Brief: Write a short post (around 500 words) in your learning log in response to the question: what does the phenomenon of the selfie tell us about how photography is popularly used nowadays? Illustrate your post with recent examples from the internet.
I recently wrote a critical essay on this subject for my Assignment 3 so I shall build on that with material I could not include on that occasion rather than reiterate the points made there.
How is photography popularly used nowadays?
We can start with the theory that everyone who has a smartphone or camera is a photographer these days and so the field is vast and far too open for any short essay like this one to deal with effectively. The parameters have to be set before any such analysis can be carried out.
The parameters I shall set here deal with the political ‘photo as trophy’ idea, and the vacuous ‘to live is to be photographed’ tenet of Susan Sontag.
The photo as trophy for me is exemplified by the image designed by Peter Kennard and Cat Picton-Phillipps’ photomontage Photo Op (2005) featuring a grinning Tony Blair infront of an oil field on fire. This satirical take on the Iraq war is a ‘selfie’ constructed by a third party reflecting narcissistic tendencies of a particular politician. The selfie making pastime concerning politicians reached new limits in December 2013 when Obama, Cameron and Thorning-Schmidt (daughter-in-law of Niel Kinnock and Danish Premier) were photographed taking selfies at the memorial service of Nelson Mandela, and reported in a Guardian article here:
The article takes on a feminist hue when it reports that Danish politicians used this slur to suggest: “She’s been criticised because she looks career-oriented and as if she’s having too good a time. And the selfie continues that narrative. But her real problem is that there is no clear view of what she wants politically.” (1) The Danish Prime Minister, elected in 2011, has also been given “the media nickname of “Gucci Helle”, so called because of her fondness for designer clothes. As she phrased it, when asked by a party member how she expected to connect to the people in her expensive outfits: “We can’t all look like shit!” Of course, had she made a habit of turning up for parliament dressed in the sweater sported by Sara Lund in The Killing, even the most egalitarian Dane would have struggled to forgive her. The double standard is the standard one: few men are judged by their appearance; few women are not.” (1) So although the three are all leaders of their respective countries engaged in the narcissistic practice of taking selfies to send back home to their mates, one, the woman, comes in for sustained criticism in both Britain and Denmark.
The ‘selfie as trophy’ is covered admirably by Susan Sontag in her essay ‘Regarding the torture of others.’ (2004) (2) in which she details the political arguments which developed after the ‘leaked’ images (how can you talk of leaked images anymore when there are no limits on how images are disseminated?) of the torture practices in Abu Ghraib and the subsequent stress on the semantics of refusing to use various words, one of which was the word ‘torture’ when talking about the images but focusing on the word ‘abuse’. She looks at the image of soldier Lynne England posing in front of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Again, I suspect that the fact that she is a woman (in the military) makes readers perceive her ‘crime’ so much worse than if she had been a male. “the horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken – with the perpetrators posing, gloating, over their helpless captives.” (2) Trophy photographs are taken, like the lynching images taken in the 1890 – 1930’s in the USA, in order ‘to be collected and stored in albums, displayed’. The Abu Ghraib pictures were less to be saved but more to be disseminated. the soldiers themselves are all photographers now ‘recording their war, their fun, their observations of what they find picturesque, their atrocities – and swapping images among themselves … around the globe.’ (2)
The only way people, whether in the military or not can inflict pain willingly and photograph the process is to objectify ( a terrorist; the enemy) those they are humiliating which also resonates well with feminist arguments about objectifying women. If they were to imagine that the victims were mothers, fathers, siblings to someone, would they still humiliate and record that humiliation they were inflicting on them?
‘To live is to be photographed’: the ubiquitous mobiles stress that we are never far from a photo irrespective of time, place or context. Can we ever maintain that we are not complicit in plastering our vision with ourselves, not to ‘share in the community of actions recorded as images’? The grin is a grin for the camera’ (2) How much of this is due to our addiction to aesthetic consumerism and how much is a result of our exposure to incessant consumerism? We have become our own brands in our constant need to circulate our likenesses to world wide audiences. Guy Debord’s 1967 theory of society as spectacle was referencing our idea of valuing the reproduction of a work of art rather than the original – how far along that road have we gone when what we want people to value of us is a flat, 2D subjective likeness rather than the ever-changing ‘original’?
Perhaps ‘to die is to be photographed’ would be a better subheading for this image:
The ‘Hijack Selfie’: ‘The grin is a grin for the camera’ (Sontag)
“2016’s most iconic selfie is also perhaps the most unexpected selfie of all time. When Seif Eldin Mustafa hijacked an EgyptAir flight in March in an attempt to reach his ex-wife in Cyprus, one passenger seized the opportunity for a legendary photo. 26-year old Ben Innes snapped a picture of himself beside the hijacker, who claimed to be wearing a suicide vest. After the frightening situation was resolved peacefully, Innes’ photo became the subject of controversy as many criticized the move as irresponsible and reckless. While Innes’ photo is not technically a selfie — a flight attendant took the photo — the picture became widely known as the “Hijack Selfie.””(3)