The Selfie: More and Less than a Self-Portrait

The Selfie: More and Less than a Self-Portrait,” in Routledge Companion to Photography and Visual Culture (London, New York: Routledge, forthcoming). Accepted by the editors in fall 2016.

The selfie is more than an image, and more than an image of the self. Apart from the image, other essential attributes of the selfie include metadata, consisting of several layers: automatically generated data (like geo-tags and time stamps), data added by the user (hashtags), and data added by other users (comments and “likes”). The importance of metadata has been addressed by Rubinstein and Sluis (2013), but this element is easily overlooked in the selfie-shaming discourse.

The means of the making of the selfie and conditions of its circulation are equally important elements as the image itself.  The instantaneous dissemination of the image via Instagram or other platforms makes the selfie significantly different from its earlier photographic precursors (Rawlings 2013). As Sonja Vivienne and Jean Burgess (2013: 281) have observed, “much more important than digital photography’s influence on the practice of taking photographs, then, are the ways in which the web has changed how and what it means to share photographs” (emphasis in original).

The layers of data that accompany the image can help to study the selfie. Data—time, place, number of likes and comments—is given and thus analyzable with sociological and computer science methods. The implied meanings and cultural functions of each selfie and the genre as such can be worked out only by interpretative methods—for example, from the perspective of history of photography. Ideally, we should come up with a combined methodology that would fit the hybrid nature of the selfie and let us study all its components as per definition with equal attention.

But the selfie is also less than a self-portrait. One popular way of looking at selfies is as if they belonged to the same category of images as the famous painted self-portraits of the past. The similarity lies in the fact that both can be described as “images of the self.” But focusing on this one aspect can only lead to sweeping comparisons across cultures, centuries, and media, ignoring the historical specificity of each image and overlooking their radically different social and cultural functions. For example, one author compared selfies with self-portraits by Rembrandt and argued that “The selfie threatens to distract us from what Rembrandt did: looking at ourselves closely, honestly, but compassionately” (Judge 2014). Such comparisons are helpful only as much as they let us notice how different selfies on Instagram are from Renaissance paintings in museums.

First of all, we have to acknowledge all the profound ways in which a smartphone photograph differs from an oil painting on canvas. Furthermore, the selfie is part of popular visual communication, its makers are not limited to a narrow elite of highly skilled artists as it was with painting in Renaissance. The selfie exists within an economy of fleeting, disposable images, unlike Renaissance paintings that were highly valued cultural artifacts. Selfies typically are made quickly and meant for an equally quick viewing on a smartphone while commuting or on the go, unlike paintings that were made to be revered and to withstand centuries. Thus the selfie is less than a self-portrait, at least in the traditional art-historical sense. This consideration also cautions against applying the term “selfie” retroactively to photographic self-portraits made before ca. 2010. Many self-portraits in history of photography that look seemingly similar to selfies—self-portraits in mirrors, self-portraits made while holding the camera in one’s extended arm etc. But these images are not selfies because they were not “taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media” as per the definition. They are not products of the networked camera. The term “selfie” is not just a shorter version of “self-portrait,” but has its own historically specific meaning.