Self Portrait

Mar 31, 2014

The trendy word of the year so far seems to be "selfie," which I understand to mean simply a photographic self-portrait. Why this idea should suddenly be so much in vogue is hard to explain. Cameras were equipped with time-delay shutters for taking self-portraits as early as the 1850s, and I was certainly using one in the 1950s. However a fashion is a fashion, and we must do our best to understand it.

My first reaction when the word "selfie" popped up was that it indicated a sudden plague of pathological vanity, perhaps caused by air pollution or genetically modified French fries. But when Hollywood stars and Presidents start taking selfies it obviously must be more serious than vanity. We must look deeper for an explanation.

People have always loved to gaze at pictures of themselves, although a visit to any portrait gallery will make you wonder why. When photography came along it was a godsend. Everybody could take as many self-portraits as they wanted, and we did. We have hundreds and hundreds of old family snapshots, usually taken on vacation. They show us not how we are, but how we were, which is just as well. It’s like Dorian Gray in reverse: our pictures stay young, but we do not. Indeed as we get older we take fewer photographs, and those are usually shot from the middle distance and slightly out of focus. The camera doesn’t lie, unfortunately, and I wonder if the vogue for selfies will follow today’s young enthusiasts into their senior years.

One part of the craze for selfies seems to have to do with sharing. Social media sites offer few words, but they are full of pictures, sometimes updated every day. Some sites like Flickr seem to be virtually nothing but pictures. Nobody wants to look at your old photograph album, but you can spread your selfies through cyberspace whether cyberspace wants to see them or not. Everyone quotes the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words, but the opposite is true. Selfies in themselves say nothing, except "Look at me, I’m here, I exist." They literally flicker across the consciousness leaving no trace. They’re not worth a thousand words, they replace a thousand words, and that worries me. I could send you a picture of my cat but, I would need to add several thousand words of supplementary description, history, praise, and character analysis. Otherwise you would see nothing but a cat.

Words take time. They slow us down, give information, and often stay in the memory.  The historian Daniel Boorstin observed fifty years ago that images had become more important than words in our culture, taking us back towards pre-literate time and making us much less thoughtful and more open to emotional manipulation. He should see us now, and "see" is the operative word. I’m hoping one day that words will come back into fashion, but I’m not optimistic.

If fear it may all end badly, and it may even end tomorrow. On April Fool’s Day, which is a day dedicated to humiliation and self-discovery, we may gaze into the multiplying mirror of our self-images, and realize that the joke is on us.

Copyright: David Bouchier