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When Selfies Are A Radical Act

The language against selfies has taken on a lot of the tone that is often leveled at “feminine-coded” behaviors: too vain, too superficial, too much, too occupying of our visual space.

By Sarah Galo

The Internet, we’re often told, is eroding society. We can’t communicate as well; we’ve become increasingly visual with short attention spans; we’re killing print and content quality with digital media. But while it’s true that we have more information presented to us on a daily basis than our grandparents likely had in a month, it’s absurd to claim that we’re taking steps back as a society because of the Internet itself. It comes across as a collective tsk-tsking by older generations, whose very own innovations led us to this point in time.

When I think of the possibilities the Internet presents, I think of journalist Rachel Syme, who has taken over my Twitter timeline numerous times in the last year with streams of retweeted selfies and plenty of her own. Syme is behind “SELFIE,” an interactive, seven-part series on the much-maligned social media fixture that seeks to defy existing stigmas.

It’s a celebration of those who take selfies and the meanings behind the act, a historical record of female photographers who have only existed as footnotes in the histories of men, and a gathering together of our current cultural landscape. At a time when we are encouraged to embrace the “being chill,” Syme’s essay reminds us not only of the joy of focusing on the minutiae and excitement of a singular topic; her words explain the satisfied feeling of having captured one’s true self in a selfie.

Like Joan Didion’s essay “The White Album,” which can be seen as the embodiment of all the tension and disorder of the late 1960s, Syme’s “SELFIE” is destined to be the go-to essay for understanding our modern milieu.

Sarah Galo: Walk me through your process for “SELFIE.” How did you come up with it?

Rachel Syme: I started thinking about writing something about selfies when the Kim Kardashian coffee table book was coming out. I had written a fair amount about the power of Kim Kardashian as an image maker and way to understand modern celebrity, and I felt like there was something powerful to say about her iconography in conjunction with the publication of Selfish.

As I started to work on that piece, I realized that the number of selfies were growing exponentially on every platform, and the practice was much bigger than just any one celebrity or trend piece; it was a movement, a phenomenon, a new language. I started probing my own reasons for taking selfies, and as I did that, I realized that they were as varied as the reasons for speaking, or writing, or expressing myself — that there were so many different places that my own selfie-taking/posting were coming from — and I started to wonder if that might be the case for others.

So I started reporting, asking people to send me their selfies and the stories behind them, and what started to come in were all these extremely moving, enlightening, heartfelt, funny, and wildly divergent stories. That’s when I knew this was a bigger piece than just a book review.

Sarah: Did you know it was going to be a super big project when you began?

Rachel: The idea to write a kind of mini-book in seven chapters came as an organizing principle for all these wild thoughts I was having — a way to rein them into some kind of recognizable structure. Because, you will find, when you start thinking about selfies and self-representation, there is no endpoint. It’s theory, it’s art history, it’s sociology, it’s criticism, it’s pop culture, it’s linguistics.

You can really do deep dives on nearly every subject, beginning with the selfie. People ask me how I got 10k words out of the subject, but the truth is, I made myself stop writing at a kind of arbitrary point so we could publish. I could have gone on researching/writing for months and months — I didn’t include half of the things I wanted to! It’s such a rich subject, and I have a feeling we are just at the beginning of the field of selfie studies.

Sarah: Selfies can appear to be a “selfish” activity, as you note early in “SELFIE.” You write: “Maybe they are lonesome and hungry for connection, projecting their own lack of community onto this woman’s solo show, believing her to be isolated rather than expansive.”

I know I definitely felt that way when I first took selfies back in high school . . . What unique space do selfies occupy in Internet culture and the wider visual culture? Do you think taking offense at selfies (and to an extent, ambition, as you note) is uniquely coded toward women/gender-nonconforming individuals?

Rachel: The gender breakdown of selfie-taking currently skews far more female (or gender non-conforming), and so a lot of the language against selfies has taken on a lot of the tone that is often leveled at “feminine-coded” behaviors: too vain, too superficial, too much, too occupying of our visual space. I started to really think about the ways selfies are derided (beyond the calls of narcissism, which will always follow them around) when a pair of announcers at an Arizona Diamondbacks game started making fun of a group of sorority sisters who they caught all taking selfies on the jumbotron camera.

What was bizarre is, moments before, the announcers had asked people in the stands to send in fan photos, but then when they zoomed in on this group of women, the tone suddenly turned disdainful — and it became clear to me that there was something very wrong in the way some people are talking about selfies.

Certain people seeing themselves with affection, outside of the systems in which those people are usually seen, can start to feel threatening (or at least troubling) to those in positions of power, and in this instance — and in many instances — that threat is expressed as jokes by men about women and their selfies.

I found that there are many reasons women (and those who are non-binary) take selfies, and very few of them are for the admiration or attention of men — it is much more about communicating with the wider world about how you want to be seen, which is an ambitious act in itself. And there is nothing that throws people off more than a person with the ambition to take up space when they have not come up through traditional cultural channels.

Sarah: Do you think selfies are a way of escaping the male gaze? Are we still enacting it in a way John Berger describes in Ways of Seeing: “The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight”?

Rachel: I think selfies are all about the gaze, but not necessarily just the male one — they are asking everyone to gaze upon us, and in turn, they are about gazing at others with curiosity, desire, ardor, and interest. I still speak to a lot of people who bring up “objectification” as if it is the original sin, that if a woman turns herself into a vision, a surveyed female, then she is somehow abandoning herself, that she is somehow deciding that her looks are her only currency, that her face is her only asset, etc.

But I have found that selfies are introducing a totally new way of seeing that doesn’t necessarily turn people into objects, but rather avatars — whether that is dangerous or not, we are still finding out. But these avatars get to have adventures, to go off and speak for you, to collect and fact-find information. And part of taking selfies is interacting with others’ avatars, seeing what they have to say.

So on the one hand, we are using our images as currency, but I am not sure we are necessarily doing so for the benefit of any one particular gaze, if that makes sense. I think the male gaze can actually be undercut by selfies, because there are many communities of selfies built around inclusiveness and protection from the kind of gawking, lascivious eye of that gaze. Selfies are actually making a lot of people confront how they are seen in the world by that gaze, and then working online to try to create a better way of seeing.

Sarah: I love that you devoted a section to the women who have come before us and experimented with self-portrait. You wrote: “So many women’s stories were erased (and will never be recovered) because they didn’t have access to private image-making.”

How do you go about finding the hidden histories in our everyday actions?

Rachel: I am a historian at heart — I am writing a book about events that happened almost 100 years ago now to explain our current day — and so I am always looking at modern actions through a transhistorical lens. I think you have to — there is so much humanity in recognizing our history, and we lose so much by not linking back to the past.

So for me, seeing selfies in terms of women and historical self-portraiture was natural. I am always collecting these little stories of women of the past when I read and storing them in my kangaroo pouch for later — the three I wrote about were women I have been interested in for some time; I think I read my first biography of Clover Adams about six years ago now.

I found that there are many reasons women (and those who are non-binary) take selfies, are about communicating with the wider world about how you want to be seen. Click To Tweet

For me, diving into history is the most exciting way to write about the future, because it is all connected. You cannot understand the value of selfies in our culture if you don’t understand what it might have been like to dream of having the power and freedom that selfies give us . . . but not being able to due to technological, social, or even misogynistic restrictions.

And for me, the image that really stuck in my head throughout this whole project was of my ancestors, and how I wish I had their selfies. I still wish that all the time — what would my great-grandmother Rose have wanted me to know about how she wanted to be seen, how she felt when she was alone, what stories her face in those moments might have told me? Selfies are diaristic, and even that simple aspect alone should redeem them — don’t you want your future grandchildren to know how you saw yourself, but also to know how others interacted with your image? You are creating, like I wrote in the piece, an artifact and a gift. Even if you don’t know it yet.

Diving into history is the most exciting way to write about the future, because it is all connected. Click To Tweet

Sarah: I couldn’t help but be reminded of Joan Didion’s “The White Album” as I read, partly because your essay is about a kind of storytelling, and because you reference so many cultural placeholders and news events as a way of anchoring the piece in 2015. Were there specific authors you looked to for inspiration when writing “Selfie”?

Rachel: Thank you so much! I mean, god bless Saint Joan. She’s always on my shoulder somewhere. I read a lot of Sontag in relation to photography, and then a lot of historical narrative about women and seeing — I really got a lot out of reading Marsha Meskimmon’s The Art of Reflection, about the history of women and self-portraiture, and out of reading some feminist critiques of visual culture and capitalism, such as Sheila Rowbotham and Virginie Despentes. But I also kept John Berger around for reference a lot and read a lot of my favorite modern writers to try to marinate in their words — Maggie Nelson, Rebecca Solnit.

Rachel Syme

I was reading Jessa Crispin’s new book of essays, called Dead Ladies Project this fall as well, and found that much of her generous and elegant historical writing made me feel certain that I wanted to include the women of the past in the final piece.

I like a great deal of writing that is out now, but I also felt scared that what I was doing felt a little different than a lot of the things I read — at times it felt a little too political (or as the kids would say it, a bit too full of fire content), a little too sentimental with regard to the themes of empowerment, a little too long, a little too romantic about what I think asserting one’s humanity can achieve.

But when you feel those things — that a piece of writing might be swerving into something that scares you, that’s when I find you have to keep going, have to keep pushing into the scarier place. Because I had never written anything like this before, either. So I sort of stumbled through the dark to get to the end, and when I emerged, I felt like less of an impostor than I did going in. And that is sometimes all you can hope for!

Sarah: On a more technical level, do you think “Selfie” is representative of the potential of digital journalism? It’s a marvel of inclusion, allowing others to contribute to your overall thesis, and I think that’s what makes it so powerful.

Rachel: I owe a lot to my editor at Matter, Mark Lotto, who is one of the only editors I have worked with who runs an online publication and feels excited about all of the things that means, rather than what it excludes. I find a lot of editors working online run their sites like print magazines — and often very good print magazines — in that they attach words to images with a headline and then press publish, and that’s the article.

I have never seen the web that way — why would we just want to reproduce the experience of print online — and so I am so happy to be working with someone like Mark who doesn’t either. For me, the web is a marvel — I love Twitter, I love Tumblr, I love the lightning pace of discovery on it. If you are someone with a curious mind, or at least one that likes to see links between things, then the web is a candy store. You can have ten tabs open and they all somehow relate to each other, and that’s where the big themes begin to emerge.

Web journalism that feels isolationist — that doesn’t reach out and connect to the larger world — doesn’t take advantage of the best part of the Internet, which is that it is a hyper-connected place. For the selfies piece, I couldn’t have written it in a vacuum. It is about a social act, and so the reporting had to be social. I had to ask people for their selfies, for their stories, to be included in the piece.

It wouldn’t have made sense without all the other faces — I wish it had felt even more like there was an Instagram feed dropped into the middle of the piece. And the response has been so amazing — I’ve gotten a ton of selfies via email, Insta, DM, etc, and I think that is because the piece is meant to reach out — just as selfies do — and have adventures beyond itself.

The potential of digital journalism is as radical as the potential of selfies; and it is all a process of experimentation. I was so lucky to get to try something new with this, and it has sent my mind spinning into so many new directions about where digital writing can go (and where I want to take it ) next.

All images courtesy of Rachel Syme