Selfies: The Visual Diaries of our Fleeting Lives

Selfie – the Oxford Word of the Year for 2013 – is a buzzword defined as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.”

I may be one of the few Smartphone owners that have never taken a selfie, although I confess I have been a participant in few group selfies. Yet the roaring discussion about selfies and their constant presence in our online lives has forced me to explore their meaning. It is claimed that as many as 880 billion photos will be taken in 2014 and a massive number of these photos will be selfies.

Our favorite subject, it turns out, is ourselves. We have democratized portraiture; the once privileged practice that long predates Instagram, Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter.To some, selfies feel banal, frivolous and self-serving: technology can drive us to narcissism. Our culture of individualism propagates the nonstop self-documentation and the practice of freezing our tiniest slices of life. It has become so popular that the Oxford dictionary has added the word to their lexicon. Some of us enjoy the moment we’re snapping and some of us simply document it because it is too difficult to be truly ‘present’ in the moment. Either way, we snap them. A rapid online search outlines the selfie controversy and its long history.

Are selfies culturally dangerous? Are they the perfect metaphor for our increasingly narcissistic culture? Or are they, as the ‘ie’ at the end implies just a “little’ self” — a small, friendly bit of the self? The elites in Ancient Egypt loved them. The mirror, the first piece of technology where an artist could see his own image long enough to paint it, produced magnificent selfies. The advent of cameras in the 1860s launched new rounds of selfies and the first automated photo booth in 1925 on Broadway in New York City was used by 280,000 people in the first six months. For 25 cents, the booth took, developed and printed 8 photos, a process taking roughly ten minutes. Now, Snapchat, the subversive smartphone app that allows you to take a photo or a video, add a caption, and send it to friends where it disappears in 10 seconds. Artists are seriously exploring the medium and curated exhibits are popping up in exclusive corners. The world is filling with photo snaps both permanent and transient, and with more than 1.5 billion smartphones in the world, cheap and instant selfies are everywhere.

We just don’t know how to think about this mass production of self-reflection. Yet, for me, selfies resonate deeply with my childhood.

Over my years I have been the guest in thousands of homes. Rarely do I remember styles of furniture or layouts of kitchens. Strangely, I remember that regardless of my hosts’ socio-economic status, age or gender, they all contained a universal object: self -portraits that documented their appearances and emotional landscapes. Child art plastered suburban refrigerator doors; magic marker silhouettes adorned wood or cardboard dwellings; gilded framed oil paintings perched impressively on marble mantels; charcoal sketches tagged studio walls; and caricatures lay on desks or coffee tables. Just like the artists Pablo Picasso, Yayoi Kusama and Frida Kahlo, my hosts were exploring their identity, both physical and cultural, on their canvas, walls or scraps of paper. Each was reflecting the combination of their physical appearance and their mental interpretations of the world around them.

It is a rare few of us that haven’t attempted a self-portrait to express our angst, antagonism, social questionings, and playful freedom that seems to mark the process of maturation. We’ve used every medium available to create our images of burgeoning self-expression, the encountering of physicality, a search for independence, and the itch toward rebellion.

Now when I visit homes I am typically shown a smartphone or computer screen inundated with photos- many of which are selfies. Adults will flip through iPhones to show selfies with grandchildren or cats snuggled into their laps. Kids will share selfies of blue ribbons won in wrestling matches, elbow scratches from sibling rivalries or handmade Halloween costumes. Selfies are our calling cards, the way we introduce ourselves to each other, online and off.

Selfies represent a new way not only of representing ourselves to others, but of communicating with one another through images. “There is a primal human urge to stand outside of ourselves and look at ourselves,” said Clive Thompson, the author of the book “Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better.” “The idea of the selfie is much more like your face is the caption and you’re trying to explain a moment or tell a story,” said Frédéric della Faille, the founder of Frontback, a popular new photo-sharing application that lets users take photographs using both front- and rear-facing cameras. “It’s much more of a moment and a story than a photo.” And more often than not, he added, “It’s not about being beautiful.” Jenna Wortham, technology writer for the NY Times suggests that “rather than dismissing the trend as a side effect of digital culture or a sad form of exhibitionism, maybe we’re better off seeing selfies for what they are at their best — a kind of visual diary, a way to mark our short existence and hold it up to others as proof that we were here.”

Ms. Wortham’s words bring me to Kilroy, where a simple image meshed with our human need to say “I was here”. It was the early 1950s when I first encountered Kilroy. Long before the Internet made viral marketing easy, one long-nosed little character named Kilroy wandered around the world the old-fashioned way, becoming a legend among the millions of military men and women who served during World War II. The doodle was simple: it showed a bald head peering over a wall along with the tag “Kilroy Was Here”. Kilroy popped up in unpredicted places across all of the theaters of war visited by American troops and it inspired competitions to inscribe the graffiti in obscure locations, allowing weary soldiers a playful moment. Better yet, the mysterious Kilroy had Japanese intelligence officers and even Hitler himself worried over the seemingly omnipresent little fellow and his meaning.

At the age of three or four, I stood looking at my first Kilroy Was Here. It was drawn with ruby red lipstick on the face of my mother’s vanity mirror. I ran to parents to tell them there was a man in the mirror and they laughed conspiratorially, exchanging kisses on each other’s cheeks. Although I didn’t understand the meaning of the drawing or their response, I clearly remember the excitement of encountering Kilroy again and again throughout my childhood. Once he appeared on the wall my treehouse, and subsequently he popped up on street corner water hydrants, latrines, caves, book report covers, barn doors, roadside historical markers and grave stones. Kilroy was a sneaky little mystery that tickled, pricked and warmed my young heart.

I sense Kilroy’s spirit with the selfies that now wander around the world. They are a way of claiming ownership of the self. The selfie image makers are accepting themselves as objects and reflecting their images back through the smartphone camera lens. They control the images of themselves that float around the virtual waters, but they cannot anticipate how these images will be received or perceived by others. Yes, there is a danger that selfies can be the servant of narcissism or to project a fantasy—an idealized lifestyle revolving around artfully decorated desserts and palm stretched sunsets. Yet they also unabashed in their announcements, and just like Kilroy, they scream “I was here”. When carefully constructed, selfies illicit reactions and renew mystery. They reflect and create mood and communicate something far deeper than their pixilation.

Yes, most selfies are boring and lifeless because most people are boring and lifeless. And yes, most selfies lean towards self-centeredness and the mundane. Nonetheless, I recall the words from Virginia Woolfe’s autobiographical essay, Moments of Being, where she wrote that “the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art … we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”

For the present, it is the selfie that expresses our unconscious respect for the beauty in simply being alive. For me, there is a symbiosis between smartphones, self-portraits, Kilroy and social media. They are the visual diary that reflects our understanding that the personal narrative is how all of us experience the world. We will always create our personal narratives with words, music, stories, dance, art, and social media and selfies- and we will tell our stories, whether or not there is anyone around to keep us honest.

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