Mythili Rao, Producer, The Takeaway
Mythili Rao is a producer at WNYC.
Smile! It’s The Year of the Selfie.
So too, has the selfie think-piece. Writing for The New Yorker, Kate Losse chronicles the selfie’s rise from its humble days as a fallback MySpace profile picture. “The subject of the MySpace bathroom selfie—with its tableaux of bathroom counter, mirror, face, and upper body—always looked alone. Selfies were for people without friends.” According to Losse, the advent of the front-facing smartphone camera changed all that: “These days, selfies can look as polished and crisp as posed group shots, and no longer require a mirror or an awkwardly contorted hand.”
And so, exploring the new features on our newfangled phones, we began to turn the camera on ourselves. Or was it the other way around? “Sometimes I wonder how many products were developed for the sole purpose of taking better selfies,” tech blogger Nathaniel Mott muses. One way or another, with new technology came a new wave of selfie-takers. “As an early Instagram user, I rarely turned the camera on myself,” New York Times technology reporter Jenna Wortham writes. These days, she’s less shy. Wortham has come to see the selfie as “a kind of visual diary, a way to mark our short existence and hold it up to others as a proof that we were here.”
Marking our short existence by capturing a sliver of permanence out of the ephemeral—isn’t that art? Kyle Chayka and Marina Galperina co-curators of the National #Selfie Portrait Gallery in London think so. “We consider the selfie a creative format,” Chayka told me. “You’re positioning yourself as the protagonist.” Not everyone would agree; Stephen Marche is adamant that whatever selfies are, they aren’t art. “The selfie is the masturbation of self-image, and I mean that entirely as a compliment. It gives control. It gives release,” he says. But the nineteen artists featured in Chayka and Galperina’s exhibit are on to something. Their representations are playful, lewd, at times smart and at times disturbing—much like the internet itself. As the gallery’s mission statement puts it, “Self-portraiture is the most democratic creative medium available.”
That’s exactly what writer Casey Cep finds so redeeming about the selfie—its ability to instantly cast each of us as artists and memoirists, the masters of our own narratives. “The impulse to document ourselves and give representation to our own appearance is something that’s been around since the history of art,” Cep tells The Takeaway. “We’re talking about a very very long sweep of human history.”
I fall into the selfie-averse crowd. I’ve tried, but I can’t figure out the right angle at which to position my camera or the best way to purse my lips. At selfie-range, I don’t recognize—or particularly like—my own features. I’d like to think my selfie-allergy is a symptom of humility but writer Brian Droitcour might interpret it differently. “The real narcissists are the ones who never take selfies,” Droitcour argues. “They imagine their self as autonomous, hermetic—too precious to be shared.”
Maybe he’s right. We regularly turn our digital lens on our friends and family, our vacation destinations and homes, our commutes, our meals, our pets. So what’s the big deal about turning it on our faces?
I leave you with the words of Emily Dickinson:
A Charm invests a face
The Lady dare not lift her Veil
For fear it be dispelled—
But peers beyond her mesh—
And wishes—and denies—
Lest Interview—annul a want
(Note from TLDR Mgmt: Here's the audio for The Takeaway interview with Casey Cep cited in the piece, in case you're interested.)