A Possible Anthropological Origin of the Duck-face

All objectification tends towards murder, all self-objectification to suicide, for the only time a person is only an object is when he is a corpse.

Alive and kicking, on the other hand, the person is a synthesis of subjectivity and objectivity. If this vocabulary is unfamiliar, fear not. Your objectivity is simply your outward splay of characteristics, observable-you, and your subjectivity is that unobservable interior life glimpsed through your objectivity, through your physical characteristics, words and outward expressions.

Thus we might say that a man is in despair, drowned in an awful state of being we can never fully know, a state we can only glimpse through his objective expressions of that subjective despair — his moans, his morose air, his incessant scratching and his newfound love for the show How I Met Your Mother. His subjectivity — his unique, first-person experience of existence — radiates outwards through his objectivity, and thus he may communicate himself to others. But we were speaking of dead bodies.

The corpse is absurd. The corpse is an observable body refusing to express an unobservable center. It is a mismatch, as if clear, descriptive language gave way to words without meaning. The corpse gives us a face that is an expression of nothing. The skeleton grins with teeth that are not — despite appearances — an objective display of a subjective happiness, but an objective display of the absence of anything to display. The corpse is an outside that expresses no inside. In short, it is objectivity without subjectivity.

When it comes to corpses, it is not the apparent absence of the person that freaks — for the person is as absent in the rock or the tree as in the corpse — no, it is the pretend-presence of the person, the inescapable sense that the body ought to express an interior subjectivity, indeed, that it looks as if it does express the same — but we know it does not. The natural repulsion we feel towards the dead body seems to me a particular manifestation of the repulsion we feel towards a lie.

But we are here to discuss photography. If the objectified person is a corpse, it would seem that photographers are murderers, for their shootings are a reduction of the person to his objectivity, and the person shot falls into a group of observable characteristics printed on paper — physical characteristics expressed at the moment of the shooting that do not refer back to an actual subjectivity any more than the fixated face of death at a funeral refers back to an actual subjectivity of the coffined. I exaggerate, but only to deliver the core of an argument: We need to take photography seriously. Instagram needs to go to hell and burn forever in undying, filterless flames. The expansion of photographic capacity to every human being with a cell phone has shifted human existence into a sphere in which absolutely everything and anything may be captured, altered and publicized, and thus every human being walking downtown today has the capacity to, at any moment and at the whim of any friend, be reduced to an object, and this reduction — though nothing bad in itself — is a serious business.

Now I believe strange things. I believe that our newfound capacity for publishing daily pictures of our banal existence is not simply the result of newfound technology. It is the result of our desire to exist as objects. That we have a will to self-objectification is not a novel idea, and I will not expound upon it here. (Surely it is enough to point out that objectivity is easy, and subjectivity gut-wrenchingly difficult, that it is easier to exist as an object, as a conglomerate of outer characteristics — as a combination of fashion, career, wealth, relationship status, ideological position — than to exist subjectively, as the self that you are and none other? Surely we can see how concerned we are with our selves as the-thing-observed, and how little with our selves as the unobserved, incommunicable existence that we have to deal with alone in our rooms? Surely we are not fooled into thinking that our modern increase in pornography, reality TV, selfies, social media profiles, political labels, and all other forms of objectification are an accident?)

Because our age is essentially one of self-objectification, our response to photography is to aid the camera in the task of objectification. To put it another way, we have found the obvious truth, that photo is a reduction of the person to an object, and have fallen in love with the photo as such, as a simple method of becoming an object, an object we may upload onto the Internet to be “liked.” Which leads me to the real reason I began my meditation with corpse-thought.

The Duck-face. 

The duck-face is a pose. But what is a pose? A pose is fundamentally a falsehood, and thus I might say “his gestures of affection were a pose,” that is, a lie. In reference to photography, we may say that a pose is a bodily falsehood, an outward assembly of objective characteristics — of gestures, smiles, body language, etc. — that bear no necessary reference to our actual subjective state. A pose, then, is our natural response to the unnaturalness of the camera click, for if we are to undergo the minor death of becoming a photograph — that is, a group of objective, physical characteristics cut off from our subjectivity which expresses itself through these characteristics — it is only appropriate that we sever ourselves from our subjectivity.

This seems evident in the fact that the pose has changed over time. Old photography had the photographed sit without expression. Besides an obvious arrangement of bodies to fit the camera’s frame, there was little effort to manufacture a bodily falsehood for the camera.

It is adorable in its own way, and I hope I am not the only one that sees in the faces of old photos a delightful ignorance of the camera. When the camera was still something of a novelty, when the world was not saturated with objectification and no one could conceive of a family photo being made instantly available to a “liking,” “sharing,” faceless public, or, to put it in the vocabulary we have been using, before people were intensely aware that the camera was about to objectify them, there seemed to be less of a need to aid the camera in its task, less of a desire to create a bodily falsehood for the camera, less of a desire to separate our objectivity from our subjectivity, that the camera, which only delivers objectivity, may deliver us in truth.

The blissful ignorance could not last. Photography increased its output, and people began to pose, to smile for the camera, to the point that, were we now to take a stone-faced family photo, it could only be viewed humorously, ironically, as a mockery of past generations or as a rare moment of familial wit. The need for a pose has become the norm. We know acutely what cameras do, and we act accordingly — “Here comes the object-producer, everyone, on the count of three, separate your objectivity from your subjectivity!”

But even the smile, the thumbs-up, even the standard set of poses everyone assumes as the proper, ethical response to having a camera waved in front of your nose — even these are not enough for an essentially objectified age. What is needed is the duck-face.

Now the duck-face is a unique and hallowed expression of the human person for the simple reason that it, like the face of the corpse, expresses nothing. The man smiling for the camera is posing, yes, but a smile — even a manufactured smile — still allows the observer to glean a glimpse of a potential subjective state — he is smiling, and smiles spring from happiness, and therefore he is happy, or at least pretending to be. The illusion of contact with the interior life of the photographed person has a grounding in reality — we really do smile when we are happy.

The duck-face, however, has no correlative subjective state which it conveys. Were I to give account of the meaning of the duck-face, I could only say, after much contorted effort, that it is a largely female camera-face, a face that seems a near biological response evoked by holding a camera in front of a group of high-schoolers, an expression that only exists in relation to the existence of cameras. So accustomed are we to the selfie that we have forgotten a simple truth — no one makes that face in real life. What emotion, what intellectual epiphany, what situation, what need to the communicate the subjective self through the objective characteristics could possibly result in the imitation of a duck? (At best, the face has some genesis in an expression of sassiness, in a kiss, in a vague sensuality and the movie Zoolander, but if this is true, it has long sense mutated into a face established for the sole purpose of a photograph.) The duck-face makes out of the photograph a self-contained world. It is a camera-face for cameras. By it we exist as the photograph about to be taken.

The difference between sitting still in the 1800′s and baring our lips at an iPhone in 2013 is that, as far as I can tell, sitting still did not display any great will to objectification. The family photographed above are simply being for the camera, sitting politely and looking ahead, as if confident that the camera will deliver them as they are. The duck-face, on the other hand, displays an immense will to objectification, contorting itself into objective state without relation to actual subjectivity and delivering itself to the Internet as such, and this goes for the tongue-sticking-out-to-the-side-winking-grimace thing and any other solely-for-cameras face. The duck-face satisfies a desire for objectification. By it, we become objects apart from subjectivity, for a device that objectifies us, to be delivered unto a world in which all is objectivity cut from subjectivity — the Internet.

Many apologies if that was all too speculative. Until next time.

Postscript: Notes Towards A Possible Way Out

  • The problem with popular photography is not that it makes a relation to the person photographed difficult, but that it professes to make it easy, when relation to another person is the most difficult, terrifying task in the universe.
  • We say, flicking through profile pictures, that we are looking at a picture of a person, but a person is not observed, a person is encountered through an objectivity that leads to a subjectivity. We are looking at pixels.
  • A photograph may certainly evoke our memory and our relation to a particular person, but this is the human mind working beyond the photograph. In itself, a photograph presents the opportunity for observation, but, and as mentioned, the person is not known through observation. He is encountered.
  • Faced with this inadequate presentation of ourselves, we have one of two options. We may ourselves become an inadequate presentation of our person, by making a duck-face, squatting absurdly, taking off our shirts, or whatever. Or we may admit that we are not encountered through the selfie — that we may be recognized, sure, as a tree is recognized through a photograph of a tree, but that the photograph provides no road leading to an encounter with our subjectivity.
  • If we admit this, the task of true photography becomes one of obscurity, of making our recognition of the person difficult, so as to force the observer to actively struggle to move beyond the photograph.
  • What’s needed is inaccuracy.
  • What’s needed is unclarity.
  • What’s needed is art.

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  • rose

    Marc! The Duck face IS, as you suggest, largely female and is not an expression of nothingness but of sexual enticement. Not merely a mask, these pouty, projected lips invite possession and entry and have become the young girls’ come-hither sexual invitation. See me, love me, look at my lips and think of what else you can have. Those lips say so much more, also having a dominant tone. I am in charge-come and get me if you can. And now men who want to project the same, pout the same. I’m not looking for the pornographic under every rock but my stepsons, nieces and others have confirmed this look to me for the last few years. Duck, duck…GOOSE, is right.

    • Dagnabbit_42

      I don’t see how this could possibly be.

      There is nothing sexually inviting or powerful about the pose. It doesn’t even remind me of anything sexually inviting or powerful. My sole (albeit vague) feelings when seeing a person with the duck-face pose is that they probably aren’t very bright. It is essentially the same feeling I get when I see a man with a goofy grin wearing a baseball cap with the bill turned sideways or backwards: My estimation of the person’s IQ drops about thirty points.

      How’s that sexy? I mean, yes, some men like women who don’t think overmuch; I grant it. But there’s no great biological drive to bed a genetic defective.

      Wouldn’t a pose intended for sexual enticement look more like, oh, I dunno…the silhouetted girls on the mud-flaps of eighteen-wheelers on the interstate? Or a pinup from a 1940′s bomber?

      • Alexander S Anderson

        “But there’s no great biological drive to bed a genetic defective.” No, there is not. But there are some defects that could lead one to believe that the person is more easily bedded.

  • Sara

    Thank you!! SOMEONE needed to say something about the duck/slurping noodle face, and you did a great job!

  • hotboogers

    What is the title of the painting at the top?

    • Michael

      The Funeral of Shelley

      • hotboogers

        Thank you.

  • louise

    So I always thought people in old photographs did not smile because of exposure time, which is not the point of your post, but it was supporting evidence. However, I went searching for reasons people in old photos didn’t smile and I found a great quote by mark Twain

    A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever

    And I even read a little bit about how throughout art history smiles usually dippicated innocence or debauchery. Poor people smiled, aristocracy never.

    If history grimaces at the smile….I think it would loose its dinner with the popularity of the duck face.

    (This comment is the product of a 5 minute Google search)

  • Kyle Strand

    From personal experience, I can tell you that the duck face is most certainly not made for the sake of the camera; even those who objectify themselves don’t do it for the sake of other objects. They objectify themselves for the sake of other people. The duck face is intended to send a sexual message, and no, it has not evolved away from that purpose (except in parody).

    • Tom

      What can be possibly be sexy about the duck face? I’ve seen it many times and even though I’m a teenaged male, nothing sexual has crossed my mind even once.

      The only thing I can think of is that, much like I read (either at another patheos blog or at National Review) about Miley Cyrus’s tongue thing from her VMA thing, it was intended to be sexual but wound up so bizarrely divorced from sexuality that it could only be a parody of itself.

      • Kyle Strand

        As Kate stated, it’s supposed to make the lips look thicker and everything else look thinner. This is supposed to be attractive, whether or not it’s actually successful.

    • Kate Cousino

      The duck-face isn’t sexual. It’s a badly-executed imitation of a modelling-technique that supposedly accentuates the cheekbones and lips to make lips look fuller (ok, that part is sexual), and the entire face look thinner (that’s the modern aesthetic standard). Teenage girls are prone to a LOT of insecurity about that very same baby-fat roundness of cheek that, ironically, gives them most of their fresh and distinct charm. So, the duck-face.

      If it’s become sexual, it’s out of the confusion teenage girls experience about what is sexually alluring.

      There’s a heavy dose of self-mockery in a lot of it now, as well, I think, and that fits with Marc’s thesis in that self-mockery is self-objectification.

      • Kyle Strand

        Well, yeah, I’m not saying it’s necessarily successful; I’m just saying that of the people I’ve known who’ve made frequent duck faces, their intention has been pretty consistently sexual.

        I’m not talking about people who parody the duck-face, though.

      • Billiamo

        Well said.

  • Amanda

    I don’t agree with all of your statements. I am a photographer. I also find the Duckface annoying but what I agree with most is your post scripts. However, I wrote a response to the rest of your article.


  • Tony

    bravo Marc, you’ve just explained why some grumpy old men don’t like taking photos and why this 31yo is following straight down that path.
    (I don’t recommend you follow up with a Part II on why women tend to be more prone to such silly things as the duckface… no matter how much the truth needs to be told. Catholic it might be, your blog is nonetheless in English and in a modern, western world setting and the site will likely crash due to the comments section.)

  • Steve

    I thought the point of the duck-face was to make the lips appear larger, which they think makes them look more attractive. It really does neither, but it does make the person more punchable.

  • ristland19

    Is this really important? Seriously!

    • Jennifer Henson

      It really is. Seriously. It’s important because trends reflect the state of the souls participating in them. The duck-face, as Rose said, is essentially an invitation, which means children are prostituting themselves on every social networking site that allows them. And considering the push from “progressives” to normalize sexual abuse of children, I’d say it’s crucial that we discuss such things.

  • Robert

    I actually enjoyed this article a ton. I think there is a lot of truth to it. Even though I never knew the duck face had its own name! It is a stupid pose. As I was reading it, I realized how even before I read this, I always felt so fake taking group pictures or posed pictures for Christmas, Easter, Etc. I agree we seek self-objectification. And again, before I read this post, I always innately believed the selfie had something really disordered about it. A completely closed in world, absent of anyone else. Creating our own little realities where I am king. Isn’t that the unspoken modern secular goal? To become like God?

  • Quid

    I’m tempted to respond, but that would only objectify myself more through the medium of the internet! EXTISTENTIAL CRISIS!

  • Jeremy

    This is incredibly astute. Not too speculative at all. One of the best things you’ve written yet.

  • Alex

    Marc has some great points especially relating to the duck face and how we do in fact on some level seek objectification but I think photography can often times capture glimpses of authentic emotion in individuals and that is something I don’t think he touches on enough. Because authenticity is good Photography is a good but can be used to aid something that is not good

  • Gaby

    As a theologian, I agree with this post. As a portrait photography, I would like to add: a truly GOOD photography doesn’t reduce his subject to an object; she produces a PORTRAIT of the person where the person’s inner-self -his subjectivity- shows through, even in spite of the objectifying nature of the medium. Or else the photographer creates and captures a pose (aka a LIE) that is so beautiful that even the subject/object prefers it to his or her own true subjectivity. Therefore, only in photography is a lie beautiful!!

  • J

    I couldn’t make my lips do that if you paid me. There’s nothing appealing about that photo.

  • ESmith

    Soooo what about candids?

  • Michael G Moore

    Fascinating. Thank you.
    I presented on the theme of the “First Right Answer” (FRA) at Steubenville last Saturday. While text-driven, the FRA – something which “seems” right but is not – also relates to imagery and the other senses. I would like to send you some material to read, if you would wish to pursue further this generic idea (which incorporates your own)…

  • Stephen

    You contradict yourself. First, you state

    “your subjectivity is that unobservable interior life glimpsed through your objectivity, through your physical characteristics, words and outward expressions”

    therefore correctly proclaiming that man’s subjectivity becomes known to the external world through his objectivity – through the body. However, you then argue that a photograph merely captures the objectivity of man. However, as you just stated, man’s subjectivity is known through his objectivity – if a photo captures a man’s objectivity, it captures his subjectivity. A photo captures physical characteristics and outward expressions.

    You add in a qualifying claim that photographs do create a situation of observation; however, man is not know by observation but encounter. True. But, you ignore the fact that observation is a method of encounter – an enormously incomplete method, granted; however, an observation of objectivity must bring with it, to a certain extent, an encounter with subjectivity, even if this is simply working on the personal level for the viewer (i.e. the imagination, memory, or even to the level of the soul). If you refuse this claim then you must come to say that Christ cannot be encountered through icons, crucifixes, statues, nativity scenes and every other manner in which He presents Himself apart from physical body, soul, and divine nature.

  • Cal-J

    Pretty sure that the duck-face is basically the poor man’s equivalent of the sex-pout, which has been a marketing standard for decades.

    Also pretty sure it’s as much about making women *feel* sexy as it is about actually being appealing. Most men find the pose, and even the original sex-pout, to be ridiculous.

    But that’s more a discussion about the fashion and marketing industries, and I’m too tired for such exercise.

  • etomaria

    I don’t know.. Normally you’re spot-on, if a little hard-to-follow here and there due to the complicatedness of your theories (and that’s not a bad thing, CS Lewis or Chesterton are sometimes hard-to-follow for the same reasons!), but this time I have to disagree. I agree with almost all of the cultural pieces and aspects you discuss, but I don’t agree with your overall thread.

    Two big things — one, photography often doesn’t seek to create a permanent impression of the objective, like you state as “obvious” fact (!), but, instead, seeks to catch a glimpse of the subjective peering out through the objective.. Or atleast, mine do, and I’m not even an aspiring photographer, I just take pictures of loved ones for the memories.. and note that it’s for the memories, not for the subjective imprint of their face on a piece of paper to put into a book!! It’s surprising that you gloss over this possibility entirely, you’re normally pretty good about catching all the poss objections that would come up!

    Two, the “duck face” (also called “kissy face” and something I’d argue really has nothing to do with ducks and was just termed so after someone noticed a similarity (so people pretending to look like ducks isn’t something that happens)) is quite close to what people do a lot! When they’re thinking or unsure, they twist their lips up and to either side — have you never seen anything like that? I specifically remember being about 8 or 9 and seeing my aunt doing that and liking the expression, so attempting to repeat it, only to look in the mirror and realize how idiotic I looked, so ditching it, haha.. And that was twenty years ago, so pre-duck-face fad! But, the point is still the same, every once in a while I’ll catch my reflection in a mirror, where I’m just doing what I normally do, and think it looks funny, so twist it up a little in a way that makes it obvious to others I don’t normally look like this, sorta like a disclaimer, like “well, I obviously don’t look like this, and you know that, but I’m still gonna sit here and keep it up because I just saw myself looking all weird in the mirror when I thought I looked normal”. Oh, and not for picture purposes, although I am not a fan of most pictures of me (I maintain I’m too used to my mirror image to like the opposite that shows up on photos!) and so will just make a goofy face, again the whole disclaimer thing.. That sounds ridiculously analytic and in-depth, I’m sure, but I’m trying to explain for the purposes of disagreement ;] I hadn’t really actually thought about it consciously until reading your post!

    On that last objection, I do see where it fits a little with what you’re saying, and that part I do agree with — there’s no reason to be so concerned with the exterior, so concerned that you go to great lengths to make it correspond to what you’d like it to or mess around with it for whatever purposes.. Buuuuuut, that’s most definitely not a recent development. Maybe compared to back in the day when people just didn’t have the time (like in your straight-faced picture maybe?), but not compared to the recent past. Again, it’s nothing admirable, probably the opposite, but I wouldn’t agree that photos are anything other than incidental. Maybe even an effect. Not a cause.

  • Moira

    Great post, although it almost seems like you might take the extreme and want to do away with pictures altogether. It reminds me of the utopian world I had to create for a humanity’s class I took in highschool. I banished cameras because I thought pictures were two-dimensional, flat, and they have a tendency to diminish how we see reality. Like if I saw a beautiful sunset today it would be whateves because I’ve seen dozens of beautiful sunsets on instagram. Although I know rarity should not affect the value of something (like a sunset is no less beautiful because there’s been trillions of beautiful ones, or a human is no less valuable because there’ve been billions of them) – but economics argues otherwise.
    It’s true that today’s photographs only highlight the ‘happy’ or ‘silly’ moments in someone’s life and doesn’t give an overall accurate ‘picture’ of the wide range of emotions/reactions of a person. So we’re optimists about life in photography (usually). That’s part of the reason I used to shy away from picture taking. They seem almost insincere and untruthful because we normally pose with an exaggerated expression of happiness/silliness/whatever when we rarely make those expressions spontaneously. Maybe future generations will look back and think some people’s normal was acting nutty and a bit idiotic with our duck faces or seductress look with our heads tilted to the side as we look up from heavily mascara eyelashes. Just as we’ve thought people of the past must’ve been so serious with their stern expressions (I think even in past pictures people can be objectified).
    I think this is partially why I have avoided facebook. We see these images of people looking supremely happy, and not that I’m not happy, but I feel a twinge of jealousy and self-pity that I’m not as happy as the newly engaged couple smiling with shining eyes and holding hands in a gorgeous background. They’re imitating a pose that could’ve come out of a magazine. These pictures can leave an aftertaste of inadequacy, but when I know the person I more easily feel happiness for their apparent joy – which I know they aren’t feeling all the time.
    It seems to me that the danger in pictures lies in when we choose to judge people we don’t/or hardly know on a moment’s expression. It seems we need to make an effort to remind ourselves a pose is pre-contemplated and if we’re tempted to dwell on our or their insecurities we must remember in reality these people are human who experience the wide range of emotions, feelings of inadequacy or great joy we do. An effort to subjectify a person must be made.

  • Tim

    Hello Marc,
    I could not agree more with your analysis of the duck face. I have often thought that the emotionless pictures of old were filled with people who were less objectified and more sincere but did not know how to put into to words why this was so.

    Out of curiosity, what do you do at family gatherings when the family picture is about to be taken, you’re not smiling like a cad, and the women in the room feel that the meaning of their existence is to get a picture of the family with everyone properly objectified (multiply this feeling tenfold if you have in-laws)?