A to Z of the Human Condition: I is for Individuality

24 September 2014

We invited you, as fellow experts on the #HumanCondition, to add your own idiosyncrasies to our current exhibition by submitting photographs on Instagram for a few of the themes explored in the gallery. As a thank you for your wonderful pictures, this series explores those themes and finds out the roles they play in making us human. This week, Alli Burness takes a look at our collective reflection as she explores the (in)famous selfie, illustrated by your photos.

Selfies receive a lot of bad press. For some, they’re the manifestation of a self-obsessed, narcissistic society. We’re impelled to step back from significant or sombre moments in our lives to share selfies online. These images taken in front of the Mona Lisa, at funerals or even at Auschwitz visualise uncaring, thoughtless moments. But I think there is more to selfies than meets the eye.

#wellcomecollection #humanreflection

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Today, the sharing of lived experience is part of our daily lives and, within that process, we have the ability to present ourselves and see our bodies as never before. Selfies are a contemporary tool for managing our sense of self, a highly personal process which requires viewers to remain aware of context and directorial control as important to their meaning.

@wellcomecollection @ExploreWellcome #HumanReflection

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There are generally two schools of thought about the nature of human identity and you can recognise one or the other as being at the root of many statements about the selfie (try to identify them in the video at the end of this post).

One school of thought holds to the concept of an authentic, essential sense of self that sits within us, like a traditional notion of a soul. This frequently manifests in a fraught relationship with social media. The presentation of self in the online world is posited as a negative influence in our lives, as artificial posturing with vain tendencies, empty and without substance. Taking selfies, in this light, disrupts ‘real’ moments in our lives by encouraging us to capture and share ourselves self-consciously to online audiences.

The second understands identity as something we construct and constantly recreate in an ongoing process throughout our lives, a fluid performance from one moment to the next. In this way, the online self is a continuation of behaviours we already conduct in meat-space, from presenting ourselves on a resume, to choosing the clothes we wear and the mannerisms used in face-to-face interactions. The online space amplifies the self-conscious nature of these day-to-day methods of navigating our world. The ‘performance of self in everyday life’ (a 1959 theory authored by Erving Goffman) is now explicit and communally acknowledged with the use of tools such as selfies.

#HumanReflection at @wellcomecollection.

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So what is a selfie? Is it an expression of our authentic inner self or a tool we use in an ongoing, evolving performance of ourselves? What is the effect of social media as a lens through which our selfies are refracted to the world?

#HumanReflection @wellcomecollection

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Our body is our blind spot and yet it is critical to our sense of identity. Or, as Nick Crossley puts it, “the ‘I’ does not see itself any more than the eye sees itself and we are therefore reliant upon others to reflect back information about ourselves.”[1] Photography allows us to see ourselves by standing outside of and objectifying our bodies. It has profoundly shaped not only the human sense of self but our awareness of how others perceive us, thereby impacting how we behave. Amplifying the reflective role of photography, selfies inserted into social networks are tools which allow us to direct how images of our bodies are presented to others while also highlighting the information reflected back in the form of likes or comments.

Photography has been the most widespread means of visual communication of the past century and a half, and has done more than any other medium to shape our notions of the body in modern times.

John Pultz[2]

When we take a selfie, we often play to the moment. We act “a little bit larger than life, to spotlight the meanings that are hard to see in the flow of routine life. They feature the same kind of intensification that museums convey upon objects.”[3] Within the spotlight of the selfie, the roles of photographer, subject and viewer are conflated. The photographer-subject enacts directorial control over not only the photo-taking process but also how the selfie is inserted into social media spaces. This act implicitly grants permission for us to look at their selfie. These images shared in online spaces create a consensual awareness of us all communally looking at each other, causing the ‘self’ in selfie to become a collective ‘we.’[4]

Whether we like them or not, the selfie has changed the way we do identity work and created a new way to look at ourselves and others. They are now an everyday tool of self-expression, no matter if we see that as expressing an essential inner character or as an ever-changing, on-going performance of identity. Which do you see them as?

Alli Burness is a museum writer working on digital engagement at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. She is the author of the museum blog Museum in a Bottle.

See all the #HumanReflection photographs submitted by the public.

Further Reading

1 Nick Crossley, ‘The Networked Body and the Question of Reflexivity’, in Waskul, Dennis and Phillip Vannini (ed.s), Body/embodiment: symbolic interaction and the sociology of the body, England: Ashgate, 2006, 27.

2 John Pultz, The Body and the Lens: Photography 1839 to the Present, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995, 7.

3 Jay Rounds, ‘Doing Identity Work in Museums’, Curator, Volume 49, Issue 2, April 2006, 133 – 150.

4 Sarah Hromack, ‘The Museum Selfie’, Whitney Museum: Shared Spaces Symposium, online video, viewed May 2014.