Capturing and Eroding the Self: From Self-Portraiture to the Selfie

Daniel Juarez, Managing Editor

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Intrigue gripped attendees of the penultimate event in the Higgins School of Humanities’ lecture series, “Capturing and Eroding the Self: From Self-Portraiture to the Selfie,” at the Higgins Lounge in Dana Commons. Featuring Clark’s own John Garton and Esteban Cardemil, associate professors of Visual and Performing Arts (V&PA) and psychology, respectively, the lecture focused on an in-depth study of self-portraits, including their history, their evolution, the reasons behind them, the diverse set of opinions the public has of them, and their benefits and drawbacks.

After a brief introduction from Professor Newman acquainting the two speakers, the lecture began with Garton defining the term “selfie,” and tracing its origins back to sixteenth-century painted self-portraits.

“In November 2013, ‘selfie’ was named Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries, defined as a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via a social media website,” he began. “The earliest usage that Oxford Dictionaries could find was in 2002, when ‘selfie’ was used in an Australian online forum, which according to their findings, a man posted a picture of injuries to his face sustained after he’d tripped over some steps.”

Talking about how selfies have an unorthodox form of staged craftsmanship to them, Garton continued by stating that this line of thinking pointed to similarities to the painted and sculpted works that rose to prominence in Renaissance Europe during the 1400s and 1500s, “a period in which self-portraiture began to flourish.”  

After familiarizing the audience with the term, Garton took a detour into the past, explaining that past artists portrayed their reflections exactly as they appeared in mirrors, to artists painting portraits of the political elite. Garton went on to cite photographs of Frederick Douglass during the nineteenth century to the use of a box camera for a selfie by Joseph Byron Clayton in the early twentieth century, to portraits by Cindy Sherman, depicting herself in various time periods.

“When anyone can make a self-portrait, there is no objective artfulness associated with the individual’s identity,” he said. “But within the [modern] selfie, all meaning seems to ride on a rather un-artful image, that must be a marvel through some other means, that is other than its mastery of traditional photographic techniques.”              

Garton dived into how in the modern era, the accessibility of a phone camera can have positive effects for any under-represented individuals or fuel a group’s global consciousness, sometimes enough to motivate political action.

Garton displayed pertinent examples, which included selfies of cancer survivors, an out trans-person, and an athlete celebrating a victory, all of which drew attention to their cause by their simple display of it on social media. But while the influence of selfies could indeed be positive, Garton also pointed out the economic incentives taking over the modern culture of selfies.

“The contemporary expression: their selfies went viral, refers to an undreamed amount of clicks which can lead to very real advertising dollars– various platforms and intermediaries pay the person posting the photo or the video for access in peripheral advertisements into all that [social] traffic.” He went on, “but the marketplace is fickle, so you better have a daring self-portrayal if you want to capture a disinterested audience’s attention.”

Once Gartone had finished his analysis of the current grip selfies have on society, it was Cardemil’s turn to share his own commentary on the psychology within this culture of electronic portraiture.

Revealing some of his students’ own reasons for and opinions on taking selfies, he described how selfies allow for convenience in not needing to ask someone else’s help to take a photo, as well as the vanity and narcissism of wanting to “show off” something about themselves, and commercial interest for advertisers. In outlining the benefits, Cardemil included that selfies can be used as a method of self-disclosure, desiring to connect with others, and as a form of documentation for both introverts and extroverts.

However, the consequences he admitted were a bit mixed. After seeing a negative response from their post, people noted a negative effect on their self-esteem, and for women and young girls in particular, body image concerns can arise.

“Interestingly, self-culture itself is viewed negatively by people in general.” He elaborated, “people in selfie images can be rated as less trustworthy by external others, as well as less attractive and more narcissistic than people in standard photo, as it contributes to this illusory world, unreal connections and a potential threat to one’s self-confidence.”

Once his commentary concluded, the talk opened up for questions from the audience. With some ranging from how selfie stills differ from self-vlogs and the potential connections people feel with others through images, one question asked how the eroticism shown in early portraiture could have found its way to the modern era with “erotic” selfies on dating websites, and where it could possibly evolve from there.

“I can’t speak to selfies specifically,” Cardemil began, “but the way social media is changing, research has been done that [suggests that] selfies allow for a more efficient and effective way people present themselves authentically, or inauthentically to potential partners.”

Garton echoed this point, pointing out that in the early 1500s, there was a higher focus on the increased sizes of codpieces within the portraitures of elite men, Europeans, both professors seeming to imply that selfies would continue to evolve as another tool to allow people to find potential mates more easily.