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Looking for depth in the selfie

  • 31 October 2014

I take a lot of selfies. Some of them are silly, coquettish, dramatic, others are just my face looking into my computer, sitting where I work, dressed in work clothes.

They’re like a diaristic record of my location and my day. It might be simple to say that they mean more or less nothing, that they’re just an inane collection of data on my laptop, or self-portraits made easy by the tools I use for work anyway. But nothing means nothing. Everything says something about the culture that produces it.

When photography first entered the modern world, it was taken up as a hobby by the wealthy and obsessed. Then with industrialisation the means of photography proliferated, making it available to regular folks in developed economies.

It started to transform the everyday – families, holidays – into memorable events. How could you say you’d been on a holiday if there were no photos to show the family? How important could the wedding have been if photographic documentation didn’t exist? The function of recording became also a function of working, of being active in those moments that drew people away from work inside and outside of the home.

In her famous text on photography, Susan Sontag wrote that it was the early-comers to mass photography (as opposed to art photography) – Japanese, Germans, and Americans – who also were also the most work-obsessed. 'Using a camera', she writes, 'appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly reminder of work: they can take pictures.' Selfies perhaps take this further, in that they commemorate the self in its various stages.

This idea of photography as work positions photography inside capitalism, inside a culture that has to be busy and productive, archiving minutes of life for later consumption. The self that exists in a selfie is a labourer, too. But making selfies is not just a 'friendly reminder of work', it’s real work, which generates a use-value for the person taking the selfies, and actual money for social media platforms.

Making and posting selfies on social media is a bit like working for Instagram, Facebook, or Tumblr, but without a wage. At least, not one you can live off. Remuneration is rewarded in the currency of ‘likes’, which are attached to social status,