Selfies and The Craze of Self-Photography

A few weeks ago, General Colin L. Powell created an overnight Internet sensation by posting an image of himself, taken in the 1950s.  The image, capturing the young and dapper Powell in black-and-white, was a direct response to the “selfie” taken by Ellen DeGeneres at the 2014 Oscars.  General Powell boldly proclaimed that he “was doing selfies 60 years before you Facebook folks,” and told Ellen to “eat her heart out.”

Colin Powell 60 years ago. Courtesy General Colin L. Powell.

Colin Powell 60 years ago. Courtesy General Colin L. Powell.

Besides General Powell’s Facebook post, Ellen’s selfie drew the attention of President Obama.  The President, appearing on Ellen’s talk show, seemed a bit sore that the star-filled Oscar photo drew more Twitter retweets than his selfie with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, taken at the funeral of Nelson Mandela.  The President’s dig at Ellen has taken the media by storm, but has also sparked criticism of today’s culture.

President Obama and Danish PM Thorning-Schmidt pose for a selfie.  Courtesy Getty Images.

President Obama and Danish PM Thorning-Schmidt pose for a selfie. Courtesy Getty Images.

The modern “selfie” culture is, according to some, a sign of increasing narcissism.  While psychologists bicker about the exact nature of this ballooning cultural self-importance, it seems that selfie culture is not slowing down.  Applications like Snapchat actually encourage selfies as a form of virtual interpersonal communication.

What’s important to remember in all of this, and what has been lost in the current discussions on selfies in both the academic and public spheres, is that selfies are nothing new.  In fact, our fascination with photography and the photographic self-portrait traces its roots back to the advent of the camera.

Early photography, much like early computer science or telecommunications, was more for professionals, scientists, and hobbyists.  However, once the camera became more publicly accessible, people began photographing their everyday life.  The concept of capturing an image of the present that could be shared in the future was fascinating, and thus drew a lot of attention.  Self-portrait photography, or what we now call “selfies,” was an early development in the photographic genre.

A circa 1900 "selfie."  Courtesy Shorpy.com.

A circa 1900 “selfie.” Courtesy Shorpy.com.

Individuals from all walks of life were interested in taking self portraits in photographic form, combining the technological wonder of the camera with the natural human interest in the self.  Cameras captured and preserved what mirrors reflected: cultural views on beauty, fashion, and the self.

Grand Dutchess Anastasia, circa 1913.  Courtesy @HistoricalPics

Grand Dutchess Anastasia, circa 1913. Courtesy @HistoricalPics

Calling selfies new, and claiming that they are a symptom of the increasing narcissism, is misinformed.  The technological boom of the last 30 years has given individuals from all walks of life the ability to indulge in many activities once only accessible to the elite.  Cheap cell phones with front-facing cameras have made the selfie a cultural phenomenon, expanding the genre out of its otherwise archaic roots. However, it certainly is not something new to our time.  General Powell may have been doing selfies before Ellen DeGeneres, but Grand Dutchess Anastasia was doing it before Powell was even born.  So the next time you smile for a selfie, remember the generations before you that did the same thing (using slightly larger equipment, of course)!

What do you think?  Do “selfies” reflect increased narcissism?  How does technology play a role in cultural expression?

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136 thoughts on “Selfies and The Craze of Self-Photography

  1. In my opinion a self portrait shows a human being in the most unaltered and purest form because he takes both roles: the one as being a photographer and the one as being the model. Maybe it is the most honest way of photography. It reveals how one wants to be portrayed. Thank you for your lovely post. You took the words right out of my mouth. To speak about narcissism according to selfies is just absurd.

  2. Interesting history, especially the selfie by the Grand Duchess. Narcissism is not new, granted. After all, it’s so old the Greeks got to name it. But thanks to devices like the iPhone, the indulgence of narcissism is much easier now. So it’s Steve Jobs’ fault. I don’t think taking selfies is bad — it’s self-examination in a new form (self-reflection, literally). But I do wonder sometimes about whether people believe they’ve experienced anything without a selfie to prove it. Go to tourist site sometime, you’ll see selfie-takers everywhere. I have no scientific evidence of this, but my observation is that often people now elect to take a selfie of themselves and their friends instead of asking a passing stranger to take their photo. Maybe because they can be more “themselves” in the picture they take themselves, but it does lead to missed opportunities for broader social connection…

  3. Great story. Interesting to see how far back selfies are coming from. I believe it is only people’s way of expressing themselves, along with many more available through social medias!

  4. Pingback: But first…. let me take a selfie | Technology in Vocational Educaton and Training (VET)

  5. Reblogged this on Jessica V Burnett and commented:
    I was tempted to reblog with a bit of a huffy chastisement towards all of the selfie taking haters out there, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Gentle encouragement may be more in order. There is nothing wrong with taking control of one’s own image. Of expressing sides of oneself that others may not even know exist and being brave enough to share them. Nothing at all. Perhaps the haters should give it a whirl and discover something new about themselves.

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  8. Pingback: “Let Me Take a Selfie” – ‘do “selfies” reflect increased narcissism?’ | Parullel Universe

  9. There is nothing wrong with wanting to see how you look through the eyes of a lens. Its the only way we get to really see how we appear to other people. It helps differentiate your appearance from who you actually are. If you ask another person what they see they’ll mention your best and worst qualities. I think technology just made it way more accessible and faster process. After all if you can take and save 1000 pics on your mobile device what’s a few selfies?

  10. Pingback: “Let Me Take a Selfie” – ‘do “selfies” reflect increased narcissism?’ | Parullel Universe

  11. In as much as it may be argued if selfies are not new or revealing signs of an increasingly narcissistic generation, I think the trend of social media users of posting such especially in the frequency and the manner it is done is narcissistic. We’re seeing a lot “me, me,me…” and rarely about good sightings of our environments.

  12. I will confess: I take selfies on my computer, I do not post them anywhere though…May be twice a year or so, I go back through the past photos and just learn about myself, yes, I do learn about myself- I can look at some of them and see when I was happy, sad, playful, tired, in love…I do also have few drawn self-portraits. Frida Kahlo said once that one of the reasons she painted herself was because she knew herself the most, I do that for the opposite reason.

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