Superficial Selfie, or a means of Self-Expression?

'Selfie' is now dictionary-worthy; a worrying trend that encourages superficiality or a tool vital for healthy self expression?

I saw this photo of Gerard Butler and Bradley Cooper at Wimbledon, shortly after reading an article on The Guardian about the smart-phone selfie phenomena that is becoming increasingly popular.


The photo appeared on my Facebook feed, with comments like ‘LADS’ and ‘haha they are too cute’.

I laughed at the picture too.

Is it strange that Butler and Cooper might want to document their location, their activities and their memories, just like we do?


Since starting my job in the fashion industry, and with a particular focus on social media, I have become familiar with fashion blogging and its business success.

The idea is based upon a series of (what are essentially) self-portraits. Specifically for the purposes of outfit documentation, self-portraits are taken to show readers/viewers/fans, which clothes have been chosen for the day’s outfit, and how they have been styled.

Whilst this idea is successful for a few bloggers – creating advertising opportunities at the same time as expressing creative flair – there are a wide number of unsuccessful blogs that do nothing other than remind me of the vain and self-obsessed nature of it all.

This leads to me to consider the nature of the smart-phone selfie. I am wandering, is it as boring and superficial as the relentless ‘what I wore today’ blogs? Or is it a creative means of self-exploration, in the digital form?

I don’t really know.

Perhaps it is a performance that is based upon a façade; a way of controlling how we are seen, that is not dissimilar to the act of putting on make up in order to change our appearance. Distance is created through the act of structuring our portraits, and takes us through a process of desensitisation; personas are created based upon our ‘on’ and ‘off camera’ roles. The smart-phone and general digitalisation of our lives has created an instantaneous nature that arguably encourages superficiality. Through various social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) a belief is created and reinforced with every ‘share’, ‘like’ and comment, that the outside world accepts us based on the way we look, as opposed to the work we do or the things that we achieve. In this sense, the selfie is a chance to constantly rewrite ourselves, regaining control of the gaze through photography, and performing for an audience of Facebook friends (and note that Facebook friends are not a part of our ‘off camera’ lives).

On the other hand, perhaps the selfie is a genuine self-exploration of identity, shared on a platform that has been created specifically for this purpose. Through social media, and in particular self-portraits, a revolution has occurred in the way that we gather auto-biographical information about each other. Similar to the way a teenage girl might dye her brunette locks with bleach, or try out a new dress-sense, the selfie is becoming a part of growing up; self-exploration gone digital.

In the Guardian article, there was a comment from a psychologist that made me laugh out loud at the same time as doing a double take. Psychologist Sarah J Gervais was quoted as saying that photography had been ‘reclaimed as a source of empowerment’ with which I agree. She then went on to say that our Instagram feeds and hashtag selfies exists as a ‘quiet resistance to the barrage of perfect images we face each day’ because on social media, she states, we see ‘images of real people’.

Are you laughing too?

This idea can only be described as ridiculous; no one on Instagram is portraying their ‘real’ selves.

Think about the angle at which most photos are taken – echoing the Myspace profile pictures that are so 1990’s, the camera is tilted at 45 degrees, a coy eye and half smile is adopted and is coupled with a flattering, unnaturally bright light source.

Next, consider the pose; hand on hip? (I do it all the time), or perhaps a bright-eyed-and-definitely-forced smile?

Probably what makes Gervais’ comment the most ridiculous of all; think about the filters that make Instagram such an attractive photographic platform in the first place; the ability to photoshop yourself in an instant; the work of a click of a button.

I don’t think so, Gervais.

The clearest explanation I have come across so far, and the one I can most easily consider in relation to myself, comes from artist Simon Foxall.

Foxall states that the selfie ‘blurs the lines between reality and the performance of a fantasy self, so one collapses into the other’.

Perhaps this is why it is important in my practice that the work translates a felt experience?

Now I am wandering, how do we create things that are still felt and physically experienced, in an era of digitalisation and desensitisation? Or does our familiarity with the digital world leave us out of practice with the real, and so felt experiences are heightened?

Will our responses to painting and film change as a result of this incredibly digital age?

How do we separate our digital (or ‘on camera’) selves from our off camera (real life) personas?

Perhaps these questions will guide a new train of thought within my art making. For now I am still unsure how I feel about instant self-portraits and flattering Instagram filters. I think it requires a little more thought.


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