Posted in Photography
April 14, 2020

The Ambivalent Portrait – Locating Resistance And Compliance In The Moment Of Selfie Production, Part 1 (Harold Dalton)

The following is the first of a two-part series.

Epistemologically, recognizing the importance of routines for media use, means that text and context cannot always be distinguished from one another.”

—Joke Hermes (1993)


When I think of the selfie, I am always drawn to a particular moment in my life. It was a hot summer in Victoria, Australia, when I encountered a koala bear nonchalantly clinging to a tree just above head height. A typical tourist, I approached cautiously and used my phone to take a photograph, and then moved aside for the three people waiting patiently behind me. Then I witnessed a curious sight: rather than engage with the animal, they turned their backs to it in unison, then raised a selfie stick and posed for a photograph. Functionally, my photograph and the photograph this group took served similar purposes—both were mementos that demonstrated we’d encountered something exciting and unusual.

Yet, witnessing their selfie’s production and realizing that the act of turning away from the subject of the photograph removed them from real life engagement at the same time as it incorporated them into the photograph stuck with me. Somehow the selfie carried a different set of meanings to my more traditional photograph, and these meanings were present in the moment of photographic production I had witnessed.

The selfie remains remarkably undertheorized, a single edition of The International Journal of Communication (2015) notwithstanding. This lack of academic conversation appears in stark contrast with the ubiquity of the practice. As an emergent technology, the selfie is still finding its voice within the academy, and the conversation remains incomplete and disjointed. Across the meager analytical offerings available to scholars, the one unfortunate commonality is that the selfie is examined positionally as a cultural concept or signifier of meaning, the social practice invariably detached from the physical act of taking the photograph.

This essay argues that the moment of the selfie’s production is not simply a procedural stage, but instead the initial site in which meaning is inscribed on both the photographic text and the cultural practice. The selfie is not simply an object of vanity and teenaged self-absorption, but one of complex layers of meaning—of a class resistance that transforms the meaning of “portrait,” of a debate between authenticity and hyperreality in which the selfie occupies both sides at once, and of social conformity to hegemonic ideologies even while bourgeois culture resists and ridicules it as a practice.

This essay addresses two key points, with the intent of beginning to fill the epistemological silence around the photographic process that is evident within attempts at selfie theorization thus far. First, it examines how the selfie operates in the same realm of the bourgeois portrait’s functionality regardless of whether we consider it a continuation of the portrait or an entirely separate entity. From this perspective, it becomes necessary to invoke case studies and Stuart Hall’s “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular” to explore the selfie as a class slippage of the portrait, concluding that cultural perceptions of the photograph serve to influence how we perceive its means of production, just as its method of production dictates its meaning.

The second half of this essay examines the extent to which the process of selfie prosumption (a portmanteau of production and consumption) is in fact scripted by the very technologies with which the selfie is prosumed, establishing a causal relationship with discourse that is inscribed at the very moment of the selfie’s fabrication. Exploring the gap between object and practice allows us to conceptualize the selfie as a mass communications medium whose relation to capital and ideology is inscribed through its means of production.

Finally, it is important to establish that the gaps in the theorization of the selfie create a rare epistemic opportunity to discuss many different things. This paper is a contribution to a conversation that is still in its infancy; in attempting to fill the silences, it covers a lot of ground, perhaps more than if a rigorous debate was already underway. It should therefore be understood that a rejection of the object/practice duality is the thread with which this paper attempts to stitch many ongoing, formative discussions together, and, as such, hopes to serve as a foundation upon which future study can be built.

Defining the Selfie

The selfie is a complex product. It is perhaps because of its complexity that the academy has thus far struggled to find a singular perspective from which to deconstruct its meanings. Nevertheless, the academy is united in its splitting of the selfie into two distinct concepts: the selfie as object (which is to say, a photographic image) and the selfie as practice (referring to its cultural position within society).

Theresa Senft and Nancy Baym explore this duality in their introduction to The International Journal of Communication’s “Selfies” feature, defining the selfie as “a photographic object that initiates the transmission of human feeling in the form of a relationship. … A selfie is also a practice—a gesture that can send (and is often intended to send) different messages to different individuals, communities, and audiences.” (1589). This, of course, is a useful way to visualize and understand the selfie, yet the circumstances of the selfie’s production is one of its most distinguishing characteristics as both an object and practice, and any attempt to separate the photographic object from the practice creates a curious silence that often leaves theorizations of the selfie balancing precariously on its circumference.

We must instead step backward from thinking about the selfie in terms of its cultural position, however disconcerting this seems, because the selfie is defined first and foremost by the act that constitutes its production: picturing a selfie is imagining a person holding a camera at arm’s length, pointing it at themselves, perhaps contorting their face. The selfie as a cultural object or as a social practice is simply not so far detached from the means by which it is produced. Like a painting in a gallery, the selfie bears the strokes that create it: we recognize it as genre to itself precisely because of an aesthetic that is instantly recognizable as its means of production, communicating first and foremost that the photographic image is a selfie.

The selfie is hypervisible, and while the photographic text attempts to hide the arm or selfie stick holding the cellphone, in both visual aesthetic and cultural role the selfie is distinct as a genre in itself—a text that is inseparable from its context, to paraphrase Joke Hermes (505). Yet when it comes to selfies, the one consensus in the academy is its wish to carve the text from the context and analyze each separately, leaving the gap between the two poles vacant despite this absence representing the very machinations that distinguish the selfie as a cultural phenomenon.

The painter steps back from the easel, palette in hand. Perhaps he raises a thumb and closes one eye. There’s no consensus on whether the selfie is a continuation of the (self-)portrait. Margaret Nichols questions whether the selfie photographer is “inflicting violence upon the conventions of self-portraiture” (1) yet argues the case for its continuity:

Although the technology has changed and the subsequent sharing abilities even further distort reality from what is originally captured by the front-facing camera, the selfie is a continuation of the self-portrait in more traditional mediums, primarily those done by and of women. (3-4)

Such is Nichols’ conviction that the selfie is a linear progression from oil paint to smartphone that her own definition of the selfie cites Renaissance portraiture and notes that “most artists painted themselves from a reflection (similarly to the original selfies taken in front of mirrors with flip-phones).” (4)

Sociotechnical ethnographers Edgar Gómez and Helen Thornham disagree, instead positioning the selfie within a photographic practice that places image-making as “one element of several connective processes, inclusive of the power dynamics, design of, and normative practices of social networks” (3). In understanding the selfie as an assemblage of connective photographic processes , we turn to Adorno, whose photographic self-portrait recalls what Nichols describes as “original selfies” with its dependence on the mirror to make visible both the subject and the technologies of the image’s own creation.

Adorno’s picture depicts the scene in which the picture of Adorno is created, a portrait in which the subject portrays himself as the image of an object, “uncovering the ways in which the self is always already an image” (1). For Adorno, the self within the selfie might be the “absent referent” , yet the subject of his photograph is not himself, but instead the concept of the self-portrait. The referent self within the selfie is, in fact, the selfie: its subject is the object it produces, weaving a complex interlocution of meanings constituting a wry dialectical play. Adorno finds in the self-portrait that the seer and the seen are one and the same, yet never simultaneously; the private and the public intrude on each other but never become one another; the technical aspects of the photograph are not the photograph itself, but are of the image just as the image is of them.

The Class Slippage of the Portrait

The selfie is therefore an assemblage built around a photographic process that comprises, among many other tendrils of discourse, both the photographic object and the cultural practice (Hess 2015). Whether or not we choose to position the selfie as a continuation of the portrait, it is nevertheless clear that the portrait as a photographic process serves a dialectical and discursive relationship with the selfie—not to mention a common etymology and purpose.

The concern of Renaissance portraiture was identity: the painted portrait was a technology through which relations of class, family, and other social signifiers could be communicated. The entry barrier to sitting for a portrait was attaining the statuses it communicated, making the physical act of being painted a moment of discursive inscription. Carolyn McDonough explores the role of the portrait as signifier of connectedness in comparison with the democratizing practice of modern photography, playfully adding, with a nod to the dual social and technological meanings of the word, that “the message of today’s selfie and being online is also ‘I’m connected’” (3).

Yet linear continuity implies obsolescence for the portrait. This is not the case; the portrait is not obsolete, nor is it solely the preserve of the aristocracy. The portrait in fact remains an active and valued component of bourgeois culture. It is not difficult to find examples. Consider the formal digital photographs used by professionals to present themselves to customers, clients, and potential connections in places such as LinkedIn. Additionally, consider the ways in which the photographic object, process, and cultural practice all act upon one another in this usage scenario. Consider too the bylines in newspapers, magazines, and the most respected of online publications.

And finally, consider the concept of a personal brand, which places a name and portrait centrally within a thriving culture of identity-based digital entrepreneurship, as Gomez and Thornham suggest. (2) In a culture of mass-production, digital dualism, and confrontation between the impersonal and the authentic, the digital portrait became (or continued to be) a central component in providing evidence of the self, inscribed with a gravitas that communicated value. The selfie can often serve the same purpose, standing as evidence of engagement with sociocultural objects. This is demonstrated by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, whose exhibition Megacities Asia in 2016 offered free entrance to the museum for anybody who took a selfie of themselves with Choi Jeong Hwa’s Fruit Tree in an outdoor downtown location.

The selfie provides evidence of the image of a self that participates in social environments, cultural moments, travel, and other forms of consumption. The self is no more or less authentic in a selfie than in a bourgeois portrait, nor is it a drastically different entity being communicated. Nevertheless, the self is central to the selfie in a crude way: it is an object acting upon others, rather than an evidential statement of bourgeois educational or capitalist success. In short, the subject of the selfie and the purpose of its existence are simultaneously more crass and less transparent than the bourgeois portrait, for which complicity with neoliberalism is an underlying, unstated basis of self-representation.

As such, the selfie sits uneasily within contemporary culture, serving a similar purpose to the portrait that has become so important to corporations, professionals, and the fourth estate, yet often appearing only a crude simulacrum of the means and values the bourgeois portrait
communicates. It is difficult, therefore, to resist viewing the selfie as portrait that has experienced class slippage. While it is clear that the selfie offers a revenue stream for some of the biggest companies in the world such as Facebook, and, indeed, that the prosumers of the selfie are the labor force producing, or occupying the analogous position of, the value upon which they depend, these complex interactions leave the selfie as a portrait whose relation to value production in capitalist culture is at best indirect.

Stuart Hall argues that cultural meaning of object is not a “fixed inventory,” and that what appears a bourgeois form in fact only appears so temporarily, to particular social groups (449). Class slippage—along with incorporation, distortion, resistance, negotiation and recuperation (450)—is an inevitable cultural process which is in itself contradictory. It is likely that Hall would use this foundation to view the selfie as a portrait, concerning himself more with the historical process to which the selfie contributes than its individual role as a working class artifact or activity. It should certainly be apparent that the selfie is not simply a site of narcissistic self-depiction, but instead a lens through which culture depicts relations of race, gender, class, and even political affiliation.

With this in mind, we must consider that the referent to the selfie’s means of production is inseparable from the inferred cultural narratives that dictate its discursive framing. In short, the selfie has a different cultural meaning to the portrait, and this meaning in fact dictates whether a given image is determined to be a selfie or a portrait. To illustrate, we will now address two case studies that recently drew media attention: selfies by Kim Kardashian West and Ben Innes. Kim Kardashian West’s naked selfie, identified as such despite its mediation through seemingly professional digital image manipulation processes that obscured her breasts and genitals, attracted criticism as an irresponsible act for its sexualized and gendered representation of the female body.

Kardashian West’s image is no less solemn than Adorno’s, also posed in a mirror, and with similarly uncomfortable body language. The photographic process for Kardashian West, as it was  for Adorno, is in sitting for the photograph, and in the mirror the selfie itself was the offense; the selfie is judged more harshly than the more mediated form, because the selfie is the object and subject of the photograph’s production, and the means through which we are able to prosume Kardashian West’s body and perspective. This process of production speaks to Kardashian West’s value just as the photographic object itself is inscribed with value for the depiction of her image within it. Thus, the self and the mirror in Kardashian’s selfie serve identical purposes: “The viewing subject,” as Richter writes, “is spatially positioned where the referential object must be for its image to be reflectable by the mirror’s surface … subject and object do not merely trade places but also imbricate each other in a mutual mediation for this scene of vision to become possible” (1).

Similarly, British hijack victim Ben Innes courted controversy posing for a photograph with the terrorist holding him hostage aboard flight MS181. The aesthetic signifiers of the selfie seem disguised or absent in this photograph: neither subject (Innes) nor object (Seif Eldin Mustafa) are holding the camera. It is instead a posed portrait, quickly taken by an air steward on a hijacked plane. Yet, it is a portrait of a selfie. It was described as such by global news corporations including The Guardian and NPR.

This seems a contradictory case study in a paper that argues for the photographic process of selfie production to be considered as a vital component within a unified assemblage through which meaning is constructed. However, Innes’s photograph’s slippage from contemporary conventions of portraiture meant there was no alternative other than for it to be defined as a selfie. The photograph acted as a liminal site through which discourse became contested, and thus the photographic process of its production became complicated.

Harold Dalton is a British cycling industry professional living in Massachusetts with over 13 years of experience in professional journalism, television, and industry writing. He is ​a lifelong cyclist – the fourth cycling generation in the Dalton family. He is also a graduate student at Simmons College.

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