CAMSZINE enlisted Professor John Schott to report on activities in CAMS 350: Visual Studies Seminar, where students are engaged in studying the selfie.
Selfies exploded on social media scene in 2012. With the advent of forward-facing mobile phone cameras and a host of associated “shoot and post’ apps, suddenly everyone was taking selfies, so much so that “selfie” became Oxford dictionary’s “word for the year” in 2013. Commercial websites discovered quickly that the very word in the title of an article guaranteed massive number of “click throughs,” even though the associated articles had almost nothing to add. Giggles, cleavage and
six-packs, stories of excess, a hint of naughtiness, and the occasional three-paragraph story about the “narcissism epidemic”; that was what we discovered in online coverage of the selfie phenomenon.
So in our Visual Studies Seminar this winter (2015) we decided to remedy that: we undertook a range of research, seminar presentations, and papers.
After an introduction to the history of the selfie from earliest MySpace days of making self-portraits photos in bathroom mirrors to the visual tsunami of Facebook and Instagram selfies, students explored the history of the self-portrait in painting, from ancient times to the present, and realized that they almost always have a social function, which we categorized, beyond mere depiction. Next we reviewed the history of self-portraiture in conventional photography, where an important theme of “self-reflexivity” and representational privilege emerged—the issue of who gets to make pictures of whom.
We examined “selfie technologies," everything from early self-portrait cameras or adaptations to selfie sticks, and we recognized that defining selfies as simply “images” missed the essential point that the whole cycle of processing images in mobile phone apps, then circulating them through social media, including feedback loops of commenting and discussion, was to our understanding. If “the meaning is the use,” the the new uses of images are where meaning is produced.
We had a fascinating presentation on the history of mirrors in western culture, where we realized the mirror as an essential modality of “looking,” and of how central mirrors, then cameras, are to the progressive conquest of self-seeing. This theme continued through presentations on theories of identity in contemporary life, and a new recognition that if identity is something we are always constructing because we are always changing, then the circulation of our self-images play a dramatically new role in our navigation of contemporary life—selfies are a new chapter in the“presentation of self" in everyday life. We discussed, too, the fact that much media theory has discussed images of women as “to be looked at” and that new technologies of self-imaging potentially return the power of representation to women themselves. Our question was: what have women done with this new power?
Final talks addressed selfies as social media, as an effect of the network rather than artifacts, as conversations and exchanges engendered by the network, rather than as “stand alone" images. We capped off with two discussions of the ways in which artists are embracing selfies as a genre, both giving them an artful treatment that parallels modernist self-portraiture in the analogue era, and in terms of critique.
For students enrolled in the Visual Studies Seminar, selfies are no longer just skin deep.