The dangerous selfie
Last week, The Atlantic published a story titled "Why Selfies Sometimes Look Weird to Their Subjects." It's a fascinating piece that touches on both the technical and psychological sides of selfies.
Selfies look weird sometimes because some camera programs do not use a mirror image, but instead use the image that other people see, where nothing is flipped as images are in mirrors. In addition, there was a discussion of camera lenses and how they distort faces upon which a camera is turned.
Selfies, by most positive definitions, are supposed to uphold the value of personhood and individuality. By taking a picture of yourself, you are taking back what is truly yours — your face, body and the scene in which the picture is set. You then post the picture on a social site that allows people who know you to experience the ultimate case of a picture's worth 1,000 words.
At the end of The Atlantic article, author Nolan Feeney includes a quote from Pamela Ruteleg, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, in which she advises that "people who take a lot of selfies end up feeling a lot more comfortable in their own skin because they have a continuum of images of themselves, and they’re more in control of the image."
I have two main problems with this. While it's important to talk about how selfies can affirm the subject's image, it's equally important to realize that there's a medium through which that subject is translated. The first problematic mediation is that of the lens.
Selfies are normally taken with phone cameras. These lenses "bend light rays, capturing the scene within a certain field of view into a limited bi-dimensional frame: the photograph," Jesus Diaz of Gizmodo reported.
To view your self-esteem through a lens is completely naïve. Why leave it to some optical illusion to make or break your self-esteem? Self-esteem, in the original definition of selfies, is about taking back what's yours. However, without appreciating the mediation through a lens, how do we know where the image begins and the capturing device ends?
The second issue I have is with the sociological mediation of selfies. People feel the need to upload these images for likes and favorites. What about that situation leads one to conclude that these pictures are for one's own gratification and self-esteem boost? These images, according to some, are uploaded so that others can affirm your image.
In Pacific Standard, Casey Sep writes, "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, to me, does not equate taking a selfie with the self-confidence building that selfies are supposed to uphold. Rather, I read that as the idea that self-esteem through selfies are built on quicksand, ever-ready to collapse as soon as the lighting shifts and a new lens turns upon its user.
While portraiture is here to stay, it makes me uncomfortable to know that these images are less real than ever before. We have to keep questioning these mediations that bombard us on a daily basis, from the technological and sociological angles that seem to crop up every time we evaluate selfies on a cultural level.
It's important to remember that just because someone turns the lens upon themselves does not mean that he or she is telling you the whole truth about who he or she is in the light of day and the frame of real life.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @peternorthfelt