, editing), cinematic codes create a gaze, a world, and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire. It is these cinematic codes and their relationship to formative external structures that must be broken down before mainstream film and the pleasure it provides can be challenged.

Four 500px screenshots, 27.4.2015

Four 500px screenshots, 27.4.2015

I think much of her analysis works for photography too.

Whilst drafting this text I looked at a popular photography website, www.500px.com, and the ‘People’ category in the ‘Popular’ images (these are currently being frequently viewed by users).  I took four screenshots of the first page of images, reproduced here.  There are 38 images, broadly classifiable by subject:

  • 1 man
  • 1 boy
  • 2 girls
  • 35 women (one photo has two women in it).

So the only people really worth photographing are… women?  And judging by this random sample, ideally a number of them will be wearing surprisingly little. Unsurprisingly, most of the photographers here appear to be… men.  There are some technically skilled photographs here, but only rarely is there a sense of narrative in the image, of communicating something more than ‘look at this pretty woman’ – this is about ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’.  The male gaze is alive and kicking on 500px (and on Flickr and elsewhere).

Of course, this is not just the case on photo-sharing sites: I bought this month’s Marie Claire magazine (it could have been Vogue or Cosmopolitan etc. – but MC was on offer!) and wading through the endless advertisements to get to feature articles, of the 9 or 10 named photographers in the magazine, only 1 appears to be a woman.

Bemused selfie... and when do they get to the post-structural theory?

Bemused selfie… and when do they get to the post-structural theory?

The 500px and the MC images are remarkably similar: beautiful, but vacuous and narrative-free. Perhaps this isn’t surprising for a magazine focusing on beauty (website strapline: ‘THINK SMART. LOOK AMAZING‘ – think about the language and colour for a moment…). This women’s magazine is clearly all about (satisfying the putative) male gaze.

Photography books reveal similar patterns, as a quick scan of books in the categories for Fashion and Portraits and Nudes on Beyond Words demonstrates (incidentally, not only is Beyond Words the best photo bookshop in the UK, they also pays their taxes, unlike global parasites such as Amazon…!).

Clearly, the male gaze as Mulvey and others have defined it, dominates much of our photographic portraiture.

But with selfies, we see something else.

Selfies mean the person in the photograph has agency, has control: they freely determine every aspect of the image. They:

  • frame it – how much of the room/outdoors should be included?
  • determine the time – when do they feel they want to be photographed?
  • decide how much of themselves to show – is this to be a close crop of (part of?) the face, or will (part of?) the rest of the body be included?
  • think about who else is to be included – is this about the photographer alone, or should others be included?
  • and so on…

I see occasional selfies on my Twitter feed, but really only from two “serious” photographers. Here is a selfie from a wonderful fashion and art photographer I follow, Jodie Mann, trying out her new lipstick:

For someone who works with makeup all the time, that is clearly important professionally, but she also makes it personal:

It is very easy for stupid men to dismiss this as frivolous, but Mann is showing us something really important here: our self-image is important to most of us, even if we say we don’t care about what we wear: scruffy jeans and the tshirt that was on top of the pile in the cupboard is a ‘choice’ (yes, that’s often me…). Our image is almost always carefully constructed to convey something about ourselves to those around us – and scruffiness is just as much a constructed image.  Posting selfies online allows us to convey that image far beyond the people we will meet that day.  But they do more than that.

Four EyeEm screenshots, 27.4.2015

Four EyeEm screenshots, 27.4.2015

Looking at selfies on sites for sharing mobile photography such as EyeEm (where I have an account) or Hipstamatic, or Instagram, etc. is something I can do for ages.  Here are four screenshots of selfies from EyeEm from the same evening as the four 500px screenshots (EyeEm doesn’t have a popularity ranking, these are ‘recent’). There are a lot more men, and there is a wide range of ages (including a baby – ok, that’s probably not a selfie, but hey…!).

Regarding the poses and contexts:

  • many emphasise particular body parts – pouting lips, hair, cleavage, muscles etc. – and (coincidentally?) there are no (even nearly) naked women, whereas there are several men wearing very little (one man appears to be completely naked, holding a towel to cover his penis; his other hand is holding his mobile to make the photograph)
  • one woman has included a dog, whilst several photographs include other people
  • various digital ‘filters’ have been applied (monochrome conversions, as well as ‘antique looks’)
  • some photos are highly stylised (e.g. look at the pouting woman in the low cut vest in the top right of the first screenshot, and the two of the man in the white shirt and blue jacket in the second screenshot etc.)
  • backgrounds vary enormously: plain walls, cluttered rooms, a car, outdoor scenes – the contexts mean something to the photographer, to the subject.

This is what really attracts me to selfies – the subject is the photographer, and the photographer is the subject.  Whilst a woman might, for example, strike a ‘sexy pose’ taking a selfie, doing so is about her making herself a subject, not automatically being an object. The photographer has agency, has control, challenging the dominant narrative (Mulvey). Furthermore, in a world dominated by the male gaze of women, this is perhaps also why so many men take selfies.

Of course, selfies can have purposes beyond directly constructing a self-image based (largely) on appearance. Often they are evidence of being at a particular event or in a certain place, or in the presence of someone famous, whether this be a musician, actor, or politician: currently searching on Twitter for ‘selfie Nicola Sturgeon‘ produces hundreds of photos.  Many of these are taken by the person who wants to be in the picture, but Sturgeon is also taking many photos herself.  A photograph with a celebrity figure like this is, of course, also about constructing an image, but it is also about other (in part related) things: whether that be endorsing the stance of a politician, claiming (even just momentary) closeness to someone famous, and so on.

In short: we should value selfies, rather than mock them.  They’re an expression of the egalitarianism of contemporary photography, of the claiming of agency by subjects, and in the case of women in particular, they (can easily) subvert the male gaze.  Many selfies are not necessarily classically ‘good’ photographs, but as Colin Pantall wrote recently in reviewing a book on show dogs,

Possibly we can get a bit precious about it all, and not enjoy things just for the sake of enjoying them – while still recognising that there is some work that is just unadulterated crap.

But Showdogs isn’t. I don’t think. It is what it is; a book of dogs, and I quite like it for that.

Similarly, selfies can be enjoyed just for the sake of enjoying them – they are what they are, and if we don’t expect them to be great art (which is not what 99% of them are trying to be), then we can simply quite enjoy them and appreciate their political subversiveness.

——–

It seems only appropriate to end with some of my recent selfies, that I post here without much further comment:

From my student Twitter account, attending a student awards ceremony with my colleague Dr Stewart:

With the lovely Stephen Segasby in the Scottish Malt Whisky Society:

Go on, photograph yourself – you’re always there, and always available! 🙂

Editing this text...

Editing this text…

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6 thoughts on “In praise of selfies

  1. Tom Wilkinson

    I’ve read this with interest Michael, however, “Regarding the poses and contexts” and in the screenshot you have shown why DO so “many emphasise particular body parts – pouting lips, hair, cleavage, (muscles etc)”? Is this not conforming to the precepts of the male gaze, despite the power shift you suggest happens with the making of the selfie?

    Ok, so it’s not all of them but the ones who do seem to enjoy “showing themselves off” don’t seem to be “challenging the dominant narrative” much to me, which suggests society is so deeply ingrained with the active/passive viewing models, as these people are most definitely choosing to photograph themselves, but perhaps in accordance with the unfortunate stereotypes that have dominated culture for so long. Still a little way to go I think, but then the selfie is a very new phenomenon!

    All the best,

    Tom.

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Thanks for commenting, Tom.

      I think the key difference here, as briefly mentioned on Twitter, is agency.

      If I am taking a photo of a woman and tell her to pout, or if I am taking a photo of a man and tell him to show me his muscles, then we are probably all simply participating in the heteronormative patriarchal structure of society, and I, as the photographer, am the one determining that. In many contexts, that applies whether I am a man or a woman photographer – there was no discernible stylistic difference in the Marie Claire fashion shoot that the woman created when compared to any of the shoots that the men created (in fact, they were all depressingly similar). These photographers are, of course, all operating within a certain paradigm set by the magazine’s editors, as noted above.

      However, if the photographer/subject of a selfie pouts or flexes muscles etc. then that may still be for a male gaze (because they are a part of wider patriarchal society and have imbibed those values), but in doing that the photographer/subject is also making a space for their own agency in patriarchal society. It might not be a very big space, but they can choose whether to pout or flex their muscles – or even how much to do so. It’s also worth bearing in mind that with a selfie of someone we don’t know (such as the EyeEm photos I used), the pose may not be for a heteronormative male gaze at all. Who knows if the woman’s pout is not actually meant for another woman, the man’s display of muscles is meant for another man? How do we account for photographer/subjects who are trans- or intersex and yet pout or flex their muscles? Only the photographer/subject knows all that. The subversion of heteronormativity can take many forms, and the variety of sexualities is a part of that.

      In general terms, I don’t think patriarchy or heteronormativity will evolve away. It will be pushed aside by people who subvert the dominant paradigms and create new spaces for themselves, and that happens in the way they conduct their relationships (on all levels: social, personal, sexual…) as well as in the way they present themselves to the world. A selfie that involves a pout or a display of muscles might not appear to be much of a subversion – but it is a self-representation (indeed, arguably a continual self-creation) that enables the photographer/subject to show themselves as they want to be – they have agency over their own image. That can happen in a photographer and subject relationship (and a sympathetic photographer will seek to portray someone in a way they like), but it is so much more immediate and obvious when the photographer and the subject are one and the same person.

  2. francisstewart

    I will admit to being one of those who derides and loathes the selfie phenomenon (much like 3D films I am hoping they just fizzle out and go away). However I hadn’t actually thought about them as a form of taking control of the image and being both subject and creator. That being said, I do wonder if the endless poses on fb and the like are really just perpetuating the dominant gaze – I can only post my picture if I look like this, in this pose and so on and so forth. This article gives hope that the vacuity and repeating the male or dominant norms of image taking may in time fade through the use of selfies.

    As a side note it is incredible to see so many similar images repeated ad nausaum and yet hidden amongst them are two gems that perhaps would not exist without our obsession with recording humanity in all its forms. No, not the one with me in that (though that is special in a whole other way) but the one in the top left corner of the elderly gentleman with pictures behind him, and two down from him the woman with the teal veil. In the history of art we have only recently started to appreciate and capture such images and yet they say far more than any other on their screen grabs. Hope for the future through the selfie indeed. Thanks Michael.

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Thanks for commenting, Francis.

      Of course, there are certain poses that we see repeatedly, but as I said in my reply to Tom, we should not take them at face value. And yes, the variety of imagery that is emerging is fascinating, and highlights the diversity of the photographer/subject, as you note. This is why I like scrolling through selfies – not for the pouts and the cleavage and the muscles, all of which appear again and again and again, but for the creative and stimulating poses that people come up with and that give us an indication of how they see themselves and their place in the world.

  3. Jon Lee

    Thanks for posting a thought-provoking article. I’m curious to know why the article relies heavily on Mulvey’s essay as an academic argument. One that could be questioned when applied to fashion/portrait photography. ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ was indeed a ground-breaking piece of work not because it was wholly correct but one which instigated critical debate about feminism and cinema. Mulvey did not undertake a survey of actual filmgoers but made political use of Freudian psychoanalytical theory suffused with the Women’s Liberation Movement in the UK. A few years previous to this Freud was not highly regarded amongst the feminist movement.
    Mulvey argued that the controlling gaze in cinema is always male. The audience is encouraged to identify with the male hero and make the heroine passive and the object of erotic spectacle. This is not the case in fashion magazines mainly aimed at a female audience.
    She wrote about cinema and even though on the surface appear to share similar visual processes with photography there is a stark difference. In cinema the actors rarely look back to the camera, as this would break the fantasy of cinema. In cinema the auditorium is dark; those on screen or others in the audience cannot see the viewer. It has the right conditions for the voyeuristic process. The viewing of fashion in a magazine is quite different.
    Photography has always crossed the fourth wall especially in fashion photography; models do look to camera and thus challenge the viewer/audience. Subjectification and voyeurism depend on the audience and the conditions of viewing. To use the male gaze as an argument ignores the fact that photographs of women in fashion magazines are intended for an 80% female audience and not all of those are straight. Further reading of this may be found in Kaplan and Kaja Silverman (1980). Mulvey herself critiques her own work in ‘Visual and Other Pleasures’ (1989) and ‘Fetishism and Curiosity’ (1996) in light of the critical response to ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975) and latterly ‘Death 24 x a Second’ (2005) where Mulvey explores new ways the audience views films, on DVD for instance.
    There are many female feminist fashion photographers now but here are some horrendous magazines out there usually aimed at teenage boys. Context is important when is comes to fashion magazines and audience is a factor.
    The idea of ‘selfie’ was explored by the surrealists in 1928 with the use of the photo booth and has been used by photographers such as Cartier Bresson, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol etc. Its origins may not be new but it has become more accessible with new technology. Makes you think though.

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      My apologies for taking so long to reply to your thoughtful comments.

      I chose Mulvey’s original essay for several reasons. Firstly, it is easy to find online for those who want to read it (by which I mean: not behind an academic paywall), and I have not easily found even her revisited essay freely available online, never mind some of the other resources I could have used, including the ones you mention. Secondly, as I suggested in the blog, I don’t pay much regard to the Freudian psychoanalytic theory she uses, and wouldn’t encourage the reader to do so either! I want the general idea of the male gaze and what it means to be communicated here, and what I like about her essay is that she conveys that in a reasonably understandable way, even if the reader wants to gloss over the psychoanalysis. Thirdly, whilst you’re perfectly right to highlight the difference between cinema and photography, the general principle of the male gaze holds, I’d argue, and her essays communicates that well.

      Fashion magazines (and beyond the Marie Claire I bought, I do live in a house where these are occasionally purchased and read!) might be edited by women and be directed at women, but to a substantial degree they really do fit into a heteronormative societal framework. As I recall from the Marie Claire I bought, there was one article about a woman ‘experimenting’ with same-sex sex before declaring she preferred sex with men (I can’t remember the exact tone, but it was pretty much as crass as that), and otherwise the emphasis was very much on women’s relationships with men, and, I would argue, the actual clothing and fashion is presented in such a way as to make the women attractive to men (not just, but certainly that is a key part of the presentation). As I recall, Kaja Silverman discusses something along these lines in Male Subjectivity at the Margins, doesn’t she? (It’s a long time since I read that; incidentally, I do look forward to reading her latest work on the history of photography.)

      Regarding the experimentation of selfies: I remember being very struck by the ways in which Erwin Blumenfeld interpreted self-portraits, given that I had only really known of his fashion work (there was a wonderful exhibition I happened to catch in Paris when we were there a couple of years ago) (link here), and yes, you’re right – we’re seeing some of these same things coming back now.

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