I recently heard the very short story of an individual in my friend’s neighbourhood who spent her entire day sitting in front of a standing mirror. Because the mirror was close to her front door which she kept open, passers-by could see her. And she stared. She sat for the entire time, staring at herself, touching her face from time to time. Eventually it came to light that the said individual was a victim of mental health issues. The specifics of her illness were not made known to me. But this story threw my mind to the selfie, that ubiquitous image of selves that many of us love posting or sharing on social media. Most of them are happy selfies. The serious, pained or unhappy photographs are rarely posted.
Facebook, our most popular forum, is by its very nature a textual selfie of sorts. Where the physical image is absent, words take over. In our victim’s case, the image is the key. Why would this image of a mentally ill person, staring at a mirror, throw my mind to the selfie? I myself was curious about this thought process. Was it that all we had really was this image of ourselves? Was it that when things go wrong, we search in our own faces for some semblance of order? Who or what are we looking for? And if we don’t find that, what next?
These are heavy questions, I know this. But this week, I am contemplating the selfie movement, this urge to photograph ourselves not necessarily in positions of action but to photograph our faces, the angles of those faces, our bodies in dress, practised poses that we immediately move into when the camera lens faces us.
This past week, some friends were discussing the selfie culture. One of them said she had read that it was now classified as a mental illness. Another commented that the self-love thing that was going too far. I felt it was interesting that people used social media to feel good about themselves while I felt worse whenever I logged on to a barrage of motivational messages and people’s feelings which made me exit in a rush. But our chat sent me in search of further literature on this phenomenon.
I googled first "selfies versus self-portraits," given the self-portrait movement in photography and painting that I had been reading on for some time. Google Guru stepped in to provide me with some interesting reading material from The New Yorker, The Washington Post, the Independent, UK and others. There is nothing new that I can add here in terms of an art history perspective that isn’t already available on the internet. Your own search of self-portraits versus selfies dear reader will yield you some worthwhile information should you be interested. Suffice it to say, the selfie movement is our digital age’s new self-portrait.
At one period of time, the self-portrait functioned in much the same way the selfie does. Think of kings and queens who had their portraits painted. It was a way of portraying themselves in ways that they wanted the world to see them. Self-portraits were also a sign of affluence and influence. For artists like Van Gogh, Da Vinci or Frida Kahlo, the self-portrait delved into the inner self as well.
Technology has now taken the privilege to be seen as we want others to see us, once afforded almost exclusively to the wealthy, and placed it in the hands of all mobile phone users. Different filters allow us to create photographs based on moods or images through which we convey our thoughts and many selves.
In effect the selfie movement is about the creation of disrupted realities and/or perhaps alternate realities of our world and ourselves. And so I’m wondering, how different is this urge to take the selfie, this constant preoccupation with the camera lens any different from that of the mentally-ill woman spending an entire day looking into a mirror?