According to a poll that Casey N. Cep cites in her delightful essay on selfies, about 30 percent of photos snapped by Millennials are self-shots. The genre has exploded with the iPhone and has resulted in a proliferation of photo-sharing platforms designed to work with it. Our generation is apparently preoccupied with looking at pictures of themselves.
After a brief recap of the history of self-portraiture, Cep gets at the heart of the impulse to auto-photograph:
We cherish the possibility that someone, anyone, might see us. If photographs possess reality in their pixels, then selfies allow us to possess ourselves: to stage identities and personas. There is the sense that getting the self-portrait just right will right our own identity: if I appear happy, then I must be happy; if I appear intellectual, then I must be an intellectual; if I appear beautiful, then I must be beautiful. 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.
And not only others, as Cep writes, “Rarely a documentary genre, self-portraits have always allowed us to craft an argument about who we are, convincing not only others, but also ourselves.”
Cep asks, what’s missing from the millions and millions of selfies that populate our Instagram and Facebook feeds? Courage, a hard-won virtue that took a while to develop for the selfie’s text-based cousins, memoir and autobiography. Cep points to Nan Goldin’s famous self-portrait, “Nan one month after being battered”, as an example of the sort of courageous self-disclosure that’s so hard to find in Millennial selfies. Goldin’s photo is of her reflection in a mirror: she has applied makeup and pulled back her hair, but her two black eyes—one of which seems filled with blood—confront the viewer with the reality of her recent beating. Goldin defies conventions of self-portraiture by “[conforming] to the expectation that a female subject should be decorated with makeup and adorned with jewelry, but [refusing] to disguise her injuries.” The argument she makes about herself through the photograph leads us toward the ugly reality of her abuse rather than away from it.
With Goldin in mind, what might courage look like in a mundane selfie? Cep suggests images of ourselves eating peanut butter from the jar or waiting in line at an unemployment office. Unflattering selfies would be a step back from the frantic pursuit of our idealized selves, and a step toward the honesty that would make the selfie a more valuable record of our lives and times.
However, here I must depart from Cep. My hunch is that the sort of honesty she describes may prove to be the genre’s white whale. Going to Cep’s examples, I can’t imagine an Instagrammed self-portrait of a person spooning peanut butter into his mouth that lacks a humorous sense of self-deprecation about it. I also can’t help but feel the staged dignity and resolve of the person in the unemployment office, whose discreet selfie narrativizes and strengthens herself in ways that downplay the more impersonal and embarrassing realities of her situation. There’s nothing wrong with either of these scenarios; the second one is actually empowering in an important way for its subject. However, in both cases, the subjects have cut away or subverted the aspects of their situations that they find unflattering, and asserted control over their identities. This suggests to me that courage and honesty might be even more difficult to come by in a selfie than Cep imagines.
What separates us from courageous self-portraitists such as Goldin, apart from artistry and life experience? Our context—specifically, the social media environment we’ve built for ourselves. In our sharing, liking, and tweeting world, the self-shot is bolted tighter than ever to our desire for approval from an imagined audience; that desire is the governing logic of that world. Within its confines, a selfie will always be a calculated attempt to manifest concretely the beloved specter of the true self. God forbid that our true selves appear un-ironically lazy, dumb, or boring. Truly, it’s forbidden.
As a Christian, I’m naturally somewhat interested in what this would mean for selfies intended to portray faith, and I’m not optimistic about the implications. A popular template I’ve noticed is as follows: a cup of coffee on a table in a public space, the saucer set next to some devotional literature that lies open with a couple of sentences underlined. “Getting in some time with Jesus at my favorite coffee-shop,” the caption might read. The actual person in this selfie looms in the background, fuzzily.
What does this photo convey to the viewer about the subject? That the subject is devout—or rather, that the subject wishes to be seen as devout, by himself and his audience. His selfie essentializes his devotion, making it a fact about him—but a person’s devotion is hardly a fact. It’s a constant struggle. The faithful one in the relationship between God and ourselves will always be God, who loves us first, and in spite of our constant resistance to his love.
I don’t mean to say that the person taking his devotional-time selfie means to be dissembling about his spiritual stature. It’s more a case of his intention getting hijacked by the medium. I’m sure plenty of people have taken selfies in good faith, as it were, and tried to use their self-shots to capture a true dimension of their lives as Christians. But perhaps this is one genre that will never allow its content to come out the way we want. When a devotional pic is posted to Instagram for others to see and comment upon, it’s hard to avoid understanding it as essentially a promotional for the person’s piety, whatever the intention.
However, this being the case, there is a handy hermeneutical move I think we can make with an eye to the entire selfie genre, one that would be useful for preempting the disdain we might otherwise feel for a pious selfie. Why not interpret a self-shot as an attempt at capturing a person’s aspirations for himself, rather than his true self?
I think this might be one place to ground the honesty that Cep is looking for in the genre, if not the courage. What my faithful coffee-shop friend’s picture conveys to me under this reading is his desire to be faithful, rather than an attempted rendering of his true self as innately faithful. This gets to the heart of what a selfie is, as Cep understands: a staging of an identity for ourselves, a statement of who we wish to be and to be seen as. If we understand this, I think it naturally leads us to understanding the whole selfie genre as one of aspiration and desire—not a place to look for the unblinking truths we find in Goldin’s self-portrait, but a place where we might find expressions of our hopes for ourselves. And that’s really not so bad.