Monday, July 21, 2014

On Selfies

Below is possibly the most famous selfie ever.  Taken, I think, by Ellen Degeneres at this year's Oscar awards ceremony, it features a number of instantly recognizable movie stars in a casual group picture captured on a cell phone.  

It was a reflection of the ceremony organizers' efforts to show they "get" the selfie phenomenon, which is largely an adolescent one.  Nothing wrong with it.

Selfies are everywhere now.  They seem to be captured expressly for immediate posting on social media sites.  This implies a fair amount of narcissism on the part of selfie photographers.

One formerly serious event that seems to be succumbing to selfies is college commencements.  School administrators demand beforehand that students shall not take selfies as they shake hands with the school president -- but to no avail.  Even when professional photographers take individual shots of each student's handshake moment, students pull out their cellphones to make selfies as well.  It drags out the ceremonies, which are long in the first place, but who cares?  Nobody wants to have to wait a couple weeks to get a photo out on Instagram.

Selfies also have invaded encounters with celebrities and particularly politicians.  Here is one, being taken last week during a Chris Christie visit to Iowa.

Some years before there were selfies or even cell phones, the public intellectual Susan Sontag published On Photography, a monograph of six essays meditating on the meanings of photography.  It's heavy reading, but raises interesting questions.

One of her key observations was that people use photographs to document things they are doing  -- here I am in front of the "Mona Lisa," say -- rather than experiencing the moment of looking at the painting.  Many selfies represent this kind of thing on steroids.

The picture below, run with screaming headlines last December in the New York Post, shows a tourist taking a selfie with a man attempting suicide off the Brooklyn Bridge in the background.

Susan Sontag;  "Photographs shock so far as they show something novel."

This is picture is shocking and novel -- a real "get" for the photographer -- and, frankly, in very poor taste.  (Fortunately, the police talked the desperate man out of killing himself.)

Sontag also wrote, "To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have: It turns people into objects that can be symbolically processed."

Another Sontag point:  "The proliferation of photographs is ultimately an affirmation of kitsch."

So true.  In October 2013, an Englishman who was distressed by a recent selfie phenomenon started a self-explanatory blog called  Here are a couple of posts.

You don't need Susan Sontag to decode what's going on here.  It's immature young people attending solemn events and making them "all about me."

Immaturity of course is not limited to the young.  The names Anthony Weiner and Geraldo Rivera (who posted a photo of his face and buff torso, post-shower, in his bathroom mirror) come to mind.

The selfieatfuneral editor took down his blog at the end of last year after the broad publication of a news photograph that showed three heads of state yukking it up for a selfie at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela.  Apparently the editor had seen enough.  "Our work is done," he said.

It's too bad Sontag didn't live long enough to offer some thoughts on selfies.  I'm pretty sure she'd have interesting things to say.

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