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Why Is the Selfie Such a Derided Form of Photography?


The Verso blog has an excerpt from the recently published book The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media by sociologist and media theorist Nathan Jurgenson. In the excerpt, Jurgenson argues that the selfie is such a derided form of photography because it exposes “the ongoing process of identity construction.” This exposure makes us uncomfortable because it demonstrates not only that the self is indeed a construction, but that it is crafted to please others, not ourselves. Check out a snippet of the excerpt below.

The selfie is “authenticated” by the markings of the form (holding the phone and pointing it at oneself), which conveys an intimacy akin to looking in the mirror. In the tension between mirror view and external view is the self, and, like the self, the selfie traverses that space, puts it into social circulation. The selfie lets us share that mirror-view, what we see when contemplating our self, considering what we are. In this way, the mirrored view subtly conveys to others not the objective fact of who we are but instead what we see in our private back stage, which is a self in the active process of being made and also being passively shaped by the world.

Erving Goffman, perhaps the most influential sociologist of identity, built such a dramaturgical framework for understanding the self in his 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which conceives our social behavior in terms of actors performing, making use of specific scripts and props. In addition to the “front stage” where we perform, there is a “back stage” where we get ready to be in public. The back stage isn’t where we are more “real” because we aren’t performing; instead, it is where we learn to perform. For example, we might look into a mirror and practice our photo smile or try out different hairstyles, clothes, or makeup. All this will later be passed onto the front stage, often as seemingly cool and unrehearsed.

While much of this prep time goes unrecorded, selfies can capture that backstage work: the effort to set the scene, the staging and prepping and practicing of the self. Most photographs hide the photographer, whose subjectivity is usually conspicuously missing from the resulting image. The selfie undoes this photographic fourth wall, because the observer is observed. You all see me, the same me, the me that I see and choose to share.

Image via Business Insider.


The form is derided because it’s premise most often is a lie of false fglorification of th eelf based on criteria derived from consumerist fantasies imposed by advertising for the profit of globalized corporations. Goffman’s premise was rthat the theatrical ized projection fo the self wa based on control, one seeks to control other’s impresions of oneself. Ib this sense, the selfie is an even more narcissitic analogue of the attempt of corporations to control social life for profit. The selfie attempts to say…" I ‘m beautiful, sexually alluring; fun; I travel to wonderful places that serve as appropriate backdrops for my beauty, wll-being, sexual allure, fun outlook, and my unrestrained resources to consume. :" This is why it is a lie , and this is why it is derided. Already this is far fron when the form really was invnrted and popularized by Peter Beard in the 80s with the advent of the disposable camera from Fuji. As Bears was a friend of Warhol’s, and had at least as many celbrity firends, he saw irt as a means to satirize thr mass worship of wealth and celebrity that was so unfettered in Regan’s America even by the intellectuals. He called this activity "anthropology,’ and likened it to the photography of animals in the wild in order to underscore the predatory nature of his subjects and their general lack of culture . Although he pastrd soem of the developed images in his diaries, usually disdtorted by coillage elements of trash, images ripped fron tabloids , or spill stains fron whatever he happened to be drinking. The one’s he seemed to enjoy were the ones that added a measure of humor, his passport photo with an imnese bullgrog on his head; his lower torso in the jaws of a beached crocodile. The “democratization” of the selfie with he advent of the smartphone camera rarely ha any genuine humor because there is nothinb funny about narcissism while Trump is president.


The consumerist level you point out is very important. I only read the excerpt of the discussed article, but it seems to be lacking there or not so important. Although there are some aspects that seem to be make sense and definitely interesting, I don’t agree to / miss some conclusions:

“For example, we might look into a mirror and practice our photo smile or try out different hairstyles, clothes, or makeup. All this will later be passed onto the front stage, often as seemingly cool and unrehearsed.”

This sounds as if he writes about teenagers. I’m sure there has to be a dimension of practicing social behaviour that is “OK” (to keep it short). But it might of course be the case that consumer culture is exceedingly keeping us captive in this mode, with ever more “inventions” (from color camera to smartphone). Unless we choose not to adapt certain habits or leave them behind.