Photo by Johan Mouchet

Selfies vs. Self-Portraits: A Question of Meaning

“We’re living to document our lives,” wrote Mark Fischetti in Scientific American. With smartphones in our pockets, always with us, it seems we can’t really help it. We take pictures of our food, record the places we go and the routes we take, make posts about our joys and travails—and, of course, share photos of our faces.

Photo by Askar Ulzhabayev

Out of all the ways we document our lives, selfies are particularly notable. Over the past decade or so, they have become ubiquitous. They have also engendered quite a lot of scholarship. Nicholas Mirzoeff, in his wonderful How to See the World, for example, dedicates much discussion to selfies, writing that the selfie “expresses, develops, expands and intensifies the long history of the self-portrait.” That is, Mirzoeff sees the selfie as a digital, networked outgrowth of the artistic tradition of self-portraiture. This seems to be the popular opinion—even to the extent that some have described Rembrandt’s self-portraits as selfies. Other examples abound. Here in Philadelphia, there was a 2017 exhibit, Veterans Empowered Through Art: The Six Week Selfie Project, which involved museum tours and workshops and included sketches, complete self-portraits, poetry and personal photos — far more than the term selfie would imply.

Part of my dissertation research project was dedicated to disentangling selfies from self-portraits, to understand how these genres differ. According to the academic literature, selfies:

  • do not require strong technical skills
Annibale Carracci, Self-Portrait on an Easel in a Workshop, ca. 1605

Interestingly, self-portraits are opposed to selfies along all these dimensions. Self-portraiture requires training and material expertise; self-portraits are meant to integrate the past, present and future, and they must be created over a stretch of time; they emphasize the artist’s inner life rather than external appearances; they manifest the individualist sense of self; they are relatively seldom shared or exhibited (and to the extent that they are communicative, the communication is substantive rather than phatic); and they are intrinsically motivated. Additionally, whereas selfies are bound to smartphone technology (camera and web-sharing capabilities), self-portraits may be done in any medium or style—including photography!

To be sure, in some cases, the distinction between selfies and self-portraits is not so clear. Even if the typical selfie can (uncharitably) be called meaningless and mindless, there are surely cases in which selfies are personally meaningful sites for self-authoring, and where they involve effort, drawing out and taking time. This is essentially the point of the 2013 Atlantic article “Selfies Are Art.” But it seems to me that, philosophically speaking, such “selfies” ought not to be considered selfies, but rather truly self-portraits.

This is not just an academic distinction. It may be, to put it a bit dramatically, a difference between life and death.

Life expectancy in the United States on the decline, making us unique among postindustrial nations. This is because so-called deaths of despair are on the rise, which stem from a sense of meaninglessness in one’s life.

Art therapy is a proven therapeutic modality for helping people rediscover meaning in their lives—and self-portraiture has been used specifically in art therapy. But not everyone struggling seeks therapy, much less art therapy. I wonder if there is a way to bring the healing possibilities of art to more people. The thing is, if we simply consider that we have already done so with selfie platforms, then we cannot help but miss this opportunity. This is because the aspects of self-portraiture that make it conducive to healing and meaning are exactly those aspects that are missing from selfies—for instance, entailing a protracted back-and-forth between oneself and the materials. (As an etymological aside, protract and portrait come from the same root, and so it’s interesting that portrait is precisely what was chopped off when self-portrait became selfie.)

Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas, 1939

What’s more, art in general and self-portraiture in particular are ways to practice unbounded expression in a world where, more and more, selves are constrained and defined by given standardized possibilities in information systems. You can’t doodle on a social media profile; you’ve got to stick to the script.

Some people roll their eyes at selfies, and others fervently champion them. For my part, I argue that there is a place for both selfies and self-portraits in our toolbox of self-documentation. But whereas technology for selfie-making has proliferated and is ready-to-hand for many, self-portraiture still is in the hands of a privileged few.

How might we democratize self-portraiture in a way that preserves its capacities for healing and meaningfulness?

That question remains to be answered, but there have been some inklings. One lies in work around Slow Art, which brings the Slow movement into the art world. Slow Art seeks to engage the public more deeply with art objects. Perhaps similar tactics could be used to engage selfie-makers more deeply in their practice — a kind of Slow Selfie? Next, Holger Winnemöller and his colleagues at Adobe Research have been working on automating certain aspects of the creative process while still leaving space for the user to experience agency and creativity, such as with the PaintCan system. Could there be similar systems devised for smartphone self-portraiture?

Attending to agency, slowing down and construction, pivoting away from perfectionism, that great bête noire of meaning… these ideas are in many ways antithetical to the trend of technological development. And yet they are urgently needed. It’s time, simply, to take time.

Prof in information science at Drexel. Runs a lot. Researches and teaches at the intersection of information technology, ethics, and art+design.

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