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The Selfie Gene

My friend Sasha is singing an irreverent, made-up song in Spanish and I’m providing an off-tune backbeat as we saunter down Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles arm-in-arm. A successful music producer, always sleek in the requisite body-hugging, rock-star black, she’s my oldest friend so I get to see this silly side. Her husband Veikko, towering over everyone else from a height of 6ft 6in, walks ahead of us and stretches out a long arm – it could double as a selfie stick for it captures the moment, perfectly imperfect of the three of us.

Working with celebrities, both Sasha and Veikko are well versed in the nuances of personal branding that often play out in social media. Yet both are particularly averse to sharing any of their own selfies with the world, so this selfie will never see the light of day. But they do take selfies for themselves, friends and family.

Portrait of a Man by artist Jan van Eyck

This oft-maligned shot has many wondering if somehow we’ve all become more narcissistic as a society. I’m not convinced that this is the case. After all, self-portraits are as old as mankind — Portrait of a Man by artist Jan van Eyck was painted in 1433. The subject, very possibly the Dutch artist himself, fixes a pensive and somewhat stern, now centuries-long, gaze at us.

It is an expression you will recognise from Instagram feeds peppered with selfies. Self-reflection and assertion of identity are compulsions that are innate to human beings. It’s no wonder that my search of ‘#selfie’ resulted in nearly 300 million posts on Instagram alone.

The selfie carries with it an inevitable undercurrent of existential angst. This may be why it is both compelling and uncomfortable. At times, there is an unspeakable helplessness that comes along with finding oneself alive, in a body that breathes, pumps blood, is outfitted with millions of nerve endings, ultimately deposited as we are in a time and place, with no real choice in the matter. Encased in these glorious bodies, we are awash in magnificent biochemical cocktails that compel us to weep, laugh, sing, make love, and create life, all the while time slipping steadily by. The photograph has become a way to stop time — and ultimately hold on to a fleeting, inexplicable moment.

We all seek ways to resolve existential angst. It can come in many different forms: seeing joy on your child’s face. Wordlessly connecting with a stranger in a strange land. Taking in the beauty of nature. Even eating — being fastidious about the food one consumes has roots in existential concern, a deep-seated recognition that we are formed of and by our earth continuously. The point is, we all arrive at different solutions for the persistent pangs of existential pain. There is no single answer. There is no right or wrong with any of it.

Many photographers, myself included, use the camera to ease existential pain, finding relief and wonder in travel and the endless stories in the world. I’m endlessly fascinated by how people live out their lives and will spend the rest of my days looking at it. For a photographer the traditional role is to be an observer, always on the outside looking in. We are sentinels of joy and heartbreak, beauty and horror, watching ever-changing light, staying attuned to fleeting expressions dancing across faces.

Photographers hunt for synchronicity of all the elements in a squared frame, deciding what to leave in and what to exclude in a composition to best articulate the message and mood of the moment. But as observers, we are not explicitly in the narrative; a photographer’s presence is implied but still, the person behind the camera is almost always physically invisible.

The selfie offers up a new way for all people — not just the photographers of the world — to insert themselves into the narrative. I asked friends and colleagues how they use the selfie and most tell me it’s just for themselves, to remember themselves in a time and a place before it’s gone. Even as billions of selfies make it online, countless more remain behind the veil, beloved for personal reasons.

The newish technology that has given rise to the selfie is imperfect. The smartphone lens and the angle are almost always a bit awkward. Always at arm’s length, it appears as if the subject is reaching out to you, the viewer, for an embrace. But there is beauty in it too, this reflection in a moment as it rushes by. To me, all selfies seem to say: “Look at me. I’m here, right now, in this moment in this strange, heartbreakingly beautiful life.”

(Originally published in National Geographic Traveller, UK edition): http://main-nationalgeographicphotography-aplmedia.content.pugpig.com/2016/09/19/column-the-selfie-gene/pugpig_index.html


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