Photographing the Self: What’s it all really about?

Pucker Up and Pose for a Self Portrait
Pucker Up and Pose for a Self Portrait (Almere Netherlands 15 July 2013)

If you make photos, have you asked yourself why? Have you thought about the motivations, the reasons, and the end results, you are looking for when you make a photo? Of course as a social documentary/street photographer, it is part of the job description to be questioning my own motivations, my own purpose and intention, on an ongoing basis. But, I have been thinking lately about that oft quoted observation: ‘everyone’s a photographer these days’.

I’m not into the debate about who’s a photographer and who isn’t. I am simply interested in what all those people who are now ‘photographers’ are doing, and why.

First up, I thought I would find out how many photos are posted each day on the internet.  As of February 2015, 300 million per day were being put up on Facebook, and the latest news from Instagram reports that over 70 million photos and videos are uploaded every day to their site. But, here’s the biggie: as of the end of 2014 it was estimated that there were about 1.8 billion photos uploaded to the Internet as a whole every day. Now, at the beginning of 2016 it’s probably a whole lot more!

There is no doubt that the proliferation of mobile phones equipped with cameras accounts for many, even most, of these photos. And according to my research, it seems that most social media sites are experiencing huge growth in the number of photos posted. Many claim that this suggests photography as a pastime or hobby is growing ever more popular.

While this may be true, to some degree, I think there is something else at work here. I believe that most people making photos today are not doing it as a hobby or pastime: for the majority ‘taking’ photos serves other purposes. Of course I can’t speak for everyone who posts photos on social media, but I am convinced that the camera (or more often the Smartphone) has become for many of us another tool we use to get ourselves noticed, to ‘be seen’ as one writer has put it. For many the photograph is not a way to explore or view the world or even ‘as a way of seeing what the world looks like in a photograph’ as the prolific street photographer Garry Winogrand once said of his own reasons for making photographs.

Just take a scroll through your Facebook feed, or have a look at Instagram. On both you will see untold numbers of images of food, people’s meals and desserts. You will see photos (and discussions too) of the latest clothes the poster has bought and countless photos of people’s possessions: cars, computers, sound systems; the list is endless. And then there is the ubiquitous ‘selfies’. What we used to call self portraits have now become less a way for us to explore ourselves and our place in the universe and more a way to compete, to show off, to tell the world what we’ve got, how ‘cool’ we and our possessions and our lives are.

You can even buy ‘selfie sticks’, equipped with Bluetooth no less, for taking those photos of yourself with your phone. I see them more and more on the street. Once upon a time it was fairly common to ask a bystander or someone passing by to take your photo if you were alone and wanted to record what you were doing or where you were. Nowadays, even this sharing and connection is denied as we slip more and more into a kind of narcissism which is aided and abetted by our materialistic and status driven society.

Remember Narcissus? He was that guy who came across a pond in the forest. Kneeling down to take a drink, he caught sight of his face reflected in the smooth surface of the pond. He was so taken with his reflection that he fell in love with it. He talked to it, smiled at it and tried to convince it to return his love, but each time he reached out to touch that beautiful face in the water, the image dissolved into ripples which faded away.

Eventually he realized that the face in the water was his own reflection but he was still so obsessed that he stayed by the pond until he starved to death (one version has it that Narcissus was so grief stricken at not being able to possess his new love that he stabbed himself).

I think the lesson from this sad story is plain. The infatuation with mirages or reflections of ourselves is not healthy. As was the case with Narcissus, we can become so caught up in the surface reflection that we present to the world that we are not able to go any further with an exploration of self. Maybe we don’t take it the extremes that this guy did (he had already rejected love from all who offered it) but a fixation on that surface reflection does lead to disconnection from others, a growing lack of empathy and an over-concern for surface appearances to the detriment of the real us and what is really going on in and around us.

Am I saying that all ‘selfies’ are bad? Of course not. Am I saying you should never share with your friends what you had for breakfast, or your new outfit/car/whatever? No, I am not. What I am saying is this: sometimes, just sometimes, when you are tempted to take a photo of yourself or your breakfast, look around. Ask someone near to you would they mind taking the photo for you.

One more thing: Dump the selfie stick (literally and/or metaphorically) and turn the camera or your phone the other way and engage with the world.

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