The Prison of the Photographed Self

wheel (2)I’m a rabid user of social media – both text and photography and, more recently, I’ve experimented with Periscope which streams video live. Travelling quite a bit – sometimes for work, sometimes for pleasure – I have an unholy fear of being without a 3G connection to feed the social media beast wherever I go. The upside of this addiction is that you can get to know a lot about a culture just by having to track down a local SIM card. I learned a great deal about Burma and their unique SIM card ‘lottery’. In Yangon, I had to visit nine increasingly narrow, sweaty holes in the wall until I found a place that would sell me a SIM card linked to the identity of a Burmese citizen who had won the SIM lottery draw but didn’t want to use their card. It felt like stealing someone’s identity – well, buying it. I did return the card at the end of my stay. Who knows? The lottery winner might one day change his mind and want to have an Instagram account.

But I digress.

I had a habit of going on long walks, photographing and tweeting the curious things I saw along the way. Sometimes, I’d pick an area to walk based on a theme – for instance – through the Temple Bar in London and wandering around the various historic Inns of Court, photographing their architectural details and ornamentation, trying to capture a sense of the atmosphere, the light, the years embedded in stone, as well as tweeting sundry historical factoids. I did the same along the canal near where I live part of the year in Ho Chi Minh City, photographing the produce laden river-barges and the families who live on them – their dogs, their window boxes, their laundry. Same in Morocco, in Istanbul, in Petra, in Angkor, in Phnom Penh.

I had a manic desire to pull my twitter friends into the place and the moment, the light, the smells, the sounds, and the sensation of the place – to transport them there. It took me a stupid amount of time to realize that this was exactly the same obsession I feed when I write.

Don, my husband, says it’s a generosity of spirit, a need to share. But he would say that because he loves me. He’s sweet, but wrong; I’m not that nice. Maybe I’m trying to suture up a well of pathetic existential loneliness? Maybe I’m an attention whore?

Perhaps, but I’m a very specific variety of attention whore. On the occassions when, while streaming a Periscope video of the sun rising over the mountains or a particularly crazy rainstorm in Vietnam, or walking through the madness of Feria, someone will comment: turn the camera around, show your face. It’s only then I realize that this is what most people do with Periscope – they talk to the camera. They address their ‘audience’. The prospect of doing that thing – turning the camera around – engenders a level of revulsion in me that I don’t think I can find words for.

I never take ‘selfies’ (I’ve taken a few self-portraits when I needed to provide a photo of myself for something or other – a conference, an avatar, a photo requested by someone – but that’s a necessary chore I don’t enjoy). I don’t photograph myself in situ and not only can’t I understand why other people seem to need to do this so badly, but the prospect of it gives me a terrible, queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.

No, it’s worse than that. I am gripped in a quiet horror.

When I went down to the Tower of London to see the Poppy Installation created for the centennial anniversary of WWI, I noticed just how many people needed to photograph themselves AND the poppies. Why? Why do we have to be in that photograph? Is it some testament of verisimilitude – see, I really was here – like the non-porn version of the money shot?

selfies (1)

I exclude photographers who take self-portraits as a part of their art practice from this question – of course. But the rest of us. Why? Why do we constantly feel the need to produce ourselves as images for the consumption of others?

Are we not real unless we are remediated? Has the remediation of ourselves become proof of our very existence, our worth, a photographic form of graffiti? “Ned was here!” so Ned existed and did something that mattered? He defaced this monument with a pen knife or, much like a territorial animal, sprayed his dayglo scent all over this ancient wall….or clicked this iPhone button?

I’m trying to understand this, trying not to squirm away from the discomforting answers I’m coming up with.

There is definitely a materialist aspect to it: I am rich enough to own a smart phone and afford the connectivity. Rich enough to have the leisure time to travel to this place. Indeed, according to an article in the Guardian “Forget selfies! The latest holiday accessory is a professional photographer” there is even more opportunity to flaunt one’s wealth by paying someone else to produce slicker photographs of you on your holiday, if you can afford it. And the message is: “Look at me! Look how happy I am, how wealthy I am, how beautiful I am.” Look at me, love me, envy me.

People have written about the culture of envy and how it plays an essential role in powering the wheels of consumerism. Our need to possess what others have is what gives capitalism its momentum.

Meanwhile, Jacques Lacan identified the curious ‘jouissance of the other’ – the projected fantasy of believing that someone else has an access to enjoyment that you cannot have – which sets up a strange paradox – a repressed yearning that manifests as hatred and disgust of the imagined, luckier other.

But what we do when we are driven to make constant image products of ourselves is different and, I think, for most of us, quite new. There was a time when only the incredibly wealthy and powerful could commission paintings of themselves. And in the past, the photographic portrait, the family video, the wedding pictures, were made, not for some unknown future viewer, but for the people in the photograph or the film. It was an aide-mémoire, capturing a moment or event for those in the photograph or video as a faithful representation for those involved and perhaps their offspring. People would take photographs of a gathering of people joined by common purpose – an office Christmas party, the 1953 members of the Polar Bear Swimmers Club of Milwaukee. These photographs didn’t have a lot of meaning to anyone besides the subjects and perhaps their closest relatives and friends, and, perhaps the members of those families, groups or organizations that came after them.

Those pictures are always like toned down versions of Victorian momento mori – tokens of mourning that contained a likeness, photograph, hair or teeth of a dead loved one. When we take pictures, death is always present in the photograph. If only in the sense that once the photograph is taken, the moment is dead and over. The family holiday snaps contain, in their being, the end of the holiday, the demise of that experience. The existence of a group photograph of the 1953 members of the Milwaukee Polar Bear Swimmers club always intimates that there was a 1954 group and some of the members might have changed. I look at the photographs that Alex Waterhouse Hayward took of me in my youth and, those pictures contain within them the death of my youth, my short-lived beauty, the single intimate moment in which I allowed him to photograph me. Death haunts every photograph.

Mostly, we know about the people who are valued by our society because we see so many photographs and videos of them. They are ‘in the public eye’ and the public eye has strong emotional reactions to them, either of attraction or repulsion. Is it any surprise we too want to be visible in that public way? There is so much adulation that can go along with high-visibility. And even when that person in the public eye is a hated, a figure of vilification… well, at least they weren’t nobody.

But what of those of us for whom the paparazzi does not wait? For whom the cameras do not click and flash? Are we nobody until our image is out there in the public sphere for strangers to see and possibly admire and envy? And what if we aren’t beautiful and rich and successful in our fields? Perhaps there is no alternative but to be our own paparazzi and take photos of ourselves? How else to we achieve ‘someonehood’?

And yet with an internet full of selfies, millions of nameless images of people in front of their bathroom mirrors making duck faces, or pressed together in a field of friends to show how much we are loved, or beaming into the camera lens at the lively pub, on the sunlit beach, snuggled up with our pets in the sanctuary of our bed. How do we stand out amongst those millions of faces?

Perhaps we take our clothes off, we show our tits, we spread our legs, we masturbate to tumescence and show our dicks. We expose ourselves to the camera and then the world in public places, behaving in ways that are not generally socially sanctioned. But there are so many of those pictures too. How can a nobody compete? Perhaps by streaming the moment of our own suicides, or in the act of destroying the life of another?

In all this, we keep insisting that we don’t care what others think of us, that we are being authentic, and yet that image is always taken for an imaginary audience. In uploading it, we are always addressing ourselves to someone else, to the other. There is nothing more distressing that posting a selfie and having absolutely no one remark, like or respond to it.

I don’t really know where I’m going with this essay. Certainly, I will post it so that others can read it. Even if I don’t take selfies, the writing I post, the photographs I tweet are addressed to another and I, as much as anyone else, do crave that sense of not-aloneness, of recognition that some act of communication has taken place and, by extension, share in the horror of being a nobody.

But one of the things I want to say about selfies and why they cause me so much unsettledness is that I know there must be some, perhaps unconscious and unacknowledged part of us that craves validation from others. It’s similar to the act of writing about oneself. It’s not that it lacks validity or worth, but it seems like such an enclosed and claustrophobic vista to me. And while we’re busy taking selfies or writing about ourselves, we’re are doing two things that really trouble me.

First, we are affording the other – the anonymous stranger, the voyeur, the consumer of our social media content – so much power over us. Why would we leave our sense of self-worth (even a fraction of it) in the hands of strangers?

Second, while we’re busy taking that selfie, or writing about ourselves, we’re shutting the rest of the world out, affording it less meaning. We’re not being IN and enjoying the vast sensory landscape the world has to offer us.

In essence, we ‘other’ ourselves. We produce artifacts of ourselves that we then consume as if we were strangers to ourselves. We indulge in our own objectification. And perhaps that can lead to us feeling unvaluable, unwhole, not enough, alienated from ourselves. Because there is always going to be someone out there who is richer, younger, more beautiful, more privileged. We will never win the competition. So why do we set ourselves up that way?

I don’t know. All I know is that, while I still tweet pictures, and I still post Periscopes when I catch something I feel is interesting, and I still post both fiction and non-fiction online, I have started to be conscious of why I’m doing it and what I want from it.

And in posting this, I want something from you. I’d like your thoughts on the issues I’ve written about.

  35 comments for “The Prison of the Photographed Self

  1. August 27, 2015 at 6:13 pm

    another insightful article, RG. full of questions. i feel as if this need to Instagram has crept up on me. i like to share photos of things i see on walks. it’s as if the camera is a companion. yes, absolutely, validation because when folks comment on my photos, i enjoy it, but also as a way, like everything else i do on line & even in print, to find kindreds, people who share my values & have similar attitudes towards life. that’s the main reason why i’m on social media at all. in a world where i feel alienated by much of conventional society, i’m looking for fellow aliens.

    • August 27, 2015 at 6:45 pm

      I love the idea of looking for fellow aliens. I relate to that very much.

      • Amanda Earl
        August 27, 2015 at 9:39 pm

        I thought you might 🙂

  2. August 27, 2015 at 7:01 pm

    I have a horror of being photographed. 35 years with a photographer, and I can count on one hand the number of images with me in them. My son and his girlfriend, however, are constantly either taking pictures of themselves or asking one of us to do so. Perhaps it is a reaction to all the social media inundation they have grown up with? Or, perhaps, I am the odd duck who truly does not see the point of capturing myself frozen in time. And maybe that is my issue with it – it captures a frozen moment, one that is gone and will never return, and is therefore useless to me. I think I can only move forward, not back, and spend all of my energies on the moment I have right now…or maybe I just don’t recognize myself in those images, in all my awkward crazy-haired glory.

    • August 27, 2015 at 8:52 pm

      I think you may have put your finger on why I have a particular horror of it – “it captures a frozen moment, one that is gone and will never return, and is therefore useless to me”. I think that, somehow, the moment is not really frozen until it is captured, if that makes sense? It is a moment and, like Schrodinger’s cat, that moment has no closure until it is observed and recorded. The moment is murdered in its capture. Which is fine for monuments, cool plants, landscapes… but not for me.

      • August 27, 2015 at 10:16 pm

        I like that a lot more than the assumption I made that it is the bad place where my social anxiety and ice collide

  3. Jen Pederson
    August 27, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    Very thought-provoking piece. I have a selfie habit that I am trying to curb. It arose from a desire to document myself. I disappeared for years in housewifery, and came out of a separation with no concept of myself aside from in relation to others. I had next to no photos of myself for fifteen years. I post selfies for myself. I look at them. I try to figure out what other people see. I make up stories about myself. I try to remember that I don’t just exist inside my own head. Flimsy evidence and sort of shallow, I guess, but there it is. We all have our own reasons for our exhibitionism, and it takes varied forms. Thank you for writing this.

    • August 27, 2015 at 8:48 pm

      Hi Jen,
      Wow, I can so see how that might happen. I’m not suggesting selfies are wrong or bad. I’m just interested in why we do it and note the peer pressure placed upon others to do it. What are we getting out of it. What does it do to our self-sense.

  4. August 27, 2015 at 8:54 pm

    From behind the anonymity of the lens, I will share the beauty and the majesty of this small corner of my world, seen through and filtered by what tickles my fancy, my vision, my purpose. But I abhor when that lens swings in my direction for it reveals the not-me, misdirecting attention from the self I am, my true identity.

    When I photograph, when I write, I ask one and only one question: do you see what I see?

    Validation enters into it, but not entirely. I’m seeking purity of understanding. Encapsulation of a moment in time. Authenticity (an argument worth a year’s worth of blog posts). Is the tree falling in the forest with none to bear witness a singularity? Does it lose meaning, purpose, legitimacy when context fails?

    I try to reconstruct events via words and pictures, tying together bits and bobs of evidence to forestall the isolation of being numb to existence. The recordings I make, via digital means or words, extends the present back in time until the sounds, scents, and sights of that singularity take shape and form. We are all engaged in the CSI of our own lives. What makes today different from decades past, before the world digitized and spread like a clear solvent that dissolved the barriers between inner and outer, is that the filter of worth has shifted in unexpected directions.

    Perchance we mistake validation for agreement? If the philosophers are correct, we are all nothing but singularities in random, Brownian motion, relying on chance and the vagaries of fate to connect. In a narcissistic world of entitlement, showing up perforce merits recognition. To not score it, then to become burdened with the angst of self-hate and no one loves me, means simply that one of life’s lessons is in play, one too few have yet to learn.

    …get used to disappointment.

    • August 27, 2015 at 9:32 pm

      I really love your question: ” do you see what I see?”

      Not because I ‘see correctly’ but because it can serve as both a reality check, but also, as Amanda mentioned, a way to connect with kindred spirits and, most importantly for me, a way to broaden the way I see. We all have our blind spots, and learning another way of seeing always makes life richer for me.

  5. August 27, 2015 at 9:47 pm

    This is a really interesting post. I don’t take selfies and I go to great lengths to avoid being photographed, even by my family on holiday. I have a couple of pictures I use for avis every now and again just to remind people that I’m a real person, but I never put them up for long. While it doesn’t puzzle me that people take pictures of themselves to remind them of places they’ve been – the inclusion of self just because, no matter how much we deny it, we’re all self-obsessed. But what does puzzle me is why people share them so publicly. Sure, with friends and family – but what makes people think that total strangers will be interested in them? Then, as you say, they feel compelled to do something more shocking, more revealing, to get noticed. It’s like peeling away the layers of an onion, showing more and more of self in public. But where can lead? What is there left when the last layer is peeled away and they’re still confronted with silent indifference? Where can they go next? And it seems like they’re not considering this when they do it…

    • August 27, 2015 at 11:38 pm

      I guess my interest is in what the pleasure of doing this is. It worries me that building up a sense of self based on the opinions of strangers is transitory and precarious.

  6. August 28, 2015 at 12:48 am

    The timing of this post is a little uncanny! You touched on exactly what I was trying to get at in the story I just posted. I’m not a big selfie person. I prefer to put the focus elsewhere, which is why I love looking at, and taking, pictures of other people (though I’m not very good). For me, it’s an attempt at preserving something ephemeral – a moment, a feeling, the light in a place – even though I know the task I set myself is almost impossible to achieve. Equally, I’m aware of distancing myself in the attempt. In trying to capture a moment, I stop allowing myself to be fully present, so I have to make a choice – I can either immerse myself in the experience, or I can pull myself out and try to capture it. I’d love to say that I’ve found some sort of balance, but I bounce between the two.

    As for selfies, they feel like an odd impulse… sort of cultural obsession with self-objectification. Or maybe self-preservation, or the assertion of “yes, I was here, yes, I exist, you’re looking at me, so yes, I matter”. I don’t have that impulse with my physical self but I do assert my presence in my writing. But even then, I still don’t think of writing as artifact creation in the way that taking selfies might be. God, I don’t know, but now I’ve got something to mull. Thank you.

  7. Jim Lawrence
    August 28, 2015 at 5:33 pm

    I think it’s about all the motivations you discuss, and I think it’ s about death too: the central existential driver that makes the human world. Unlike any other creature we understand that we exist, and with that insight comes the realisation that we will die. Selfies are just another way of trying to convince ourselves otherwise, another way of constructing a comforting ‘reality’ to screen us from nothingness.

  8. August 29, 2015 at 2:16 am

    Thank you for such a thought provoking post. I feel split on this issue. I don’t take selfies because I have never felt I took a good photograph and I feel like the photo excludes my essence. Yet last year at a work do I had got my hair straightened and a professional make over and when people took pictures of me I loved them. I looked great and felt validated to share those photos on my facebook. I got the hit of people commenting and liking it and yet at times I hate that pic because the converse side is that I have had more men approaching me in a sleazy well. I have felt like consumable meet. You are right that when you share your picture you are handing your power over to others to comment etc. It is uncomfortable. Yet having that experience I can see why people do it. I wonder too are they trying to build and create an identity through the pictures. Are they a form of who am I?

  9. TFP
    August 29, 2015 at 7:02 pm

    Thought provoking essay, it conjured up a memory of when the family dug out some old super 8 film from the fifties and early sixties. As we sat through the footage, all I could think of was why did they waste so much time filming the trees, mountains, and lakes. I desired to see my long lost great grandfather whom I never met but caught a mere glimpse in the hour of dull footage. That glimpse caught an older man in a dapper suit and hat. The audience reaction to that moment outweighed the hour of environmental scenery by far. I think of a movie with awesome special effects yet with a poor story line or poor character development. Those movies usually tank after a few weeks. Yet a movie with a great plot and interesting characters is what makes a great film. What will these social images mean in the future? Only time will tell but I personally believe they will mean a great deal to some in the future.

    We humans seek validation, meaning, and some sort of purpose. The selfie is one of the little ways we fill those personal needs or the needs of my great, great, great, grandchildren.

    Thank you RG!

  10. August 30, 2015 at 2:53 am

    I don’t have quite the visceral reaction you do but I too avoid selfies. Part of it is vanity (I take a terrible photo) but also privacy. One of the first things I loved about the internet was being valued more for what I wrote and how well I wrote it instead of for what I looked like and I’d like to keep that as much as possible.

    Not sure why other people do it – maybe to prove they’ve been where their update says that they have?

  11. Miranda
    August 30, 2015 at 7:13 am

    I don’t have a Twitter or Instagram account. The only social media I use is Facebook, and that’s primarily to keep up with family and friends who live far away. I see the multitudes of selfies friends and family post, and I’ve posed for a few with my friends and shared them to my account. (Right now, however, my profile picture is of my dog, whose picture I enjoy seeing each day much more than my own.) When I’m visiting different places, mountain lakes or historical cemeteries, my natural reaction is to not only NOT insert myself into the picture but to wait until every human being is out of the way before I take it. When I see friends post pictures of trips we’ve gone on together, and I notice that they’ve taken a picture of me unawares, I think to myself, “Why would you want to mess up a perfectly good picture by having me in it?”

    As you well know, in the span of human existence, photographs are a recent invention. When we were kids, if we took pictures, we had to wait to develop the film to see how they turned out unless we used a Polaroid camera. We didn’t “waste” film on just any old thing. We saved pictures for special occasions. (Or at least, my family did.) Now with our technology, people can share their photos with the world in an instant. I’m no psychologist and I don’t fancy myself a philosopher, but I think there are several factors in play with the selfie craze. Most people are looking for that validation. It’s the same reason most women and some men primp and preen in front of the mirror each morning, spending hours of their lives perfecting their makeup, their outfit, and their hair. They wouldn’t go through all that trouble if they had no audience. If they were stranded on a desert island, alone, I doubt they’d give a shit about how their hair looked. But when they post a selfie to social media, and the likes pour in, and the compliments on their appearance are shared, that’s a little hit of dopamine to their brains. We’ve all been guilty of it. In this society, so focused on looks, most of us want to be told we’re attractive physically, because that translates to, “You have worth. You may be the shittiest person alive, but you look good, so you have value.”

    Then there’s the aspect of social media itself. Most people (with some exceptions) don’t share the crummy aspects of their lives on social media. They don’t post about the fight they had with their spouse, the overdue bill from the doctor’s office, the leaking ceiling in the bathroom. Some folks do, but you’ll notice that those down-in-the-dumps posts don’t get much attention. No one wants to be distracted by humdrum bitching and moaning. People want to see smiling faces and cheery posts. We cringe when someone distastefully airs dirty laundry or starts a bunch of drama on social media. But if a person’s life is truly shitty, seeing all those cheerful facades on Facebook, with everyone putting their best faces (and posts) forward, can be a real downer on the self-esteem. So it becomes a competition. Who has the most perfect life? The best job, the most accomplished children, the most caring husband, and of course, the highest number of Facebook friends? The easiest way to share how great our lives are is through photographs.

    But I think the main reason people are sharing this massive amount of information about themselves really boils down to existential angst. No matter what our religious affiliations, deep down, I think that most of us are struggling with the idea that life seems to have no meaning. We may pray to a god and look forward to some blissful afterlife, but this life, the one here and now, the only one we can know for sure, is pretty damn pointless. Sure, we enjoy spending time with our families, and some of us may love our jobs, and we may volunteer for a good cause and help others. But in the end, a person is just one on a planet with over seven billion others. We are not special snowflakes. An infinitesimally small number of us will have some kind of lasting impact on this earth before we die. I think the pictures we see and post, the thoughts and opinions we read about and share and react to, are pitiful cries into the abyss, a billion voices screaming together, “I exist! I am here, and I MATTER.” Our images and our thoughts, our social circles and our religions and political affiliations–a lot of us are willing to share these aspects of ourselves with total strangers because these things carve an identity out for us. They give our egos a shape among the void. And god forbid those fragile egos, ever seeking validation, are threatened, or even ignored.

    I realize this is a long and somewhat rambling response. If you’ve made it to this point, I appreciate you reading and giving me a chance to voice my thoughts. (Even I, mostly quiet and remaining behind the scenes on social media, still have that primal urge to say, “Here are my thoughts. See? They matter.”)

  12. August 30, 2015 at 2:30 pm

    A while ago I did a piece for a technology programme I occasionally report for about internet addiction. I’d just abandoned facebook as part of an attempt to de-digitise my life (I slunk back two years later with my tail between my legs) and interviewed a life coach, a columnist and a psychologist about various aspects of the issue.
    I think there are a host of factors here. The big one, I suspect, is that in a globally connected world we increasingly get a sense of our own insignificance. The world’s population has doubled in my lifetime, moreover whereas growing up the hundreds of millions in China, India and elsewhere were somehow less important on so many levels, now they’re visible in real time across public and social media. We have invented the precursor to the total perspective vortex.
    Then there’s the brains reaction to getting ‘likes’ or ‘follows’ on social media – essentially, I was told, it releases little shots of dopamine. We get hooked like rats in an experiment. We are the product because people are the most interesting thing on offer anywhere and we can’t get enough of one another.
    But, as you say, we need validation and, perhaps, a sense that something of ourselves will survive us and that our meaningless lives matter. Of course our lives matter, just in the great sweep of the universe, as opposed to to the people you share your life with, they don’t matter much. Selfies are just another attempt to stave off oblivion in one form or another. I’m assuming however that Zaphod Beeblebrox doesn’t take selfies but rather simply expects the universe to want to take a selfie with him…

    • August 30, 2015 at 3:27 pm

      Thanks for this wonderful, insightful post. I’m going to hop over and visit your blog.

      I’d like to float a rather counter-intuitive idea. That our growing sense of insignificance isn’t caused by us believing we, as subjective individuals are losing meaning, but because we are being encouraged to preference ourselves, to centre our universe on us, as opposed to on others. Have you noticed how people who dedicate their lives to others don’t seem to suffer from a sense of their own insignificance? How people who are focused on the rest of the world seem to be less unsure of their place in the world? I think consumerism promotes rampant narcissism, it encourages acute self-focus.

      We’re fooling ourselves that we have meaning as individuals independent world around us. But that makes no ontological sense. I think it is one’s engagement in the world that gives one’s life meaning. If you turn inward, you have no measure.

      • Jane Anne
        October 4, 2015 at 8:45 pm

        The growing preference for self vs. active engagement with the exterior (to self) world. A succinct take on thr drive to comment that is fresh, exciting to examine. You make one hand clapping seem a possibility! The answer to the Q “Is anyone home?” Seems to be yes….out here, out here!

  13. September 1, 2015 at 11:01 am

    this is something i have always felt: When we take pictures, death is always present in the photograph. If only in the sense that once the photograph is taken, the moment is dead and over.
    there is a frozen quality to photographs, that literally gives me the chills…

  14. September 2, 2015 at 6:07 am

    Sorry it has taken me a few days to get round to commenting…I disappeared off to Amsterdam for bank holiday…I will DM you the link to my post on my real name blog that I mentioned on Twitter, but also wanted to leave a longer comment…

    This whole area fascinates me and I really can’t wait to see what more comes of your thinking and conversations here. A few thoughts from me, bashed out quickly I am afraid as sleep is chasing me…

    1) People used to talk about a photography as capturing a defining moment, which is true to a point, but then I also disagree because it captures a split second of activity and without the context and the bigger picture, can you really say it’s a defining moment? This idea has always fascinated me and even before the days of digital manipulation photography had the power to deceive and distort reality…sometimes famously if you look at things like Capa’s Fallen Soldier. I explored this slightly in my degree show which was called ‘Lost in Space’ which was about loneliness in busy places…I waited painstakingly for the split second when iconic London locations would have just one person in the frame! The photos were the truth yes, but also a lie because London never really looks like that! Any photo – selfie, talented amateur or pro is frequently only telling part of the story.

    2) Re the cultural and travel…I have particular views on tourists taking photos of people and communities which are in the blog I will send you. Re photos of myself on trips…no no no no…I travel to be in places, not to be in photos. I frequently travel on my own and I have come back from three week holidays and realised I don’t have a single photo of me. If I am taking a photo of a beautiful view or iconic building the last thing I want to hear is a friend or stranger ask if I would like my photo taken in front of xx. Of course I am not immune to stupidity…doing the doe-eyed Princess Diana in from of the Taj Mahal shot or pretending to wank trees in Indonesia that have penis-like appendages…but to race round a country collecting inane grinning shots in from of landmarks, no!

    3) Selfies of the ‘look how great my life is’ are the narcissistic and annoying and I don’t understand them. But here is where it gets interesting…while I cannot bear the constant stream of self-congratulatory and poorly-composed selfies, can I really sit in judgement when I write this under the banner of a project that is using photography to explore issues of body images and our relationship with ourselves as we age? I and the people who have participated in Exposing 40 have gained strength from the positive comments of the Sinful Sunday community; how are we different from a teenager posing in front of the mirror in a bikini for reassurance and congratulation from her own community ? I don’t think my photos are like those pouting mirror selfies, but where is the line? At what point does a photograph cease to be a snap and instead become art? Where is the boundary with what I am doing with body positivity and self obsession? Who decides whether someone is self-obsessed or seeking reassurance. It’s fascinating and the answers aren’t easy.

    Finally, if your Europe travels take your through Amsterdam this autumn there are a couple of great exhibitions – one at Foam about a Japanese photographer who captured her transgender lover during transition, including surgery. Then at Huis Marseille there’s one called Life is Strange which poses questions about what happens after a photograph is taken and the idea that a photograph is the start of a story, not the end.

    • September 2, 2015 at 1:27 pm

      I and the people who have participated in Exposing 40 have gained strength from the positive comments of the Sinful Sunday community; how are we different from a teenager posing in front of the mirror in a bikini for reassurance and congratulation from her own community ?

      I think you’re absolutely spot on. The answers aren’t easy. There’s no (pardon the pun) black and white ones. Certainly if the online visual discourse is overflowing with the images of beautiful youth, then a project like Exposing 40 are visual voices that provide an alternative to the monolithic wall of the norm of what’s out there. I’m a little more mixed about the Sinful Sunday project. I have enormous respect for Molly, and a lot of the photography is similarly aimed at providing alternate and more authentic images of eroticism and the human body. But I have noticed that even in that project, there’s a validation of photographs that come closest to and look most like mainstream perception of beautiful porn. While I love the bold alternatives, I’m not so keen on the ones I feel simply perpetuate validation of the ‘perfect’ body, the ‘tasteful’ erotic exposure, etc. That world is huge. It doesn’t need another visual voice.

  15. BS
    September 10, 2015 at 6:41 am

    I agree with many excellent points made here, most of all with RG’s response to Jonathan Kent. I have worked in broadcast journalism for 23 years and in my perspective it’s a culmination of trends and technology reflecting, magnifying and increasing one another exponentially: talk shows, expanding cable channels, reality shows, celebrity worship, the internet, social media, smart phones, “multi-media marketing.” Facebook changed format specifically to present each user as the star of one’s own life drama. Validation comes from likes, shares, retweets. All that matters is that you’re seen on a screen as much as possible. That’s how you become ‘famous,’ and fame is an over-valued commodity now. It doesn’t matter if you have character, integrity, if you say/write/produce anything of value. I have producers in their 20’s working for me who try to tell me that any idiotic YouTube video qualifies as news just because it gets a high number of views within a day or two. My own profession contributes to the problem because my industry insists that fewer, younger staff (read cheaper & less experienced) must provide more and more content in less time (with less depth and perspective but greater chance for error) to fill ever expanding hours of broadcast time on ever expanding channels. They don’t know or care why Kim Kardashian is famous. It’s the fame that matters to them. Perhaps it’s because we’re relative babies in the era of mass/social media, but we’ve become a culture that caters to the childish “Hey, look at me!” urge.
    Thank you for this oasis, RG. I come here often for the intelligent reading, writing and discussion.

    • September 11, 2015 at 12:06 am

      Thank you for coming, for commenting, and your very interesting and informed perspective.

  16. suzi
    September 13, 2015 at 12:06 am

    I hate having my photo taken. I avoid selfies…but every so often while sitting at my keyboard at three AM, trying to finish a scene in my novel, I catch a glimpse of myself…the REAL me in a reflection in my monitor. I lean in and say, “whoa, that’s what I REALLY look like!” Not the made-up me, the girl on the go trying to create a perfected image of herself…in that moment I MUST snap that shot. I want to remember who I am at three AM creating a deeply intimate moment between my characters and myself. It’s a photo of a process, and I will always come back to that moment on the page, when my antagonist was tying the girl to a tree…. It’s a form of narcissism I suppose…but that’s just me.

  17. September 13, 2015 at 10:19 pm

    I rabidly avoid social media. I want nothing to do with it — not 3G, not selfies, not twitter, not Facebook, none of it. I don’t have or want a smart phone. I’ve never bought an app. The only reason I have a camera is so that I can take pictures of flowers and architecture. I always disappear when cameras come out. Don’t like being in pictures. Even when the camera is pointed at me I manage to disappear. Can’t explain it.

  18. raj
    September 29, 2015 at 1:35 pm

    Thanks for sharing this post. My own aversion to this kind of self promotion stems from a creeping sense it’s a necessity for relevance. At its heart is a set of inauthentic postcards yet each a vital piece of evidence in an exchange of credentials in the stories of our fantastic lives.

  19. Liras
    October 13, 2015 at 11:11 am

    RG, I also do not like sitting still for photographs. Few pics of me exist–which might be an issue for my future obituary.

    When it comes to the selfies, I think people take them to prove they are real, that they exist in reality. We construct worlds in our heads but somehow, a photo is the ‘proof’ of what is real. Or should be, anyway.

  20. divs
    October 18, 2015 at 9:51 am

    There is also a kind of patheticism to selfies. No one’s around to take pics of me, and just because no one can see my beauty in this moment, doesn’t mean I can’t show it to millions. Hence the bathroom duckadence. For most people though, it’s there, in their hands, so why not do it. They never ask the question why do it?

  21. Amy Johnson
    March 23, 2016 at 10:05 am

    Dear Remittance Girl,
    My boyfriend and I suffer the most romantic and intense of long distance relationships. You, your website, your long hours of thought and creativity are something we share together. He reads me your work often as I drift to sleep (not that you are boring ,). We both thank-you. Keep up the good work. – and Josh

  22. Jane Anne
    May 15, 2016 at 7:41 pm

    A Burmese Sim “lottery card”…..what a provocative notion from Yangon. You had me by the nails with that. What delicious, dark possibilities in that hard and louche world of imagination. As to “selfies”? The capture of self, the “who am I?” is an endless pursuit. Somehow it is like a monkey looking for fleas.

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