ARM-LENGTH PHOTOGRAPHY

By Ramee Deeb

“Arm-Length Photography,” by Ramee Deeb (March 17th) — Via http://petapixel.com/2012/12/06/famous-photographs-turned-into-arms-length-self-portraits/%1f

It wasn’t until I came of age that i really cared about my self-image. Didn’t give much thought for the giant mirror at home, until acne kicked in and ruined the whole masterpiece my face ought to be, at least that’s the way I perceived it. You see, self-image is more of a mental perception you form around yourself that is constantly shifting with the tidal waves brought forward by society, family, peer pressure, and even the way you’re being raised to ‘value’ your being: rather than the mere visual representation and self-realization touched upon by Lacan which distortedly replicates your outer linings giving you in the process, a mirage.

The visual realm (I shall refrain from using ‘culture’ due to its imminent attachment to human agency) has long been able to shape and ‘define’ our experiences with reality. Whether it is a camera, a mirror, or a projection of a film, we are constantly seeking ways to feed the narcissistic self-indulgent being whom we are (or became to be), by managing that realm in means of soothing our social/psychological anxieties that are, in essence, found and present in an economy of envy and prejudice, brought forward by: the gaze.

In ‘gaze’, I am particularly speaking of the ‘eye’ that is constantly critiquing, analyzing, and seeking unattainable perfection which achieves fulfillment and completion (voyeuristic or not).

Though, this is not to say that the psychology and social dynamics involved in creating that self-image are constrained within the boundaries of the mind and the eye. In Susan Sontag’s collection of essays ‘On Photography’, she provides a seminal understanding on photography and how it holds a tight grip on our consciousness of what reality should look like.

“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photograph is an aesthetics consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.”

Sontag’s work could not be more relatable than in today’s visually deterministic culture, revolving around acts of consumerism and celebrity glorification. Photography, in broad terms, has enabled us with so much power: giving us the ability to construct our own version of reality by recording it, curating it, and even manipulating it.

Within the reach of our pockets, we are equipped with a smartphone, essentially becoming an extension to our arms, which comes with not only one, but two cameras: a back camera for the all-so-necessary food photographs, and one frontal camera commonly known as the selfie camera.

Screen capture from a google search of the term ‘Selfie’

So what is a ‘selfie’ after all? Why should anyone care about it? How is a selfie different than what you see in a mirror? For the sake of brevity, I shall limit my search for a nuanced understanding of the selfie to the realms of the visual, social, and the cultural domains, rather than expanding it to reach the topics of self-portraits and their reciprocal relationship with selfies.

A selfie, as inferred by the name, is a photograph that you take of yourself, by yourself, though not only for yourself.

We’ve all been there at one point or another. You gather around after a long night of partying, attempt to get as close as possible to each other in order to fit within the real estate provided by the 1:1 image, then you take the selfie…then another one…and another one…argue over which filter to apply on the photo (for the sake of turning it into art of course), then eventually upload it to the social media platform of choice, along with its palette of #hashtags).

At this level, I would like to argue against the terminology used to describe the selfie, since one ‘selfie’ on its own does not represent one’s self or reality. It is the collective action of a number of selfies that gives the illusion of defining one’s real self and the context where it belongs to, yet it is still not enough to fully apprehend it. Selfhood, in my opinion, is a debatable topic that selfies aren’t capable of replication, I would like to say that they emerge as only its shadow, though not its body.

Churchill had a thing for selfies too, believe it or not.

Mirror VS Selfie

Standing in front of a mirror, it may seem that it is merely an objective delineation of one’s body, though when taking a selfie it is more of an experience of self-celebration and re-creation: where one has the utmost power and control over what to show, how to portray it, and most importantly, how someone sees it. Another point where the two counterparts diverge is that one is ephemeral and the other is eternal: one cannot preserve a mirror image (enjoy it while it lasts!) whereas in the case of selfies, they exist eternally and in that process immortalizing their subjects, proving to them (and to those viewing the selfie) that they exist and that they matter.

When the two art forms are combined we get a hybrid of the realms or what is called: a mirror selfie. This is an interesting phenomenon, in my opinion, because in the process you are taking a photograph of a reflection of yourself taking a photo of yourself, and it gets even more complicated when you are viewing that photograph: viewing a photo of your reflection while taking a photo of yourself. The reason why I bring this up is to show the elasticity of the visual ‘input’ we are providing for the camera where the end result is literally an image of ourselves gazing inwards and outwards simultaneously (the artist, the subject, and the object).

The Social Contract of a Selfie

Besides transcending us from our mortal coils by seeking comfort and solace in the ‘social’ form of acceptance (likes), and that we have such an amazing life that everyone envies us for, selfies have a set of obligations which, in my opinion, fails to completely fulfill. Selfies not only aid us in forming our own image, but also in how other people look at us and perceive our reality is: by looking at one’s timeline (21st century equivalent of a lifetime) one can witness a solid visual lineage to time and space passing, which I don’t thin selfies are fully capable of reflecting or even standing for. Personally, I believe that selfies have grown beyond our control where they essentially rendered the male gaze viral, therefore giving rise to a neo-porn culture overtly obsessing that sexual attractiveness is made visible through selfies (knowing that unattractive selfies are equally popular among users, though for completely different reasons).

Moreover, selfies on social media have provided a platform for underrepresented individuals in the media to portray themselves and have their voices heard, empowering them by asserting agency, privacy, and publicity.

Given the nature of the medium, I believe that selfies are merely a fab within the realm of social media and the internet, selfie sticks only come to show that: the camera is constantly looking for ways to go further away from us, freeing itself in the process — not in a romanticized way, but once you’ve seen the same subject for a while it gets derivative.

Aesthetics of a Selfie

At the time I am writing this sentence there are around 274,719,520 selfies on Instagram, and the number is constantly on the rise as you refresh the page, so it is safe that selfies have become the cultural norm for self-preservation and representation (opposed to yesteryear's’ ‘cheesy’ pose to the camera), appealing to the public mass. But why though? What is it that makes a selfie so fascinating that everyone wants to be part of one?

As far as the visual critique goes, I believe that only the background of the selfie really changes, which essentially gives it its identity, by defining the location and preserving the memory within a timeframe (contextualizing it). We all have a set of generic poses or smiles that we put on as soon as that camera faces us — criticizing — that we become critical about the way we appear: believing that we have complete power over the selfie, whereas we are limited to the perspective our arm-length offers along the axis that it moves on. Generally speaking, most (if not all) selfies are made in an oddly looking 1:1 ration, overlaid by a number of filters and effects that can be adjusted accordingly to have just the right look.

Image via Instagram #selfie

Selfies are yet to become a more astute art form, knowing that there are still a number of hurdles and restrains (technological and social) to be overcome, before it creates a life of its own without much self within.

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Ramee Deeb is a filmmaker, photographer, and an art enthusiast. MA in Media Studies from the American University of Beirut.

References:

  1. “Selfie.” Wikipedia. March 8, 2016. Accessed March 18, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selfie.
  2. Rose, Gillian. Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials. 2nd ed. London: Sage, 2001.
  3. Songta, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.
  4. Bates, Laura. “Are Selfies Empowering for Women?” The Guardian. February 04, 2016. Accessed March 18, 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/feb/04/are-selfies-empowering-for-women.
  5. Jones, Amelia. The Body And/In Representation. Edited by Nicholas Mirzoeff. London: Routledge, 2013.