Heike de Wit



Digital Craftsmanship (essay)
Generative Questions (essay)
Everything is Political (essay)


The Art of Peer Pressure
Thinking and Producing (essay)
Your Ad Here
The New Modern


The Selfie (essay)

An analysis of the definition and position of the selfie as a contemporary medium.

I Protest
The New Aesthetic
Heike de Wit, 2015

The Selfie,

An analysis of its definition and position as a contemporary medium

I am still of a generation, that when we turned the camera around and took a photo of ourselves, it wasn’t called a selfie and wasn’t intended for others to see. For my sister, who is 10 years younger, it’s a whole other world. A selfie has always been a selfie. Mostly ever since she got an iPad.

So what is a selfie? It’s a word that has already been taken up in the dictionary, and defines as “A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media”1. Technically speaking my little sister’s pictures of herself aren’t exactly selfies then, since she doesn’t have Facebook or Instagram, yet. I have experienced a few stages of how pictures of oneself served a purpose. The ones taken with a webcam, usually functioned as profile pictures of some sort. First for MSN Messenger, later a Dutch social network called Hyves. The pictures taken with a camera, were to observe how I looked to others, instead of mirrored.

Now we’ve arrived at a place where the pictures you take of yourself, are meant for others to see. They have somehow become a part of your identity, if you choose to participate to this idea, that is. According to Jay Bolter’s principles of immediacy, hypermediacy and remediation2 you could say that the selfie, like photography, is a form of transparent immediacy. This because the light reflected from the objects in the picture, captured onto the film establishes an immediate relationship between the photograph and the real object.3 The medium itself dissolves into the background, making way for what it is being pictured. A 25th of a second of reality. However, for transparent immediacy, perspective is also an important aspect. With selfies there is usually less space between the camera and the person, so it bears more resemblance to a mirror rather than a window you’re supposedly looking through as viewer. I must define at this point of which type of selfie I am writing about. In this case I will only discuss the form in which the phone or camera aren’t visible in the picture itself, but instead is taken by holding up a camera with the lens facing the person themselves. In this case you feel like you get to look at someone looking in the mirror. And the person taking the picture can capture the act of taking a look in the mirror, because they might be happy with what they see, or want to show the world how they look or feel. Where earlier you took a picture of yourself to see what you looked like to others, one can now show others how they see themselves. You could state that because of this use, a selfie has remediated a mirror.

According to this conclusion one could also state that a selfie is then also an extension of a mirror, and perhaps our vanity. With these selfies you get the chance to curate your own identity online for others to see. This becomes especially tricky when there are people following your online outings, who don’t know you outside of the internet. With the transparent immediacy of photography also comes the belief of truth of what is pictured in most cases, unless otherwise stated. Especially on social media.

Someone who took this and turned it into a performance is Amalia Ulman. She is a young artist who created a carefully curated life for herself on Instagram, mostly using pictures of herself and ones that fitted her seemingly luxurious, feminine lifestyle.4 After coming out with the message that it was all a performance she stated her intentions. She meant to subvert the role of the female artist by changing her online life into a performance, creating stories displaying how we view women online.

"It's the story of a provincial girl with the dream of becoming a model," she begins, "who's scouted by a photographer and ends up doing just that and living in LA. She's running out of money and splitting up with her boyfriend, and falls into this loophole of becoming a sugar baby [a young woman who is financially cared for by a sugar daddy] but feeling ok because she has money. Then things turn darker and she starts taking drugs, she goes to rehab, and eventually she goes back to her family." The project, reveals just how willing we are to believe everything we see online.”5

I would argue, that alongside the previous example, there are many more messages the selfie carries. With it, we are able to create our own media and with it our perceptions of beauty can shift away from those of old media. A prominent example of this movement is Petra Collins, a New York based photographer, mainly photographing her female friends their natural behavior. She is the Sofia Coppola’s The virgin suicides in the form of photography. Creating contemporary, dreamy mundanities of young female everyday life.6 But while she is doing that professionally, everyone else is actually doing just that themselves on Instagram as well. It is a platform richly filled with diversities and advocators of body positivity and racial matters, if only you hit the right follow buttons.7

“The medium is the message” as McLuhan said8, and its content and ethical usage of it, is what we promote and make of it ourselves.

  1. Oxford Dictionaries: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/selfie

  2. Jay David Bolter, Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2000, p. 2-52

  3. Jay David Bolter, Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2000, p. 30

  4. Amalia Ulman Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/amaliaulman/

  5. Dean Kissick, ‘From plastic surgery to public meltdowns Amalia Ulman is turning Instagram into performance art’, i-D Magazine, 24 October, 2014 https://i-d.vice.com/en_gb/article/from-plastic-surgery-to-public-meltdowns-amalia-ulman-is-turning-instagram-into-performance-art

  6. Petra Collin’s portfolio – A shoot for Purple Mag Issue 24 f/w 2015 http://www.petracollins.com/?portfolio=purple-mag-issue-24

  7. Amandla Stenberg to name just one: https://www.instagram.com/amandlastenberg/

  8. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man, Amsterdam, 2002