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This text is by Vagner Mendonça Whitehead in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

Selfie as Subject or The Mirror (As) Stage

Vagner Mendonça Whitehead

(…) She’s not me, she doesn’t have my name, she’ll never have what I have, it won’t be the same (…)

I am not sure when or where I first heard the term “selfie,” but I remember seeing it at least once on Instagram as the hashtag #selfie.  Much like the app, this cultural phenomenon seems inherently one from the age of social media.   Now why would this be the case, given selfies seem to be the apotheosis of being anti-social/self-involved?

Selfies, to me, iterate one of the promises the practice of self-portraiture in photography aimed to fulfill. One of the most touching self-portraits I have encountered, and still haunts me, is Hippoliye Bayard’s Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, 1840 (fig. 1), which may also be one of the earliest photographs of its kind.  In this image we see a young, bare-chested man, sitting motionless (obviously), eyes closed, with his head lightly tilted to the right side. In addition to his farmer’s tan, only a straw hat hanging on the surrounding dark area next to the person is clearly visible, in this paper-positive photographic image. The picture itself is square-ish, dark, and fuzzy. I propose that the meaning of selfies transcend the face-value of one’s likeness and allow for more metaphorical and deeper connotations. So how do we go from the depiction of oneself as a metaphor for failure, in the early years of photography, to the apparently superficial, ubiquitous, fake-tan, duck-lip, hairless flirty-ness of today’s selfies?

figure 1
Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, (1840) Hippolyte Bayard
Hippolyte Bayard
Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, 1840

I do not have an exact answer, nor do I claim one mode of depiction as better than the other. I also do not believe one singular answer must plausibly respond my enquiry. There are, however,  some specific characteristics to self-portraits made with a smart device that differ drastically from ones made with traditional cameras, although these oppositional forces still thread a common sensibility. Of course, the term self-portrait today is quaint at best, if not completely outdated. I am fully aware that making such distinctions (between selfies and self-portraits) may not be of any interest to anyone, but since people often ask me why I take so many pictures of myself, I will take a shot at it. No pun intended.

The first distinction may come from the inherent properties of current cameras. When posing for a traditional self-portrait, with a traditional camera, the image-maker positions themselves either blindly in front of the camera (aided by an assistant to trigger the shutter, or with some kind of remote device), and waits for the delay to see the result (whether it be a refresh, or until the film is processed), or the image-maker incorporates the photographic apparatus as part of the image and employs a distortion of themselves through a reflective surface. A third possibility would be to fragment oneself, or imply one’s presence, by capturing body parts and gestures while holding the camera towards themselves. These traditional practices could and have been carried out with both film and the first generations of digital cameras (which of course can still be used today, as well as be carried out with newer technologies). Most recent digital cameras have a screen, rather than a view-finder (or both), and this screen shows imagery in near real time, with little or barely noticeable delay; it actually functions more closely as the early hand-held video camera (and as you know, most current DSLR cameras capture video as well). In fact, the newish term capture is fitting, because that is exactly what it does: it traps a moving image in eternal stillness. Holding the phone/camera up, the performer sees themselves often in front of a mirror, unless of course the shooting mode is flipped and the phone/camera becomes a mirror.

“The body is therefore as it were centered between two machines that are the opening and closing of a parenthesis” (Krauss. “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism”: p. 52).

In my second essay for Infinite Mile I return to a quote that I used on my first one. My reasoning for it comes from the fact that Rosalind Krauss’s famous text assigns psychology to define the medium of video’s aesthetics, rather than physical or formal properties.  Selfies may function more as a psychological space, rather than a social arena.

It is funny to think that video-selfies have not become very popular or mainstreamed yet, even though many social media apps, such as Facebook’s, allows one to upload a video representation as their profile picture. Could this may be because in order to become a portrait, an image must be still, not moving, and provide us only a two-dimentional (stereotypical) aspect or façade of its subject: this flattening or reduction being a must, rather than an accident? Perhaps, in order for a portrait to be complete, it must also be incomplete or lacking; we must allow a viewer to overlay their own a priori knowledge, interpretation, or fantasy upon that depiction in their own mind. Even when the viewer is oneself.

If video art, according to a 1970s Krauss, was inherently narcissistic, because its aesthetic was psychological rather than formal, also fleeting and distorted, what do we make of selfies today? Are selfies only a peeled layer of self-love? As popular lore, depicting oneself in social media often comes across as a self-centered form of self-expression (never mind the first amendment). But could we endow it with a more academic or theoretical understanding of narcissism (one of self as both object and subject, of constant investigating one’s reflected other self, of having an inability to separate the actual self from the represented self, or self-as-object?). Are selfies, therefore, inherently selfish, just plain obsessed, or something else altogether?

Before we actually delve into the world of Lacan (there are better-prepared people to do so, instead of me), let us go back to the physicality of the phone/camera.  I cannot but think of daguerreotypes when I hold in my hand a picture on my iPhone, with my partial reflection overlaid on the screen’s reflective surface (funny enough, Daguerre’s photographic process success, the daguerreotype, was one of Bayard’s inspiration for what led him to figuratively drown himself). Even the scale of early smartphones is somewhat comparable (though not proportional). It is often said that daguerreotypes, in their heydays, were referred to as a mirror with a memory (fig. 2). Memory and photography go hand in hand, as its creation promised (and mostly fulfilled) the possibility of memorializing everyone who could afford them. Imagine if these long-gone sitters for daguerreotypes were to find out they would be highly valued by strangers centuries later. Perhaps unintentionally, to memorialize can refer as much to imbuing a place with a memory, in cases such as a war memorial, with the often monolithic, grounding sculptures, and a sense of permanence unlike the relatively fleeting state of nostalgic memories. Push forward two centuries, where images are everywhere and made with almost anything, I wonder, what is it we are trying to memorialize?

figure 2
Anonymous (c. 1870), photographer uknown, from the collection of Janice Schimmelmann
photographer unknown
, c. 1870
From the collection of Janice Schimmelman

As someone who often captures and posts images of myself, holding my smart phone, in front of a mirror, I can say that for my practice I seek the opposite of the popular perception that I may be in love with myself, that I find myself beautiful, that I want acceptance of others, et cetera. I do not want to memorialize my likeness for posterity. I do not do this for the enjoyment of my friends, acquaintances or loved ones, though they may to some extent. I take selfies for two other reasons. The first one lies in my seemingly eternal confounding or fascination with what I believe the camera always fails to capture – myself as seen in my mind’s eye (fig. 3).

figure 3
Home April 03, 2016 9:12 AM, 2016, Vagner M. Whitehead
Vagner M. Whitehead
Home April 03 2016 9:12 AM, 2016

One of the most touching books on photography I have ever read is Camera Lucida (Hill and Want 1980), by Roland Barthes. In Camera Lucida Barthes investigates the photograph as a phenomenon while attempting to find a picture that truly depicted his then-recently-deceased mother. When I think about his quest, I am not sure I could ever find a picture of myself that would stand in for me in a complete sense (at least not a picture taken by someone else). This may seem like an obvious statement, but keep in mind that, when people hold a photographic image of a person they understand their action as holding the person, and not a representation of the person. The photographic image thus becomes or acts as the person, and not a stand in for the person. The photograph is both a body and a role. It is important to note that the picture Barthes finally chooses as the truest depiction of his mother is never shown in the book (and the only printed image on the book, in full color, of a window with a patterned curtain, back lit, perhaps a Polaroid, without a caption, is never explained either why it bares any importance to him). Barthes’ chosen picture is also (spoil alert) of his mother as a child, or from a time he never knew her. His lack of real, lived knowledge actually provided the most complete represented experience of someone whom he deeply loved.

Reading the words I just typed, I cannot but recall my beloved mentor in graduate school, Dr. Gordon Bleach. I assisted him in his visual literacy course back in the late 90s, where students were made to read Barthes’ book and later create a project that utilized a picture of themselves from their past, taken by someone else, and combining it with other elements. He made students complete this project in every course he taught, be it a freshman survey or a senior seminar. Students often complained that they already “got” what he was going after, but after seeing their projects it was very obvious that most of them had not (nor had they ever realized that this was most-likely a project where failure was the actual goal). Gordon died somewhat suddenly before I finished my degree, and it saddens me that I too did not realize much of what he tried to teach us back then. It also deeply saddens me that I do not have a single photograph of him in my possession, but only a faded printout of a posthumous exhibition poster, with a lovely picture of him smiling. But, ironically enough, that photograph did not represent Gordon to me as I remember him—his particular voice pitch still fresh in my mind, as well as his ability to shrink and grow very tall in different situations, like a cat. That seems to be gone, forever.

figure 4
Oprah and I Madam Tussauds - London (1998), Vagner M. Whitehead
Vagner M. Whitehead
Oprah and I Madam Tussauds – London
, 1998

In graduate school I only worked with self-portraits, most of them photographic ones, and often with video and three-dimensional space when professors suggested I should video-tape my photo shoots in order to capture what was missed between frames of film—I exclusively used a 4x5 camera, a very slow process, and everyone wanted to see my stage and the out-takes. I clearly remember telling a friend, a few days before I hopped on a plane to leave my country of birth, that I believed I needed to work on self-portraits in graduate school, mostly as a result of having felt I had lost myself in the almost three years since finishing my undergraduate degree. It is funny how small, passing comments by people whom you are not particularly close with stick in your mind. I specifically remember one undergraduate professor, Craig Stevens, telling me he thought it was a good idea to do a self-portrait every year to see where one was in their lives, a sort of self-check. I remember another professor, Steve Bliss, whom I am still close with today, telling me that I would be surprised by how many people might be interested in looking at my self-portraits in response to me saying I was giving up on self-portraits because no one would really care. In graduate school I met another professor, Jerry Uelsmann, who probably gave me the best description for what I did, even though he himself premised it by saying he had very little to say to the kind of work I did, because he did not know anything about it. He told me, and I am sure to many of his students, more than once, that, for him, self-portraiture was a type of private theater. While back then I shrugged that comment, today I see how fitting it is. The mirror is the stage, and the self is the actor in a private and never ending play.

One art-world acquaintance, and social media friend Robb Stone, who often depicts and shares himself in social media (and who is the person I remember first using selfie as a hashtag), mused over in one of his posts that commenting “you don’t look like 42” as the new “you look like a model”, which is sort of brilliant, because it is so true. I commented that I was once told “no way you are 39—you look 27” and that no person right in their mind would ever post a picture of themselves looking old, haggard, short, fat, what have you. Or as if me being 39 (at the time) was surely a tragedy. There are probably hundreds more that never see the light of the (Facebook) day. If one day I get hacked…

I also often post my selfies hours after I take them (fig. 5), to destabilize any placement or timeframe (I have heard numerous times “I thought you were home” when I am actually miles away in my car, and vice versa). As someone who has plenty of unflattering pictures of himself out there, I do not feel the need to add to that “tradition,” though I am known for occasionally posting an unflattering one on purpose. But my goal is not to necessarily look good or better than I do, as well as see myself in a particular place (and this is the beginning of the second reason why I make selfies). My goal is actually to look exactly like I want to look, or how I see myself in my mind rather than in the mirror/camera. I am well aware of the manipulations I make, with lighting and foreshortening, cropping and filters, although I never Photoshop selfies. My goal is not to depict unfiltered reality, but an imagined one. And at times I succeed to some extent. Often times I fail but learn to live with the result. If one day we are able to download our thoughts in their visual exactitude I think a true self-depiction might be possible, but then again my body might not match at all what my mind’s eye sees.

figure 5
São Paulo – Belém February 26 11:35 AM, (2016) Vagner M. Whitehead
Vagner M. Whitehead
São Paulo – Belém February 26 11:35 AM
, 2016

To get back to the two-point rationale for my selfie practice, and this may be more revealing than what I set out to do with this writing, there is potentially a sad or melancholic aspect or deeply personal side to bringing the camera to focus on my self (a sadness as understood by a reader, but not necessarily felt by me). For many years now I have traversed the world mostly on my own. As I age I become more and more aware that many of life’s great pleasures are made for two or more people, not one. This is somewhat changing now, but in most instances, as seen often times in restaurant booths that sit people in symmetrical pairs, or in first class airplane seating cocoons that pair up two people together who may not know one another, and sung by melancholic chanteuse Lana Del Rey in the song Video Games (the irony), our world is, seemingly, built for two.

Making a selfie in front of the London Eye, for example, serves as much as a testament, with a monument, that “I was there” as a depiction of a self anywhere. Selfie photography, in this sense, aims to put together a more complex depiction of one’s existence, when seen as a portion of a larger, and proverbial, picture of what life can be (as in “I have been to many places at different times”).

I recently watched the documentary on Vivian Maier, an unknown photographer most active in the 20th century, whose incredibly beautiful works were discovered and posthumously shared with our post-Internet world (fig. 6). In addition to photographing the people and/in the world around her, Maier also photographed herself innumerous times, though the high number of published self-portraits may be due to the fact that she was extremely prolific, not that her practice focused on self-portraiture. Most of her images were photographed with black and white film in a twin-lens Rolleiflex camera, allowing for a square image with (often) selective focus that created an interesting relationship between (her) figure and (surrounding) ground. This is extremely similar to Instagram aesthetics. Maier varied in the ways she incorporated her self image within the frame. Sometimes she was seen as an implied shape or shadow, other times multiplied through mirrors, full figured (asserting her condition as a whole human being, and not the usual fragmented self of that era’s representation of women), and frequently making eye contact with the lens or potential viewer (which would most likely be herself, if and when the film was processed). The portioning and positioning of her body within the frame allowed for an understanding of her physical or geographical placement (which today, with the posthumous naming of her images, provide further context, much like hashtags), as well as time of day or season, to some extent. While some of us may recognize a particular building in New York City, most of us would definitely understand that the picture was taken in an urban commercial district, somewhere.  I was very touched by seeing her photographing herself around the world, when she took on the extended eight month trip, to see places and be seen in these places, at one point in her life. Maier too wanted to affirm “I was there,” even without an audience, or an audience of one. This memorializing of one’s life may actually be a human necessity, to leave a trace or record, rather than a psychological affliction, of being in love with oneself; the documentary process or tracking being more important than the social sharing, or the external dialogue, of it. In her case, as in the case with many people who partake on a photographic selfie practice, how do we account for the lack of audience in relation to the popular notion of narcissism? If a bear looked at themselves in a mirror in the middle of a forest, and no one saw it, did it really ever happen?

figure 6
screenshot of Vivian Maier, Self-Portrait, 1954
screenshot of Vivian Maier, Self-Portrait, 1954

The same goes for food porn photography, though that genre seems to be the merging of physical consumption (we need food to survive) with material consumption (a variation of Kruger’s prophetic “I shop therefore I am”). How does the intention differ from the effect?

Selfies taken in public spaces and shared in social media open up its potentiality to make the private or personal theater a public one. They also empower its subject to take control of their already uber-surveilled lives in the public sphere. As artist Hasan Elahi has posed, in relation to his work, and here I paraphrase him, the ultimate act of civil disobedience is to turn surveillance into sousveillance (though he of course did not coin the latter term). This notion of over-sharing one’s tracking and visualization of place/self experience, is in diametrical opposition with a perceived selfie practice (because it excludes the depicted self), though it raises a level of self-importance (“I post, therefore I am”) that does not get scrutinized or even demonized as selfies do.

Perhaps another layer of human nature has to do with a natural (but negative) response to self-assertion, depending on who the subject is. Here we could get into identity politics and make some relations with gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, financial status, ability, etc, and consider who gets a pass and who gets condemned when turning the camera to oneself, as if to say that one can positively be a productive subject, and others must become out-of-control objects, defying their passive status by becoming the main actor in a stage of their own construction, as opposed to being secondary players in someone else’s stage. But I do not have enough information to make such a position certain. I can only speculate from observation. Celebrities with huge followings may shed some light on this matter. Is Kim Kardashian treated differently or worse than Justin Bieber? What kind of response do their social media selfies earn, or how do they correspond to one another? What does he get away with that she does not? And vice-versa?

I was recently asked to participate in an exhibition titled #photo at Hatch Gallery, an artist-run gallery and art community center in Hamtramck, Michigan. The curator, Chris Schneider, asked the participating artists to consider how photography has changed in today’s world and how that, in turn, affects the kinds of images we make. Upon some reflection I have realized that that the medium itself, to me, has actually changed quite little. Looking at the history of photography one notices the continuous replacement of one technological advance with another—with the Bayard method being replaced by Daguerre’s, which has since been replaced with many more. What has remained, since day one, is the contingency for photography to capture an instance, a moment in time, with a dose of veracity and a tinge of malleability. What has really changed, in the last years to decades, are the circumstances in which photography exists. Now, more than ever, photography is everywhere, and always, and more obviously than ever, framed or surrounded by text. What has not changed much is the continuously fetishizing that endow photographs a higher importance than they might actually possess (in terms of their ubiquity versus rarity, as well as the actual cost of its materiality, which is somewhat low if compared with a bar of gold, the cost of actual printing paper or pixel storage, that is).

For this exhibition I made four pieces I privately call “selfie blankets,” but are officially titled with the hashtags I would assign them in social media, such as #selfie #driving, #selfie #Milah, #selfie #bed, and #selfie #mirror (fig 7). These woven throws were fabricated by a large big box store of dubious politics (although guaranteed to be “made in America”), through their online vending site. Each piece measures 90”x 60” and are more beautiful and soft than one might expect from a mass-produced and relatively affordable source (the beauty was an incidental nice surprise, not a goal). From what I can tell, each thread was actually pre-dyed or pre-color-threaded before it was woven (and not printed over a woven final piece), as the back of them display a color-negative image. Each piece in this installation displayed a montage of thirty images I culled from my Instagram account (all squared, all arranged by the company’s layout software in random fashion, all with borders of different colors that are privately symbolic to me in their origin). As one would have it, there were way more images in that app than I could organize into the 30-image preset for the blankets, so future iterations such as #selfie #group and #selfie #outdoors, are to come.

figure 7
Installation documentation of #selfie #Milah, #selfie #mirror and #selfie #car (2016), Vagner M. Whitehead
Vagner M. Whitehead
Installation documentation of #selfie #Milah, #selfie #mirror and #selfie #car, 2016
Photographic documentation by Chris Schneider

With the realization of these pieces I came into perhaps a third and more uplifting rationale for my selfie practice. The metaphorical possibilities for a woven throw are manifold. Weaving itself is fascinating because it correlates so well to the many thoughts, narratives and experiences we intersect as human beings. I also find it peculiar to correlate it to the social media threads of posts we read on a daily basis. The work “throw” itself infers the projection or the moving forward of an object (as well as refer to the projection ratio of media displayed through light onto a given surface, such as a video projector in an installation). I find the many notions of throwing fitting with a selfie practice. My calling or nicknaming these objects as blankets also imbues them with so many interpretations. When I imagine myself on my couch, covered with a selfie blanket (this actually has never happened), besides wanting to laugh, I also consider the sheltering nature of a body cover (such as clothes, tents, et cetera). This brings back to the fore that what one may perceive as popular strength (or mental illness), may actually hold within something way more precious or fragile: one’s humanity, one’s decaying body, one’s life just a blink in eye of history. This sheltering notion of selfies brings back to me my practice to a full circle.

My last association with these pieces, which may indicate the beginning of a new body of work or practice, and potentially a fourth rationale in the making, is to consider selfie blankets, and selfies themselves, as flying carpets. Where will they take me if I got for a ride? What new adventures lay ahead of me?

Works Cited

Ciccone, Madonna, and Pharrell Williams. “She’s Not Me.” Hard Candy, Track 6. (April 19, 2008).

Krauss, Rosalind. “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism.” October, Vol. 1. (Spring, 1976): pp. 50-64.

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