Rapid advances in technology and almost universal access to smartphones have spawned the phenomenon of the selfie, now a performative tradition that dominates social media. According to a study by OnePoll, the average 16 – 25-year-old woman spends over five hours a week taking and uploading selfies. Selfies ostensibly reveal very little; they are personal products designed to be consumed by an audience, and to generate the highest possible number of ‘likes.’ Selfies show one person, perhaps in a notable place, or with a notable public figure, but they seldom have artistic value or point of difference.

Photographer Margrét Möller taking a self-portrait using a mirror and a box camera, circa 1900.

Photographer Margrét Möller taking a self-portrait using a mirror and a box camera, circa 1900.

Photographer Margrét Möller taking a self-portrait, circa 1900.

Photographer Margrét Möller taking a self-portrait, circa 1900.

With more cameras owned worldwide than ever before, photography (at least at an amateur level) has become something anyone can do. Prosaic or special events are captured through the lens of the smartphone camera, while isolated communities, like those in Kashmir, have been transformed by this new form of expression. According to journalist Justine Hardy, access to cheap phones has opened a “virtual world” for those in remote places, who develop “split personas” and “dissociate from all personal responsibility.”

Models taking selfies on the runway at Dolce & Gabbana SS'16 collection show. Photo source: Vogue Runway.

Models taking selfies on the runway at Dolce & Gabbana SS'16 collection show. Photo source: Vogue Runway.

Models taking selfies on the runway at Dolce & Gabbana SS'16 collection show. Photo source: Vogue Runway.

Models taking selfies on the runway at Dolce & Gabbana SS'16 collection show. Photo source: Vogue Runway.

Environment is often secondary in a selfie, but it is not uncommon to see a social event or family holiday recorded and preserved through this medium. However, the ultimate conundrum lies in asking whether selfies, the new genre of the photographic medium, truly have an equal value as memory making instruments. Taking a selfie requires a turn to the self, a hiatus in the reality of whatever takes place, a slot of time, emptied of what currently goes on, and filled with the static, repetitive, rather superfluous response that is a selfie. If anything, it sounds like a barrier in the way of successfully capturing moments in time.

From left to right: David Cameron, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama at Nelson Mandela's funeral, 2013.

From left to right: David Cameron, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama at Nelson Mandela's funeral, 2013.

A selfie taken at the Academy Awards, 2014.

A selfie taken at the Academy Awards, 2014.

Some argue that selfies are the materialisation of a systemic narcissism that defines our time. It is interesting to note that, just like Narcissus, we seek the joy of seeing not ourselves, but our projections, extensions that, simply by existing in a different medium, on a separate surface, become independent entities. This necessary split of our own image points to a possible shift in how memory of ourselves works: through breaking down the whole, creating fragments of our image, only to have the satisfaction of recognising ourselves on and on, in partial, cropped instalments.

From the series Bringing the War Home, 2004 by Martha Rosler.

From the series Bringing the War Home, 2004 by Martha Rosler.

This longing for projected reiteration of our image, heightened by online presence, often indicate low self-esteem and desire for approval. Instagram user Kayla Peterson, interviewed by Lomography magazine, sees the ability to upload a selfie as representative of “a big progression in [her] life,” as developing the confidence to take your own picture and share it with others requires personal strength. Actor James Franco, famous for his many uploaded selfies, insists that they “are tools of communication, more than marks of vanity’. To him, the selfie is “the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, Hello, this is me.”

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In photography theory, the point of view the camera takes is analysed as substitute for the point of view of the person taking the shot. The photographer essentially says: “Hello, this is me seeing,” successfully inviting a seeing-with type of reaction from the viewer. Selfies cancel this togetherness, by assigning the point of view in mid-air, to nobody. The subject of a selfie ends up saying: “Hello, this is me, not really seeing, but hoping to be seen.”

Words: Alice Tuffery

Copied edited by Elena Stanciu