The smartphone has revolutionised photography, putting a capable camera in the pocket of the everyman. This has seen the growth of a new kind of photography – the selfie. Portraiture has long been commonplace, but the selfie has a spontaneity and loneliness that sets it apart. Conservatives argue that it is evidence of a unique narcissism brought about by social media among the youth of today. But the smartphone and social media are hardly the only changes unique to the modern environment. To properly consider the selfie, we must consider the self under late capitalism.
What is a selfie? A selfie is the capture of oneself, by oneself. No wonder the conservatives call it narcissistic. But the selfie is more complex than this simple reading. It is genuine, unvarnished by the digital manipulation which is so readily available. The selfie is uncomplicated and authentic. It captures one’s reality as it is, an island of truth floating amongst the content.
A selfie says, “Here I am. This is me. Witness me.”
It reaches to the core of humanity as a social species. We need recognition from our peers. We need to show our true selves.
But our true selves are marginalised by late capitalist society. A young person today lives under the constant yoke of supervision. By the state, by their parents or by their own self-discipline, they are always watched. Every action must be productive, must enhance their human capital to compete on the labour market. Must demonstrate their supreme obediance. The project most young people are subjected to is their construction as perfect employees.
To simply be free is inefficient, unproductive. Every action is being recorded for consistancy with one’s personal brand. Any deviation could throw one off the snaking clifftop path and onto the rocks of desperation below.
Young people on social media cannot display their true selves. The panopticon of surveilance demands a stage managed personal brand. 70% of employers screen candidates based on their social media. When competing with millions of others on the market for the ever narrowing chance at a Good Job, no teenage foibles can be tolerated.
They cannot be themselves in the education system. The competition of league tables demands that kids be disciplined. Instead of expanding kids’ minds, schools contract them down to the technical and the test. Homework intended to create productive employees takes up the time which would allow kids to witness one another in person.
So they turn to the last loophole. The selfie lets them show their true selves to one another, freed from the personal brand and schoolhouse discipline. It is a primal scream for recognition. The voice of the unseen and unheard.