The 14,000-year-old phenomenon
Updated: Jun 20, 2021
For the last 14 millennia we have been fascinated with our sense of self. For the last two decades that fascination has been fuelled by the rise of the selfie. Double tap if you agree…
The word has become ubiquitous, the act a modern-day mantra that is as common a sight at your local bus stop as it is at the Eiffel Tower (apparently the most popular place in the world to take one).
The word itself had a modest beginning – it was coined by an inebriated Australian in 2002: "Um, drunk at a mates 21st… sorry about the focus, it was a selfie” and it took the next decade to find its way into everyday parlance. In 2013, research suggested the use of the word had increased 17,000 per cent over the previous 12 months, and it was named Oxford Dictionaries' international word of the year for 2013 – perhaps a somewhat dubious accolade when you consider the shortlist also included ‘binge-watch’ and ‘twerk’.
Today, a selfie is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as "a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam, and uploaded to a social media website”.
So is the selfie an important – if not potentially dangerous – form of self exploration (259 people died taking selfies between 2011 and 2017) or is it a sad indictment of a modern desire to boast, conform and chase ‘likes’?
Adrian Myers, founder of ami Creates, and the company’s head curator Oli Savage discuss this, as well as cavemen, gorillas and extraterrestrials…
What, in your mind, is a selfie?
Oli: To me a selfie is an exploration of what it means to be oneself in the context of the narrative of your life – a point of view that will change over time. In the animal world, a study of gorillas in the Congo involved putting a mirror in the jungle to see how they would react. The different egos of the gorillas came out – certain personalities challenged their reflection, refusing to yield to their obvious equals, others engaged in a calmer way, exploring themselves from different angles. That need to understand what you are in your own environment is no different for humans.
Adrian: You take a selfie when you're feeling happy and you want others to share that moment. A selfie is a snapshot of happiness – a visual diary similar to written diaries of old.
Oli: I find cave paintings fascinating. Cavemen figured out how to use the most advanced technologies of their time – bone and their hands – to preserve their stories by spitting paint onto the backs of their hands to leave silhouetted hand prints on cave walls.
Do you think there’s a difference between a selfie and a self portrait?
Adrian: I don’t think so. It didn’t take long for the early photographers to turn the camera around and start exploring themselves. Robert Cornelius, for example, took the first portrait of a person in America in 1839 – and that was of himself. So in photography we have been doing it for a long time, but the ability to physically hold a camera and turn it on yourself only really became possible in the 90s with Polaroid cameras.
Oli: Today, there is a huge industry around how one sees oneself. The rise of social media has allowed people to take selfies to show they are having a good time as well as recording themselves as a form of diary. But I think you document yourself differently to a select friendship group than to people you will never meet. I have a collection of self portraits that I don’t intend anyone else to see. Maybe I have changed and I am a different person now, but they’re photos that I love from my time on Earth. They live in my private archive on the ami Creates app, and I love that.
Can a group shot be a selfie?
Adrian: Definitely, and we’re seeing them a lot more at ami Creates. For me, a selfie is when a person in the picture is also holding the camera, irrespective of whether they’re on their own or with other people. It’s a form of self expression – I am here with my family. How many times in the past have we seen a picture of mum and the kids, and dad’s not in it because he is taking the picture? The selfie is how we now document the things we do together. It is incredibly common for ami Creates to work with selfies – the average person takes 450 a year, although taking three a day is not uncommon.
Oli: Family portraits that are selfies are hugely personal because they are incredibly honest and a great way to show family emotions. At ami Creates our clients know we’ve built something that will be around for hundreds of years. Knowing that they can communicate visually with their descendants allows them to ignore all the fuss and noise, and just speak truly about who they are. Being honest with these people about who you were will allow them to know who they are.
Do you see the selfie entering other areas of our lives?
Adrian: I wonder if they will begin to take the place of corporate photography. We have been sent a number of pictures of a client for a current project, for example – one is a corporate portrait; it has been art directed, the lighting’s lovely… it’s a traditional corporate picture, and one is a selfie of the person in question with the president of the business. To me, that is much more powerful because it looks completely honest and, to me, says so much more about his personality and the authenticity of the company he works for.
Apart from an increase in selfies, are you seeing any other trends with the images your clients are sharing with you?
Oli: We are starting to see less use of filters and I think that is probably a wider trend in general. Quicker, more energetic video selfies are also becoming more frequent. There is now a generation of individuals who are experts in communicating visually through memes and are artisans of the selfie; they speak this language as well as their native tongue. Trends age quickly, both outside the frame as well as within it. In one of our oldest client archives, searching for the word ‘selfie’ in the app will recall 551 images, and of those 551 images, 520 of them are of people smiling; so if there is one enduring trend it would be the presence of happiness.
So how do you take a good selfie?
Adrian: People put a lot of energy and thought into selfies. If you start telling someone how to do it ‘better’ you are already telling them how to conform to your ideas and views. For me, the more honest the pictures are the better – a true selfie is the way you see yourself, not the way everyone else sees you. The only constraints are the four borders of the frame and the restriction of the length of your arm. That said, you could do worse than use soft, flat natural light and keeping the camera at an angle of about 45°.
And what about the ultimate selfie?
Oli: When the Voyager probe was launched in 1977 it was fitted with two golden records that contain pictures and sounds from Earth. In about 40,000 years the probe will move through a constellation that has the potential to be like ours. It is an invitation to say: ‘There are humans here, there is life, there are beings.’ I think that is maybe the most beautiful self portrait there is – the voices and the sounds of culture, living things on Earth sent out to whoever may find them, an audience that we don’t even know exists. We have put it out there to say: ‘We are here, come and find us.’ I think that is really beautiful.