Over the past week I have spent considerable time wading through my vast swamp of thoughts pertaining to the art of the selfie. This process begun on Tuesday as I was reading an in-depth journal titled ‘What Does the Selfie Say? Investigating a Global Phenomenon’ (2015), in which authors Theresa Senft & Nancy Baym attempt to uncover the meaning(s) behind the suddenly pervasive and ubiquitous act of self-generated photographic portraiture. I took this initial encounter to be somewhat of a defense of the selfie. The authors appear concerned that a moral panic has arisen in the debate around selfie culture, and that there is an unwarranted concern amongst the public that selfies have become symbolic of the narcissism and self-absorption present in our modern, increasingly digital, society.
At first, it was intuitive to me that selfie culture is narcissistic. The act of capturing a self-styled image itself does not intrinsically appear that way, rather, the selfie culture becomes narcissistic when images are shared with the public via the various popular social media channels. I took the publisher (and subject) of the selfie to be acting in self-interest, parading themselves in the public sphere, and seeking validation for their efforts. These thoughts, however, were just my intuition, and I found no evidence to suggest these ideas held any merit. What I did find is the new art of the selfie is complex, multi-layered, and that there is no single meaning behind the selfie phenomenon.
This conclusion left me feeling a bit lost. In all honesty, selfies are not something I really care to know about. As a media scholar, I generally think there are more important topics that deserve my attention – the recent media storm surrounding US President Donald Trump, for instance. My interest was not seriously piqued until I stumbled across the work of Berlin-based Israeli artist/ satirist Shahak Shapira, titled Yolocaust, – detailed in the video below.
Shapira was displeased by the manner in which young attendees were behaving during visits to Berlin Holocaust memorial. The artist was particularly unhappy about visitors publishing selfies that appeared to depict insensitivity toward the suffering of Jewish people during World War 2. In retaliation, he decided to Photoshop some of the selfies he was dissatisfied with into real, powerful wartime photos that depict Jewish suffering during World War 2. The resulting Yolocaust project raises consciousness about how we should behave when visiting places that are designed to commemorate those affected by the atrocities such as the Holocaust.
instances, however, it does seem appropriate for Shapira to raise questions about appropriate conduct when taking selfies in sensitive situations. I can personally relate to the themes present in Shapira’s Yolocaust project as I have taken selfies (pictured below) when visiting various Holocaust memorials during my time in Poland.
The photo above is a selfie that my brother and I captured during our visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp in Poland in 2015. The photo clearly shows us appearing stern-faced as we pose for the photo. I am seen clutching my SLR camera, which shows that I had attended the camp on that day with the intention of capturing photos. I believe there is a clear distinction between this photo and those depicted in Shapira’s Yolocaust project. The first is that unlike the photos in the Yolocaust project we do not appear to be enjoying the experience of visiting the holocaust memorial. Second, this blog post is the first time this selfie has been made public, and the sole purpose of this publication is for the purpose of an academic inquiry.
My introductory exploration into the world of the selfie found that context is all-important when deciding to capture and to share one’s selfie. Shapira’s Yolocaust project highlight an apparent lack of respect being shown by those visiting the Berlin Holocaust memorial, whereas the selfie of my brother and I show’s the discomfort we were experiencing when visiting the Auschwitz camp to pay our respects to those who died during World War 2. My key finding was the context of a selfie may be depicted by something as simple as the facial expression of the person pictured, the caption of the image, or the decision of where to publish the image, if at all.
Senft, TM and Baym, NK 2015, ‘What does the selfie say? Investigating a global phenomenon’, International Journal of Communication, vol. 9, Vancouver