On Selfies

Julian Stallabrass

A few dozen photographs were taken of me as a child. I remember lining up with my family on the beach as a wealthy uncle tried out a new photographic toy and, bright glare of sun off sand in our eyes, being told to stand completely still so as not to ruin the shot. Film and processing were quite pricey, and being photographed was an event. We were behaving just like everybody else, so there is nothing remarkable about the scene except that I remember it. Such an image world must seem fantastically ancient to those today who are used to being photographed – and taking photographs – every day or many times a day.

When the Danish prime minister took a ‘selfie’ at Nelson Mandela’s funeral alongside Obama and Cameron, there was a flurry of alarm in the press. Photographic narcissism, commentators suggested, is now everywhere, the constant mediation of the lens is disrupting experience and memory. Photography, unthinkingly and endlessly made and shared, pollutes awareness of the real world and suppresses memory of anything other than the moment when the image is captured.

Some selfies

It is curious then that some of the most popular camera apps for smartphones play with nostalgia for the snapshot. The advanced digital cameras in smartphones produce sharply focused, tonally smooth results, but apps such as Hipstamatic mess them up with simulated analogue faults: colour casts, fading, borders, softness and blur, lens distortions, burned-out highlights and pitch-black shadows. Such accidental effects have been banished by sophisticated camera technology only to be reintroduced in simulated form.

One origin for this trend was the Lomo camera, first taken up in the 1990s by a few photographic adepts who realised that these compact Soviet machines performed remarkably well in low-light conditions (making them good for photographing nightlife). They also had various charming optical quirks. The technical oddities of the results were complemented by the Lomo shooting style. Photographers were urged to embrace chance and shoot from the hip: ‘Don’t Think.’ The cameras used film, of course, but users scanned the results and shared them online; Lomo was remade as a brand, marketing brightly coloured plastic film cameras as fashion accessories.

Hipstamatic offers a range of simulated films, flashes and lenses, giving users fine control over the effects they want in their images. But the runaway success in the genre, with 150 million users, is Instagram. It lets you take photos or short videos, treat them – or not – with a small number of readymade filters and then upload the results to the Instagram viewer or to a variety of social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter and the photo-sharing site Flickr. More than fifty million images are uploaded daily. The name of the app, a conflation of ‘Instamatic’ (Kodak’s snapshot camera of the 1960s and 1970s) and ‘telegram’, has nostalgia built in. The most commonly used filters increase the contrast, make the tone warmer or cooler, bleach the picture or add a golden tint; their names evoke the past, places and times of day – Rise, Walden, Earlybird, 1977.

The hashtags with which pictures are categorised give strong hints about how people use Instagram: among the most popular are #love, #me, #tbt (truth be told), #cute, #self, #beautiful, #girl, #summer, #happy, #fun, #smile and so on. Instagram users, nine out of ten of whom are under 35, the majority of them female, tend to use the service a lot, even at work, so its push-button simplicity is an important feature. Perhaps its speed makes Instagram less disruptive than holding a pose while a relative fiddles with differential focus settings. Generally seen on small screens, Instagram images – like telegrams, or like tweets, with which they compete – are low-resolution messages, to be glanced at rather than pored over. As with much digital culture, the experience is of rapid flow rather than contemplation.

Instagram users have copyright on the pictures they upload, but there have been no significant cases so far of anyone trying to enforce it. That may be because so few users think they are doing anything original. There is instead a popular urge to present the common and the mundane as wonderful using the photographic quirks, accidents and faults of the past. The look of the analogue snapshot – a discrete physical object that may fade and fray, be kept or lost, be framed, carried or stuck into an album – is knowingly and ironically invoked against the digital torrent into which images are continually thrown. While the torrent is also an archive from which each image can be pulled out by its tags, the vast majority are seen for a brief moment and are then forgotten. If the mass and flow of digital imagery tends to flatten discrimination, Instagram aesthetics, which don’t only refer to conventional standards of the past but use new technology to augment their power, make that flattening into an ideal.

Since so much Instagram activity is about self-presentation, a major advantage of simulated analogue faults is that they can be used to conceal faults in the subject, when judged against today’s beauty standards. Warm-tinted film was, after all, originally designed to produce flattering skin tones. The standardisation of subjects and handling also extends to people’s behaviour in front of the lens. The French artist JR’s recent display of portraits in London put Instagram standards on public display in large black and white prints pasted to hoardings and pavements (the subjects instantly shared them on social media, of course). Many of those who agreed to be photographed posed with their own image-making machines: smartphones, tablets, even film cameras.

It would be easy to slip into seeing the instantly shared photographic self-portrait, along with snaps of things bought and consumed, as a register of a complete surrender to commercial image culture: the preening necessary to emulate commodified beauty ideals, the apeing of celebrities, the internalising of values of professional self-presentation, the erasure of experience and memory through an obsession with moment-to-moment recording, and the distribution of the results on websites that mine images and metadata for commercial value. Yet the daily practice of photography gives people detailed knowledge about the way standard images of beauty and fame are produced; they learn considerable sophistication in the making of images and scepticism about their effects. The artifice of commercial imagery is understood through practical emulation. Most selfies are pastiche and many tip into parody. With this increase in awareness potentially comes a shift in power: from the paparazzi to their prey; and from the uncles, corporate and otherwise, to their nieces and nephews. Despite appearances, the digital image is much more complex than a snapshot: it is an amalgam of processed visual data, descriptive tags and the particular social network into which it is launched. One group of activists in Pakistan has used JR-style portraits of children, greatly magnified and laid out on the ground, to bring home to drone operators that they are killing individuals. When circumstances allow, the digital image can swiftly be turned to more radical uses than recording a night out with friends.