When a camera is pointed away from the photographer, it can yield images that provide a fascinating window through which we can better see and understand the world around us. Yet when the camera is turned around and pointed toward the photographer, rather than providing new insight into that fascinating world out there, it merely records the dysfunction of our own egos. The smooth surface of the pond that provided Narcissus a glimpse of his beloved self has simply been substituted with the shiny Gorilla Glass of a Samsung S5.
Photography is an incredible technology that for decades has shepherded our imagination from the battlefield to the bird nest, from under the sea to the faintest reaches of space, but it has now been reduced to an electronic mirror we hold in front of our face. By turning the camera’s eye toward our own, we essentially tell the world to fuck off, because we’re not interested in its complicated intricacies any longer. It’s now all about me. For proof, take a look at the Facebook pages of people who do nothing but post selfies of themselves. They’re sick, like Narcissus on the riverbank, slowly dying of sorrow because they can’t sufficiently love the genuine object of their affection, themselves.
I’m not talking about the occasional cuddle before the camera with Grandma on her birthday, or close friends looking for an excuse to snuggle for a moment, but rather the behavior of people whose camera seldom focuses on anything farther than an arms length away. You know who I’m talking about.
In her seminal book On Photography, Susan Sontag described the act of capturing a photograph as a dichotomy between the photographer’s disengagement when observing at a distance and his or her engagement when creating the image. “Taking photographs has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels all events,” she wrote. Selfies have compressed that, effectively destroying the dichotomy. It’s not clear if that’s a symptom of rising narcisisim without our culture or the cause of it. Or both. But what’s certain is that it’s been a rapid development. In the ancient days of MySpace, a whopping decade ago, a selfie was often taken in a bathroom mirror, providing a whole genre of self-images hovering above faucet handles. But then came the addition of a front-facing camera to the Iphone 4, and the massive migration to Facebook brought selfies out of the bathroom and into the light of day. Fashionable as it has become, the selfie, to photography, is what masturbation is to sex. That doesn’t make it bad, per se, it just means there are ways of doing photography which are much more fun and participatory.
Some want to pass off selfies as something participatory when in reality they are not. Particularly sinful, from my prejudiced eye, are those who take their camera phones into other cultures and come home with dozens of pictures of them and “the natives.” Church mission teams are notorious for this, but I’ve seen executives from church mission agencies, perhaps to justify the stylish khaki vest they bought at Banana Republic before the trip, come home with a portfolio of themselves posing with little black or brown children. Let’s face it: that’s one way of stating that the culture of others only has value when I add myself to it. Cute kids notwithstanding, it’s visual colonialism.
Lest my condemnation of selfies seem absolute, let me note that exceptions exist. I noted a while back how Ciony Ayo-Eduarte, the very competent former country director of UMCOR in the Philippines, had used an Ipad in a creative way in the middle of a disaster, giving “those who suffer in too many ways a moment to celebrate that they are still alive, still laughing.” Here she is:
And here’s a story about the positive role of selfies in documenting human migration.
Some will claim I’m just being a curmudgeon about this, or rallying against something that threatens my job. Maybe so. Yet I’m actually enthusiastic about the democratization of photographic technology. If nothing else, the amazing proliferation if images available everyday has meant that we real photographers must be even more on our toes to capture images which are compelling and interesting.
Like it or not, we’re stuck with our smartphones and other modern forms of imaging technology. So if you’re still trying to figure out how to use this technology, begin by making sure you point the lens away from your face. Use it as a tool to better see and understand that complicated, delightful and painful world that surrounds us.