Monday, April 20, 2015

Self in the era of selfie


Today we live in the era of images. Originally, making images was a real craft left to professional painters. With the arrival of photography (and film, but here I’ll talk only about photography), at first not so much changed. Making images was still left to professionals – photographers who mainly worked in studios – and a few exceptional hobbyists. This changed with the production of the Brownie camera by Kodak in 1900 and the introduction of the Leica 35 mm camera 25 years later. Now everybody could become a photographer, and indeed, more and more people took a camera in their hands.
Nevertheless, photography did not yet become a mass phenomenon. It was still mainly done by professionals and – it’s true – a growing number of amateur photographers. Having a camera was still not widespread. Making photos was specialists and also many amateurs developed their own films and printed their photos. Many of them were organised in clubs. No longer photography was seen as an art but as a technique, despite famous names – to mention a few of my favourites – like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans or Ed van der Elsken. If it was seen as an art, it was considered “an art moyen” (Pierre Bourdieu – so a “middle-brow art”, or an “average art” or a “middle-class art”). This remained so till from the 1960s on photography got a new boost, when cameras became more advanced and got automatic functions. Especially the first completely electronic camera produced by Canon around 1980 has to be mentioned here. With the introduction of compact cameras and pocket cameras photography became a mass phenomenon. What also happened is that the status of photography went up again: since the 1990s good photography is again considered art.
However, all this is nothing compared with what happened by the introduction of the digital camera. The basic technology existed already since 1975. Initially the quality of digital cameras was poor. But from the 1990s on the technology became so much better that nowadays every camera sold is digital and cameras for film are difficult to get or it must be second-hand. The digital camera technology has beaten the analogue technology, although this doesn’t imply that always the artistic expression of digital cameras is to be preferred.
Digital photography has not only become a mass phenomenon. It has become more than that. Making images is so important now that we can say that present society has become an image society (what had been already foreseen in 1985 by Vilém Flusser in his Into the Universe of Technical Images). Today we don’t take photos only with special cameras, but everything which is digital can become a camera. Especially mobile telephones have this function. And, the other way round, also cameras tend to get functions that are not photographic. Sending photos directly from your camera to the Internet is only a first step.
All this has led to new ways of using photos and to new ways to present yourself. More and more photos are uploaded to special websites or to your Facebook pages, to Flickr, and so on. Also what people photograph has changed. Hobby photographers who make pictures of landscapes, townscapes and themes they find interesting still exist but most people make only two types of photos: Pictures of their holidays and places where they just have been, and pictures of themselves. With the latter I don’t mean portraits more or less in the classical sense, but pictures with the meaning “I am doing this”, “I am doing that”; “I am here; look me”, “I am there with x”. Or “Just me behind my PC”. And such photos, lots of photos, are immediately sent to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram and other special photo pages. Some people show there so many hardly different photos of themselves (often taken by themselves, so “selfies”),  apparently under the motto “it’s me”), that I wonder – both as a photographer and as a philosopher – what the meaning of all this is. Actually, I know it, of course. In the era of individualism and ego-expressivism, it’s a way of ego-showing. In an era in which appearance has become so important, just because images are everywhere, your image is what you are, so you show it. Media are everywhere so everywhere you can be seen, so use it and you’ll be seen. Inside and outside your network. Appearance = to be seen = to make to be seen. Or: I can be seen, so I will be seen, for what I am as a person is my image. My selfie is who I am. This is the new development; this is the new trend. Even more, it is a step to a new era, if we can believe Vilém Flusser.

On a certain social networking website my profile photo is a picture of my books study and I have many other photos there, too, but not one of myself. On the other hand, I have a rather comprehensive verbal description of my interests and doings. In my view, it gives a good impression of who I am, and I think that it is sufficient for starting a nice conversation. Nevertheless, often I receive comments like: “Why don’t you have a photo of yourself in your profile? Now I don’t know who you are”. As if it is not so that my verbal self-description says much about me and as if it is not so that all my photos there, especially the photo of my study, say much about what kind of person I am. Today you need to present a photo of your face for showing yourself, for only such a photo shows who you are, even if the head on the picture might be empty.

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