Recently, I came across an old black-and-white photograph of a 60s actor taken in Hong Kong, his sunglasses pushed up on his forehead, revealing a satisfied, wind-burned face, his friend just visible behind him. Initially I didn’t know why I was drawn to it. The tilt of his head was familiar. Then it hit me. In all probability, he was holding the camera himself. It was, for the lack of better word, a ‘selfie’. It made me think of the now infamous picture of Paul Maccartney, who claimed he invented the selfie. I also looked at the selfies of Desmond Tan, who is hailed by a local magazine as the Instagram champion. His expressions in most of them are hypnotically similar, a slight grin. These self-portraits are worlds and decades apart. But they are threaded together by a timeless delight in our ability to document our lives and leave behind a trace for others to discover. “There is a primal human urge to stand outside of ourselves and look at ourselves,” said Clive Thompson, a technology writer. Selfies have become the catchall term for digital self-portraits abetted by the explosion of cellphone cameras with phone editing and sharing services. Oxford Dictionaries Online has added the term to its lexicon.
Everyday, our Facebook feeds show up picture after picture of our friends. Putting their best faces forward. All deserving of exhibition in the carousel museum of social media. We click ‘like’ or we narrow our eyes in dislike. Yet the practice of self-portraiture has never been cheaper or wider. The #selfiehashtag on Instagram summons a torrent of self-portraits in style ranging from glamour shot to mug shot. Today we are all self-portraitists. Selfies are either a pure expression of self or the surrender to conformity. At times, it feels largely performative, and raises of questions about vanity, narcissism and our obsession with beauty and body image. But it is far too simplistic to write off the selfie phenomenon as a side effect of the digital culture. “The idea of a selfie is much more like your face is the caption and you’re trying to explain a moment or tell a story,” said Frederic della Faille, the founder and designer of Frontback, a new application that lets users take photographs using both front and rear facing cameras. “It is much more of a moment and a story than a photograph.” And more often than not, he added, “It’s not about being beautiful.”
A friend I know chanced upon a familiar photograph online. Isn’t it a picture of his father? He looked incredibly young. It must be when he was as young as he is now. He followed the tracking of this photo and it led him to a series of images, which opened his world and his worldview of his father. It took him to his father’s Facebook account which he didn’t know existed. Besides reading his posts, which touched and warmed his heart, he saw his father in various poses and situations, at his work, at the park with his mother, at home with their dog, and with their relatives, his colleagues and friends. Through these selfies, he saw a multi-dimensional side to his father he never saw or gave much thought to. Suddenly his father was more than a father. He was a person. He was once young and his world at one point in time did not include him. Strangely it made him understand and love his father more. It also made him look at his own selfies, and saw how he has grown over the years. Most importantly, it allowed him to relive some very significant moments of his life and reflect on them in a way he could not and did not do.
We are becoming accustomed to online conversations and interactions that revolve around images and photos. They are often more effective at conveying a feeling or reaction than text. A selfie is not unlike the close-ups in movies. It is usually during a close-up that a significant moment happens, one that resonates with the audience. Selfies strongly suggest that the world we observe through social media is more interesting when people insert themselves into it, a fact that many social media sites have noticed. Over the last year or so, I have watched as most of my friends have slowly begun turning their cameras inward on themselves. It has made my feed more interesting and entertaining. I’d much rather see my friends’ faces as they prepare food than a close-up of their finished meals. The rare occasions when I feel bold enough to post my photos online, I see spikes in comments and feedback, the kind that other pictures rarely get. So rather than dismissing this trend, maybe we’re better off seeing selfies for what they are at their best – a kind of visual diary, a way to mark our short existence and hold it up to others as proof that we were here. The rest, of course, is open to interpretation…