The duck face, the fish gape, the smize—these are just a few of the time-honored poses that celebrities, influencers, and the Instagram-happy masses have relied upon to create perfect selfies. But a lot has changed since the early aughts, when people first started training their smartphone lenses on themselves. Today, selfie-takers can achieve poreless, doll-like symmetry through feature enhancing apps like FaceTune, or they can hire on-demand photographers through ElsiePic to capture their adventures for them so they can remain “in the moment.”
But is a selfie still a selfie if someone else is taking it for you? Is intimacy lost when your look is digitally modified, or is that just better living through technology? Somehow paying a photographer to art direct your life feels antithetical to the spontaneity that was once associated with #iwokeuplikethis or even the much-maligned bathroom mirror pic. Could it be the selfie has come to an end? Kim Kardashian West seems to think so. Yes, the woman who once released a coffee table book of selfies, has concluded that, in her professional opinion, the trend is basically over. Data from Google Trends has also shown a steady decline in the keyword since it was added to the dictionary in 2013.
Want further proof that the selfie is a thing of the past? The artform, like so many relics of antiquity, is now in a museum. The Museum of Selfies, currently on view in Glendale, California, is an interactive exhibit documenting the rise of the selfie and perhaps its ultimate demise. But Tommy Honton, co-curator of the museum, thinks that despite Kardashian West’s proclamation, the selfie is still alive and well. “Selfies are just another form of self-portraiture, so saying the selfie dead is like saying the era of photography is over,” Honton says. And his exhibit is proof of that, inviting visitors to look beyond the assumption that the selfie is a symbol of narcissism and instead see it as a form of artistic expression.
Cultural critic Negar Mottahedeh takes it a step further, saying that even more than a bit of digital vanity, the selfie is “a networked object that connects us with others beyond our physical environment through an online collective.” She should know; Mottahedeh teaches a class on the subject at Duke University that focuses on the global history of portraiture since the 19th century as well as our desire to document the ordinary. And in addition to making a record of the everyday, she notes the selfie has played an integral role in citizen journalism during events like the 2009 elections in Iran and the protests that gave rise to the Arab Spring.
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Mottahedeh, who is also a member of the Selfie Research Network, explains that as corporate influence weakens social media’s capacity to create networks of resistance or solidarity amongst people, its power as a useful tool for popular politics is diminished. For her, that means the power of the selfie is dwindling too. “In the early days of the selfie it appeared as if two forms of representation were being democratized, that of the portrait and that of the proxy. I don't find that it carries that possibility anymore,” Mottahedeh says. She hopes that Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal will bring attention to the forces behind our newsfeeds. “We need to be very aware that each click, like, and comment we make is a signal to those in power, be it corporate or governmental,” she explains.
Mottahedeh sees the younger generation embracing meme culture as the political intervention of the moment, recontextualizing politics through viral images and bringing them into the real world through the protest posters of marches and demonstrations. Conversely, those images are photographed by citizen journalists and then redistributed across social media platforms.
This is where Honton believes the selfie still has value, that it’s still the most accessible way to capture the immediacy and intimacy of the individual’s everyday experience. The goal of his temporary museum, which runs through May, is not only to include the selfie in the history of photography, but to subvert the idea that we’re just living life through the interface of our phones. “Selfies are powerful because they let us author our own stories,” Honton says. As for the future of digital self-portraiture, he believes the selfie will live on. For Honton, “even when we're living as virtual avatars of ourselves a la Ready Player One, we're probably still going to want to take a selfie of that experience as our virtual selves.”
The selfie may be over, but it will never truly die.