Selfie, Unselfie, Poetic Selfie
Tammy Ho reveals all on the Oxford Dictionary's Word of the Year - 'selfie'
In November last year, Oxford Dictionaries Online named ‘selfie’ the Word of the Year. A ‘selfie’, according to Oxford Dictionaries, is an informal noun that refers to ‘a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website’. The Oxford Dictionaries editors noted that the frequency of its usage has increased by 17,000% in the previous twelve months. What particularly fascinates me about ‘selfie’ being named Word of the Year is how this reflects our continued interest in and debate about the creation of the image of the self in the digital age. For example, the emergence of selfies has sparked some heated discussion of whether the activity of taking pictures of oneself is an act of empowerment for girls which helps boost their self-esteem, or is instead really a reflection of an insecurity resulting from sexual stereotypes and a narcissistic ‘me’ culture, which emphasises the subjectivity of the self and the importance of physical appearance over inner qualities. This discussion is primarily centred on females because they tend to be considered more drawn to taking pictures of themselves than boys and men (even though statistics indicate that it is in fact men who take more selfies).
In defence of those who are fond of taking selfies, both male and female, some critics have seen the practice as a form of creative expression, and compared digital self-images to the self-portraits done by master painters. They argue that the act of taking selfies today is similar to painters’ careful representation and manipulation of their images on the canvases of the past. Thus, the selfie, a phenomenon of the digital age, can be seen as a manifestation or reincarnation of the old practice of self-expression in painting. What’s more, the widespread availability of technology and social media lends more people the opportunity to create, fashion and share their self images, something that was reserved only for the more privileged and talented in the past. One can say that the digital age has democratised self-expression.
‘Selfie’ being named Word of the Year by the Oxford Dictionaries Online also reflects our continued interest not just in the creation of self-images, but also the history of photography, the past methods of producing and reproducing images, and the social, cultural and familial functions that photographs played in days when having your photo taken was for many a rare and expensive event and thus meant more than meticulously documenting one’s new shoes and daily meals. Inspired by a sense of curiosity and a desire to understand this history, we have become interested in, for example, the Victorian practice of photographing deceased family members. These post-mortem images, which began to replace more expensive and time-consuming paintings, were used by families to remember their departed loved ones. In the early days of photography, photo-taking, which made use of ‘a cumbersome and expensive contraption’, was a relatively slow process requiring the subjects to remain still for at least one minute. The dead were thus inadvertently the perfect sitters for photographs. These images, although they seem eerie and morbid to modern eyes, reveal an important function photography served in a specific community at a time when the mortality rate was high and death was not as strong a taboo as it is today.
Another Victorian photographic practice that has captured our attention was that of ‘veiled parents’ who hid themselves in curtains, behind chairs or under blankets so that they could hold their children still for long enough for their portraits to be taken. Today, when picture-taking is quick, efficient and instantaneous – so much so that it sometimes seems as though speed, simplicity and technology are threatening to destroy photography as an art form – it is a novelty to see images of the veiled parents alongside their children. These photographs do not necessarily show a higher quality of artistry or aesthetic sensibility; rather, they show the parents’ patience and creativity in becoming invisible while having portraits of their children done. The children are invariably foregrounded whereas the parents sacrificially recede into the backgrounds, although never letting go of the young ones. (In this sense, we can almost think of these portraits as ‘unselfies’.) The fact that the parents are both present and absent in these photographs – present because their covered bodies are not fully concealed, absent because their faces, which are their most obvious identifiers, are hidden – adds to the ghostliness of these images. It also reminds us of the association of photographs with death; as Roland Barthes comments in Camera Lucida, ‘Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of a symbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death’.
With the above in mind, it is interesting to look at the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood’s poem This Is a Photograph of Me. It is narrated by the persona, the ‘me’ in the title and the subject of the photograph. In the first stanza, the speaker says that the photograph 'was taken some time ago’ and then goes on to describe the image, saying that it appears to be smeared, with ‘blurred lines and grey flecks / blended with the paper’. It is a print photograph, an object that can be held in one’s hands and scrutinized physically. In the second and third stanzas, we are given more information about the subject of the image, although we are still unsure exactly what is being portrayed. We learn, for example, there is ‘a thing that is like a branch: part of a tree’ in the left-hand corner, ‘a small frame house’ halfway up, and in the background, ‘a lake’ and beyond that, ‘some low hills’.
In what can be considered the second half of the poem, the part entirely in parenthesis, the chilling truth is revealed. The photograph, it turns out, depicts the lake in which the persona drowned the day before the composition of the poem. The imprecision and dreaminess of ‘some time ago’ in the first stanza now makes much more sense, and it suggests that death has started to separate her from the real world and her previous life. To the persona, external objective time is unimportant; what she remembers is the time that is specifically centered on her. That is why she knows ‘The photograph was taken / the day after I drowned’. She also knows her rough location and tells us: ‘I am in the lake, in the center / of the picture, just under the surface’. Notice her central position: for the persona she is the focal point of the photograph, even though in the poem itself the line is slightly off-centered. Yet, the persona is not sure about her exact location or how big she might be in the picture. Despite the fact that the title of the poem is “This Is a Photograph of Me”, the physicality of ‘me’, of the persona, is indeterminate. Still, the persona seems certain that if the viewer of the photograph looks carefully and long enough, they will eventually see the drowned her in a moment of shocked recognition. Here we are reminded of both the Victorian practice of taking photos of the deceased and of the veiled parents – although in this case, we are seeing the woman as a kind of ‘veiled deceased’, a corpse not quite hidden from view. Or perhaps the persona is not evident in the image at all – she is after all ‘under the surface’ – and the entire description of the photo as a self-image is based completely on her own subjectivity and memory. In this sense, the photograph of ‘me’ may be seen as a morbid and ultimate extension of the selfie: a photo of yourself that only you can see.
Atwood’s poem is interesting in other ways. It describes a photograph that is absent, i.e., we cannot see it, but is still bare enough for us to flesh out the simple details. We are given just enough information to imagine the surroundings: the tree, the house, the lake. There may be a real-life photograph on which Atwood has modelled her poem but its existence is irrelevant to the reading of the poem, because the effectiveness of the piece relies on the reader’s imagination of the absent photograph and the absent woman it portrays. The absent photograph is symbolic of the woman, who is either entirely invisible in the photograph or who is at the very least difficult to identify. On this very point, the persona self-reflexively says, ‘if you look long enough / eventually / you will be able to see me’, knowing fully well that there is nothing concrete to see, as the photograph is absent (or completely imaginary) and that the figure of the drowned woman is at best hazy if not absent altogether.
Atwood’s poem is a verbal representation of a visual representation at its finest. The poem, it turns out, is the photograph itself and in this case, the verbal is the visual. This self-reflexivity can be seen in the fact that the poem is visibly divided into two parts, a division which provides a visual resemblance of the photograph it purports to depict. In the first three stanzas, we are presented with the innocuous tree, house, low hills, and a lake in the background. In the second part, the section that begins with opening parentheses in the fourth stanza, we are presented with what is beneath the surface of that lake; that is, the persona’s drowned body, in the center of the picture. The arrangement of the poem on the page echoes and recreates graphically and pictorially the titular photograph of the poem. If the line dividing the third and fourth stanzas can be perceived as the line signifying the surface of the lake, it is under that line that we see, for the first time, the persona ‘I’: ‘The photograph was taken / the day after I drowned’. This coincides with the external reality of the imagined photograph, in which the persona is supposedly under the water. Her physical position is also reflected in the use of parentheses – her voice on the page is enclosed within brackets much as her body in the image is within the lake.
In the last stanza, the persona says, ‘if you look long enough, / eventually / you will be able to see me’. In these lines, the persona explicitly equates the addressee of the poem, ‘you’, to the viewer of the absent photograph. The identities of the viewer and the reader are, in this instance, conflated into one. And eerily, even though the photograph and perhaps even the corpse are absent, through the process of reading, we come to see the persona, the ‘me’ of the poem. ‘Me’ is the last word in the poem, and the last and lasting image that Atwood leaves us with. Perhaps, as Roland Barthes says, ‘in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes’. The reader of Atwood’s poem, after reaching the final ‘me’, looks away only to better see that drowned woman, the spectral being, submerged in a vague lake, ‘just under the surface’.
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