Know thy selfie


KASHBA Asiatica

Ais Loupatty & Ton Lankreijer

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If the Self is nothing but the resonance of thought and experience in one’s memory – as buddhism suggested over two thousand years ago – then the new word selfie is very fitting.

Know thy selfie.

No doubt hair will grow on your fingertip while shooting streams of selfies. However, to brand that bit of selfsearching as individualism – while egocentrism is meant – is somewhat exaggerated.

Let alone the label narcissism. How much harm can a little self-love be at the sight of that ever growing pimple at the tip of a cute nose. Over ten years ago Louise Hay hit the jackpot with booklet-messages like: tell the mirror that you love yourself and all will be fine.

These terms seem expensive words to perpetuate experts’ egos. In reality a selfie usually is about a youngster trying to create him-herself a face in a complex, social world – virtually or otherwise. A temporary process of growth, hopefully.

Even though not all of them seem to realize that uploading a selfie is like placing a digital tattoo: for life.

Incidentally, Narcissus freaked as soon as he realized that he had fallen in love with his own image; they broke up right away.

Robert Cornelius, an American pioneer in photography, produced a daguerreotype of himself in 1839 which is also one of the first photographs of a person. Because the process was slow he was able to uncover the lens, run into shot for a minute or more, and then replace the lens cap. He recorded on the back "The first light Picture ever taken. 1839."


The very recent wikipage on selfies raises the question whether selfportraits of Rembrandt, Van Gogh and other artists do not belong to the same category.

The very question turns the page itself into a group selfie or an ussie: cultures other than western stay out of the picture.    

Yet, especially in Asia a (bronze) mirror – with or without portrait – has been pictured as a symbol of reflection and transience for millennia. 

Strangely enough, the wikipage does not mention The Selfie Machine par excellence: the photo booth.

What thirteen year old in the last century did not wander to the nearby village during a vacation on a rainy camping site and stumble upon a photobooth in some backstreet.

To subsequently spend a few coins to capture how long the hair truly was, which frowned look would intrigue, or which charming smile was just not too much and would melt hearts.

Photo booths were invariably located in dubious passages, shady backstreets or on draughty platforms.

No doubt the company knew precisely where its clientele would feel least uncomfortable to take place behind the frugal little curtain from where the knees would protrude.


After the four flashes one had to hang around till – at last – the strip with four pictures slided into the little rack.

Four portraits. No competitor – in thirty, forty years - stunted with five or six shots for the same price.

In the late seventies I came across a square, white booklet. A Berlin artist had collected torn up photo-strips from nearby trashcans and puzzled them together again.

I remember ripped up faces of heavily made up young women but also a few bearded men in their forties who had forgotten wie ein Mensch lächelt    

Shouting down embarrassment seems a characteristic of the socalled me-generation, to judge from the way they showcase themselves on facebook: sticking out tongues, sulking lips or big eyes.

For the past thirty years I have daily been professionally watching people approaching the mirror. Almost everybody puts on a different face. Some toss their heads backwards, others tilt

theirs sideways. The corners of the mouth go up, down or are pulled into a stern line.

Quickly the fingers push the hair up, down or sideways.

In some cases the five seconds’ makeover end in a merry sigh, in others an uncertain grimace glides over the face.

In contradiction to many sudden ‘experts’, to me the definition of a selfie seems elementary: own finger on button to digitally picture own face. Even though the viewer will never be sure of that own finger – nor always of the own face.



If both your hands are in the picture and it’s not a mirror shot, technically, it’s not a selfie — it’s a portrait.  – Jerry Saltz


However, if every self-portrait should be regarded as a selfie, like the wikipage suggests, the I-focus and self-censorship are indeed the main characteristics.

To me that seems too broad: every ego-document – painted, written, sculpted or smoke signalled – would qualify.

Fascinatingly, the genre wasn’t created by artists. Selfies come from all of us; they are a folk art that is already expanding the language and lexicon of photography. 

Selfies are a photography of modern life—not that academics or curators are paying much attention to them. They will, though: In a hundred years, the mass of selfies will be an incredible record of the fine details of everyday life. 

Imagine what we could see if we had millions of these from the streets of imperial Rome. 

– Jerry Saltz

The fun-thing about selfies is that it shows how the photographers see themselves. Even though the initial shamefaced self-censorship rapidly turns into self-propaganda.

Our own biggest fans and private paparazzi.

- Alicia Eler.

In the latter case the selfie is not only a self-portrait but above all a photograph that fits the overall picture that the person wants to communicate – and starts to believe himself: a so called virtual truth. 

In other words: the selfist drifts a bit far from home.

He or she thinks to be creating a very unique image while every other autophotographer is just as depended on the very same technology.

It’s common knowledge that the ever advancing technology does not only define man but also the image that man has of himself.

The observer, as philosophers since ancient times try to make us understand, is the observed. 

But if both turn virtual…

‘Then there is nobody home,’ an American friend fills in.

He regarded photography as an

artform, as the inventors of the process did a century ago.

Early on he realised the increasing pressure, imposed by technological developments, and swapped his lenses for brushes.

‘With a fingertip you can create an effect for which ten years ago I had to juggle half a day on one leg in the darkroom. Most of the creativity depends no longer on seeing and visualizing, but on selecting the right app. Goggal app even enables you to change lenses afterwards. Whoever is still dragging heavy equipment around the neck, has got to be a retired amateur.’

He likes to exaggerate a little, has been living in Amsterdam now for nearly ten years.

‘It’s become impossible to make a remarkable photograph since everybody now makes remarkable photographs by definition. Thanks to all those apps. They all think they are distinguishing themselves but they all walk down the same path together. Everybody conforms to the same technology, the same frame of mind.’

Yet it is fascinating to observe how fast the concept of photography changes. No matter how astute Susan Sontag’s On Photography is, the recent technological developments have largely outdated it.

Taking pictures has joined the many other ways to communicate, with its own specific imagery and attributes. On an Amsterdam bridge I noticed a young Chinese couple taking ussies with their camera on a caleidoscopic stick and the old Zuiderkerk church behind their backs.

‘Everywhere one sees oneself,’ Stan van Houcke titled his travel book. Nowadays tourism takes this very literally: whenever it sees something nice, it positions itself right in front of it    

After a hundred years of photography no one nowhere really shies away from a camera anymore, rather the opposite. Who believes that his soul can be stolen with the click of a camera, is just as foolish as the one who still calls say cheese while taking a picture: we decide ourselves with what profile from which angle we want to be immortalized.

Recently I watched a young woman in Cambodia who took this one step further.

She was visiting Angkor Wat together with her husband. Probably she was already familiar with the gray green, mussel-like skin that the 9th – 12th century freestone had developed.

So that morning she decided upon a bright red gown.

A visit to a historical highlight is also just another photoshoot.

Making selfies can perhaps best be compared with collecting stamps in a passport or stickers on a suitcase… in search of an answer to the ancient question whether the Self is any more than that…

Self portrait of Vivian Maier, the photographing nanny from New York, who remained unknown during her lifetime. A first book on her work has been published this year – much too thin according to my admiration. However, it seems that a travelling exposition will also visit the Netherlands this year.


8 apr. 2014 06:33

All photographs and texts ©Kashba  Ais Loupatty & Ton Lankreijer.Webdesign:William Loupatty