An eye for an I: Trying to understand selfies

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The Vine and Instagrams videos start the same. A young man or woman appears in a homemade shoot. He or she is wearing makeup that gives them fat, garish lips, exaggerated acne and a thick, pencilled-in unibrow. The hair is gelled or tousled in disarray. The youths act as if they're looking at themselves in the mirror, dismayed by their appearance. They touch a hand to a cheek with mock disdain and dismay. Then they put the hand forward, blocking the screen. When the hand withdraws we see the same teen, now with perfect skin, a stylish coif and a preening cockiness that would make a courtesan blush.

The videos are part of the Don't Judge Challenge (#dontjudgechallenge) and they are at the more reprehensible end of the selfie spectrum, videos of what appear to be young narcissists celebrating their own beauty while making it clear that the unattractive are only of use as objects of mockery. Which is odd because back in July, the challenge was originally meant as a protest against body shaming. It quickly just became an excuse for pretty young men and women to show themselves off.

That isn't the first time it's happened. In 2013, Beyonce's hit "Flawless" took off and so did the "I Woke Up Like This" selfie epidemic. While the song and some of the early videos were meant to honour women's natural beauty, the meme quickly morphed into stills of young women and men who had clearly gotten up, primped and then got back into bed to make themselves appear naturally flawless.

A little down the spectrum of selfie stills are the "No Makeup" selfies. In these, young women show themselves sans product. Again, the original intention of the meme might have been to celebrate natural beauty. But, the stills became nothing more than honey traps for poor saps to tell the young girl she's beautiful without makeup. It's like shooting lonely boys in a barrel.

There are other variations on the selfie theme: I'm Not Modelling, Pretty Girls/Ugly Faces etc. All of which seem to be not-so-indirect ways to show off how beautiful the subjects are to their friends, fans and followers. And all of which, of course, have as their sole content, the person holding the camera.

This fascinates and mystifies me, as do selfies in general. These memes are just extremes of an odd behaviour -- having a camera in hand and using it as a mirror, not a window on the world. Treating it, as it were, as "an eye for an I."

A friend of mine, recently on a European vacation, told me that the number 1 item being sold by street vendors in Italian towns were selfie sticks. Why so many tourists feel the need to use themselves to block perfectly nice views is beyond me.

I'm about to turn 60 and am an avid photographer. So I understand a camera to be an optical device one uses to document the world around you. I am mystified and disturbed by how so many folks these days go out into the world and, judging from the images they bring back, believe themselves to be the centre of it.

Some of my female Facebook friends argue that sharing selfies is no less self-absorbed than sharing details of meals, trips or work. But, at least, in those cases, some flake of the real world is shared, however trivial. And the camera is pointed away from the shooter, not at him or her.

Others argued that I'm just too old to understand selfies, that it's a generational thing. And here I have to agree. I understand selfies as much as I understand sleeve tattoos. I was not brought up as the centre of attention, in a world where video cameras are cheap and ubiquitous and self-centred celebrities are role models. Young people see everyone in front of the lens all the time. So, it's only natural they should put themselves there too.

And, they argue, the young people aren't being intentionally narcissistic; it's just a form of self-expression and is natural in their culture. I find this both true and sad. Sad because it's hard to do two things at once: bear witness and gaze in a looking glass. If even campaigns aimed at calling attention to social injustice rapidly turn into self-indulgent clusterfucks, what does that say about the selfies shared self-indulgently to begin with?

The great American photojournalist Dorthea Lange said: "The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." A selfie, on the other hand, is an act that teaches people how not to see, with a photograph.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, here.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Image: David Pons/flickr

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