They call it a selfie. For some, it’s an act of narcissism, a definitive mark of the “Me Me Me” Generation. For others, it’s a work of art, an atlas for the future, or a moment of great and joyous honor. A selfie, therefore, is perhaps not something to shame, but rather something to celebrate.
The demonization of the selfie suggests societal refusal to view anything with the implication of narcissism as more than that. To see a selfie as a self-portrait, then, would be nothing short of a desecration of art.
Try explaining this to Vincent Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, to Rembrandt, who hosts a whole myriad of self-portraits, and to Robert Cornelius, to whom we owe the ability to take color photos.
Instead of brush strokes, we chose aperture, the amount of light let in through the camera lens. They selected color schemes; we choose filters. Angle, depth, height, all factors chosen by the creator of the image regardless of the century in which the image was created.
It is possible, then, that selfies are capable of the same beauty and brilliance as the world’s most heralded pieces, collected together not in museums, but on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram where the weathering of time will have no affect on the image itself.
Selfies, unlike paint on canvas, are easier to produce in a shorter amount of time, making them much more abundant. So instead of marking on moment in time, selfies evolve in to an atlas of a life, a series of maps routing the adventures of the subject of the photograph.
Isn’t it incredible that one picture has the potential to inspire hundreds of thousands of other human beings, to excite these people for the days to come, to tell innumerable stories of the adventures to be undertaken, and, eventually, to document an entire lifetime in tangible, accessible way?
A selfie can tell the story of a young student becoming the first of his family to graduate from college. It can be the tale of a professor, lecturing to a grand hall of eager young minds. It marks birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, celebrations, Hail Maries and hallelujahs.
These images record moments, moments that belong exclusively to the photographer. A selfie is a documentation of the moment of the subject experienced by that person alone, detailing what it was to be in entirely in that moment.
It is a mark in history.
But as soon as a selfie is cast off as generational practice of egotism, the viewer deprives him or herself of the ability to see potential, beauty, or good in that photograph. It digresses into the inescapable pit of social trends, lying to rest next to T9 texting on Nokia brick phones, hot pink velour sweat suits, and MySpace.
It is finally important to remember that a selfie does not belong to one person or to a group of people. Its reach – an therefore its influence – is vast.
On a sweltering afternoon at a primary school in Jamaica, after hours of mixing cement, applying coats of fresh paint, and defending your territory against potentially poisonous eight legged fiends, a swell of children rush from the two-roomed school house like a wave crashing against the shore across the street.
They reach you in an instant, entangling their hands in your hair and their laughter echoing across the yard in which they play. They reach for your phone, for your camera. They pose for photographs, learn the motion of the shutter, and begin to take selfies.
Are these children, narcissists, bathing themselves in the glow of selfishness?
Some expressions convey joy with smiles stretching across international borders. Others are ponderous, perhaps attempting to make sense of the stranger staring back at them.
We do the same with our selfies, scouring every aspect of our reflected image, attempting to understand the faces reflected by the screens of our cell phones.
The image we ultimately post is the one that we feel best interprets our experiences with that moment.
I see myself as a creator, an artist, an intellectual, an adventurer, a dreamer. But it doesn’t mean anything for me to tell you. So instead, let me show you.