Our Cameras, Ourselves: Selfie Culture from Facebook to Ferguson and Beyond

Having traveled within the last year through parts of the U.S., Asia and Europe I can definitely say that I am an outlier in the modern global selfie culture. I hate having my picture taken. I don’t think I’m photogenic. And I’m an introvert. Besides, I want to be present in my experience, not posing or worrying about how I look. And I never use the video function on my phone or camera. (Okay, I did once, in Milan, capturing some amazing street performers). When I look at the photos I took on my recent trip to Italy, very few are actually of people, or at least whole people; my social media presence must read as truly eccentric. This Thanksgiving my grown children rustled through many old photo albums reminiscing, making me realize that my antipathy to being photographed needs to be overcome, for them and their future children, if for no other reason. I need to get over my anathema, to really see myself as others see me, to see how that jibes with who I think I am. Finding the right balance between the two extremes of narcissism and historical invisibility is not my task alone.

Selfie culture has its definite downside, encouraging as it does what a friend calls “attention whoredom.” Everywhere in Venice hawkers peddled “selfie extenders” to the throngs sporting cell phones, stopping to smile reflexively at each alley or bridge that promised a picture postcard background. Tourists in Florence were hell bent on stealthily capturing their own likenesses next to great paintings, or cheekily posing in front of famous statues. One “gentleman” even stripped to his tighty whities before posing in front of Michelangelo’s David! Chinese tourists at Angkor Watt were obsessed with taking selfies in front of every possible corner of the ancient temples, seemingly oblivious to the sacred space they were occupying, or to the fact that they were holding up others while they preened and mugged and giggled and snapped, intent upon having actual proof of their experience to show the folks back home. To my shock, airline officials at Siem Reap even held up our departure flight while these same tourists photographed each other one at a time beside the plane!

Much has been written about the solipsism of endless Facebook postings of what we had for dinner, the funny things our children and/or pets do, the parties we attend, the vacations we can afford to showcase for all to see. Instagram, Tumbler, Vine, Snapchat — all allow us to express ourselves through images whether moving or still, to assert and affirm an identity through the medium of digital photography. And the cost, once the camera is acquired, is minimal. Back in the day, pricey rolls of Kodachrome had to be carefully stored and later developed at the cost of so many pennies per negative. Anyone over thirty remembers the disappointment and expense of getting back thirty-six prints, only four or five of which were really noteworthy.

Now we are all documentarians; digital and wireless technology has allowed us to become a society of voyeurs, dissatisfied with any image of ourselves that is not perfect. With the push of a button we can capture a moment of time, or several moments in time, edit, apply filters, remove wrinkles, cellulite, or even that pesky person who photo bombed the shot. We can instantly view each image and retake it if it does not meet up to our increasingly high production values. A recent New York Times video reported on the rise of brow lifts and nose jobs sought by people unhappy with their selfies. Conveniently, the Times offered less invasive (and less expensive) makeup and lighting tips for better pictures. Maybe Renee Zellweiger should have tried them instead of setting off a firestorm by appearing at a recent function with what critics complained was a brand new face. Some went so far as to suggest that erasing her signature eye droop and mouth pout had ruined her “girl next door” appeal. Moral of the story: you can be a narcissist, but be really careful not to blur your brand.

A growing backlash against the photoshopped pictures of celebrities may have as much to do with our own insecurity as it does with the desire for authenticity, or positive imagery for our daughters. After all, it is a lot of work (and expense) to look perfect, and many of us don’t want to be reminded of our own shortcomings. U.S. consumers spend over fifty billion dollars a year on cosmetics, about the same amount that the federal government spends annually on paving roads and funding mass transit through the Highway Trust Fund. Filling potholes and enlarged pores is big business!

As cameras have become a routine part of life we have imbued them with the power to burnish our image, to present a curated view of the self we wish to present to the world. However, as more and more of us play with the truth, if ever so subtly in our selfies and photo albums, we have also developed a sneaking cultural suspicion that while a picture may be worth a thousand words, it might also present a “truth” that is only in the eye of the beholder. Researchers tell us that people are often skeptical of any visual information that contradicts their own inherent biases; even their recall of what they have seen can be influenced by their prejudices.

We have a complicated relationship with images as evidence. The lack of video in the Michael Brown case is blamed by some for Officer Darren Wilson’s escape from a trial in the death of a young, but large black man, whom Wilson argued was threatening his life. The Ferguson prosecutor excoriated the role of what he considered to be incendiary “hands up, don’t shoot” images on social media and in television coverage, confirming the power that images have to shape the narrative and give meaning. Days later President Obama called for several hundred million dollars for a pilot program to purchase body cameras to be worn by police to prevent the “he said, she said” problem highlighted in the Ferguson grand jury proceedings. His proposal was quickly overshadowed by the moral outrage over the lack of an indictment in the Eric Garner case in Staten Island, despite the bystander video that anyone with an internet connection or a television set has seen looping endlessly. A large black man, clearly not resisting arrest, is “restrained” in a chokehold, which in combination with chest compression and a lack of medical attention results in his death, later ruled a homicide by the coroner. The Garner case raises questions about the utility of body cameras for cops based on the failure of the Grand Jury to find probable cause for a trial, even after viewing a man say “I can’t breathe” eleven times while arresting officers continued to “restrain” him. But let’s not be so hasty.

My take is colored by the impact of Matthew Brady’s photography in the nineteenth century, and the still and moving images of the civil rights struggles of the early 1960s and the war in Vietnam. History tells us that over time visual images can change the way we view our enemies and ourselves, can move us from our own narrow perspective to a broader and more nuanced, empathetic one. Brady’s tableaus of carnage were staged, as all photographs had to be in that day due to the time lag required to set an image on glass plates. In camp or studio, young men posed sternly with their comrades or their brides before heading off to battle. We see in their portraits affection, purpose, pride in the uniform and a bittersweet moment that might never be repeated. These photographs galvanized whole populations, humanized the conflict, and still make it real for modern viewers. Likewise, photos of a battered and unrecognizable Emmett Till in his open coffin, video of fire hosed and dog bitten  protesters in Southern cities and footage of the March on Washington changed the hearts and minds of enough Americans to create the conditions for real change, should brave and bold and yes, bullying political leadership emerge, as it did in the person of Lyndon Johnson. Likewise, anyone alive during the Vietnam war remembers both the iconic image of the napalmed, naked young Vietnamese girl running toward the camera, and nightly television video of soldiers carrying wounded buddies through rice paddies, covered with mud, with huey helicopters buzzing overhead. These images forced us to reflect on whom we saw in our collective national portrait and to decide if we needed a retake.

It is easy to be absorbed in documenting our own lives while ignoring the struggles of others, or to lose faith that even vivid images of injustice can impact a visually saturated public space or a biased mind. But it is time to take a national selfie, to collectively look at it without benefit of touchups or filters. We cannot allow our personal or national narcissism or insecurity or desire to do as we wish outside of the frame to prevent us from facing what the camera can help us to see. And it may take time for the collective national conscience to be awakened. Ta-Nehisi Coates said the following Wednesday night on All In With Chris Hayes:

“I’m the descendent of enslaved black people in this country. You could’ve been born in 1820, if you were black and looked back to your ancestors and saw nothing but slaves all the way back to 1619. Look forward another 50 or 60 years and saw nothing but slaves. There was no reason at that point in time to believe that emancipation was 40 or 50 years off. And yet folks resisted and folks fought on. So fatalism isn’t really an option. Even if you think you’re not going to necessarily win the fight today in your lifetime, in your child’s lifetime, you still have to fight. It’s kind of selfish to say that you’re only going to fight for a victory that you will live to see. As an African-American, we stand on the shoulders of people who fought despite not seeing victories in their lifetime or even in their children’s lifetime or even in their grandchildren’s lifetime. So fatalism isn’t really an option.”

The camera can help us to become “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” It’s time to move from a selfie to a selfless culture, from fatalism to forward-looking efforts to retouch our national self-portrait from stark black and white to full, vibrant color. I’ll go first, wrinkles and all.


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