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! 😉
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.
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.
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.
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! 🙂