Some ten years ago, my childhood best friend and I would head down to our baroque capital each Saturday morning to window shop, gossip and sip strawberry McDonald’s milkshakes while overlooking the spectacular grand harbour views.
Then, we would visit the Savoy shopping mall and as part of our weekly ritual, squeeze ourselves into a photo-booth, insert an Lm1 coin (which would nowadays be roughly the equivalent of €2) and pull funny faces at the automated camera.
In 2003, neither of us had a mobile phone nor a digital camera. The photo-booth was our only means of documenting the outing.
If we were the same teens now, we’d undoubtedly be using our smartphones to capture selfies, and instead of keeping the shameful photos in our wallets (as we did), we’d keep a log of them on instagram for the entire world to admire.
The “selfie” has quickly come to symbolise our culture in 2013.
In fact, the word selfie has recently been included in the Oxford English dictionary as the most influential word of the year.
Here’s the official definition: “(n.) a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.”
What intrigues me about the selfie is just how an act of vanity is quickly coming to be accepted as a norm by society.
Moreover, none of these people seem to be taking themselves too seriously. The expressions are mainly sexy, mysterious and playful.
How are selfies different in comparison to posing in front of a ‘traditional’ camera?
I’d like to think of the selfie as being very similar to looking into a mirror.
At least whenever I switch on my front-facing smartphone camera to capture a furtive selfie, first thing I do is check that my face is in order, before eventually pouting or squinting at my reflection on the screen.
You see, whenever we look into a mirror, we go through an internal process of scrutinizing our appearance – we try to cover up the elements we dislike, and enhance the attributes we like.
However, we tend to do all this in the privacy of our bedrooms or in the bathroom.
We pull faces at ourselves in the mirror, experiment with our hair, try on new make-up, play dress-up – we perform and experiment with different identities within a safe and secure environment.
Now with the selfie, we are placing the behavior considered normal in front of a bedroom or bathroom mirror, into the public sphere.
And this is perhaps one of the reasons why the selfie has sparked up controversy; it is a new phenomenon, one that we love to hate. Purely because the art of selfie taking requires not taking yourself too seriously, acting goofy, and making public what was once carried out in private.
As a generation, we are the pioneers of the selfie as a means of expression. Meaning: there are those who have already embraced the selfie and harness it (e.g. teens and celebrities). Then there are those who are still testing the waters, and in the process, delaying the selfie from fully becoming a normalised aspect of our culture.
A selfie shared online is simply a process of bringing to the forefront what was once done in the background.
Basically, what the selfie is doing, is unleashing our obsession with self-portraits; it has made what was once invisible, visible across the entire internet universe.
In fact, selfies have always existed, albeit in a different format.
Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter, best known for her self-portraits.
Through a set of brushes and a vibrant palette, Kahlo depicted how she perceives herself to be, on an external level. In today’s vocabulary, she painted her selfie.
Painting is nowadays often perceived as time-consuming and expensive. In this regard, the smartphone has democratised the art of self-portraiture to the extent that selfies are taken, modified and shared instantaneously at no cost, whatsoever.
But if we could take pictures of anything, why are we so interested in our faces?
Our face is the organ that distinguishes us from other persons and is crucial for our identity. By flipping the lens and entering into the frame, we come to communicate deep ideas about who we are and where we fit into the world.
One of my favourite, and probably Frida Kahlo’s most famous quotes reads: “I paint myself because I am so often alone, and because I am the subject I know best.”
The selfie is a phenomenon in which the photographer is also the subject of the photograph – just like the self-portrait, but through a different medium.
What is perhaps most gauging about the selfie is the fact that we are given control over how we are seen by the world – definitely lacking in the filter-less photo-booth that had my first selfies taken, ten years ago.