The Selfie Conversation (and Cindy Sherman)

I was kind of fascinated by how engaged my peers were in our class discussion on selfies, but then I realized this topic is probably one they haven’t had a chance to discuss academically yet. Being a photo major, I’m probably one of the few students where this movement has affected my field of study to some degree and I’ve been asked to think about the selfie, the self-portrait, and identity in a photograph. 

I’ve taken my fair share of selfies and self-portraits. I consider both of those things to be different, but both engage an element of performance on my part, and I think that applies to anyone taking a photo of themselves. When someone is taking a portrait of someone else, it is an interaction of people mediated by a camera. They are both collaborating to achieve a goal that results in a picture. Both individuals have their own reactions to the event and bring different elements to the photograph. The photographer essentially has most control over the instance the photograph is taken, but the sitter is in control of how they compose themselves and the presence they bring to the picture. 

Self-portraiture is different in that the photographer has an image of themself in mind, and the only other factor in generating a photograph is the camera itself. The photographer has both control over the presence in the photograph and the decision of when it is taken. It is an event that is created by and for the photograph and the photographer has full control of the representation that exists in that frame, as well as the editing and output of the photo. 

The selfie is very similar to the self-portrait, but has been integrated into culture in a way that does not ask the photographer to fully consider his/her actions. The selfie is still essentially a performance. if you look at all the selfies in the world, many of them follow similar rules and are taken for similar purposes. The selfie is a widely accepted form of communicating how one wants the world to imagine them. The selfie-taker is selecting instances in their life to show how they look, what they’re doing, how they’re feeling, etc. However genuine the selfie might feel, it is still a micro-event created for the camera. The selfie-taker is hyper aware of what they look like in the photograph, and very in control of the way they represent themselves in this mini performance. 

Cindy Sherman’s work is, I believe, very much self-portraiture, but hardly a selfie. The breadth of her work is not about herself. Her work, very post-modern in nature, has to do with the conveyance of ideas. In her portraits, she is using herself to present ideas on the the representation of women in media. The reason her audience can relate to her work is because she is essentially giving us female stereotypes, and by doing so, using connotations that we can all understand. Looking at any of her self-portraits, you get a sense of what’s going on (in her early film stills) or who that person is (in her later color work), but without context. With a little exaggeration, her work becomes relevant and converses with the visual language that is integrated in our culture that we often unaware of. 

I think selfies have become a new form of communication and many have yet to realize that they are trying to create identities that aren’t necessarily real. Like Sherman, the selfie-taker observes current culture, picks and choses what they like about other selfies, and creates an image that can exist cohesively with selfie-culture. Is this new form of communication an adequate representation of the individuals in the photographs? Probably not, but is any form of representation?