Smile, selfies are taking over the world
The photographic self-portrait was born 180 years ago. But thanks to the front-facing camera, it’s now changing art, tech, society and even our view of the future.Updated: Aug 17, 2019 19:22 IST
Robert Cornelius was 30 when he made history. About 180 years ago, the American photographer and lamp-maker was tinkering with his newfangled camera when an idea struck him. He set up his lens, clicked the button, and raced out to be in the picture. It took a while — cameras worked differently then — and Cornelius had to hold still for nearly 10 minutes. But his shot, lightly blurred, cross-armed wild-haired, is probably the world’s earliest intentional photographic self-portrait. Don’t raise a glass to him, raise your cellphone. Cornelius is the father of the selfie. But even he couldn’t have anticipated what would come.
Until 15 years ago, taking a selfie was tricky. You couldn’t see yourself shooting yourself. Then, in 2003, phone companies began adding a smaller camera on the front of their devices. Users might like them for video-conferencing, they thought. What we got instead was, finally, a way to control, down to the microsecond, how we wanted to be captured. We looked into the lens, and never looked back.
By 2011, every new phone had a front camera. By 2013, we’d used it so much that Oxford Dictionaries declared ‘Selfie’ word of the year. ‘Duckface’ was added to the lexicon in 2014. In 2015, we had uploaded 25 billion selfies on to Google Photos alone. On Instagram, #selfie has more than 400 million posts. Regular people take them to look like celebrities. Celebrities take them to look like regular people. We’re hooked.
TO THE FRONT
Shantanu Sheorey, an art and commercial photographer for 30 years, has seen the medium evolve from film to digital and explode from niche profession to public obsession. “The phone is everyone’s new toy and the selfie is a reassurance of your own attractiveness,” he says. “I’ve seen people taking selfies crossing the road, on a night flight, at the airport. It’s more for vanity than creativity.”
Data suggest there’s quite a bit of creativity too. In 2016, researchers at the Australian National University’s College of Business and Economics looked at 5,000 random Instagram selfies and fit them into seven “distinct genres”. One in three could be classified under “Autobiography” (recording everyday moments, milestones, dramas and boredom). Others included “Travel Diaries”, “Parody”, “Romance”, and artistic “Coffee Table Book” compositions. The glut of diet, fitness, and beauty selfies were simply “Self-help”.
The narcissistic shots that Sheorey and others detest were labelled “Propaganda”. They comprised only one in ten shots. Every study on selfies, however, reports that women take more of them than men — possibly as much as three times more.
Today, 180 years after Cornelius’s image, the ability to photograph oneself is as much an art as a power trip. In 2017, London’s Saatchi gallery became the first to exhibit selfies, in the show From Selfie to Self-Expression.
Selfie contests now offer prize money and chances to have your shot displayed at a public event. The #SelfieOlympics occur online in tandem with the actual Olympics, as people attempt to photograph themselves in inventive ways. There are mid-air shots as teens land on their beds, weird balancing acts with everyday objects, and very few pouts.
Dedicated selfie museums, with backdrops and sets designed for public interaction and photography, thrive in Hollywood, Budapest, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Selfie festivals, with decorated walls, tricked-out photo booths and illuminated settings, are held in several cities; Jaipur will have one in August.
Samsung estimates that we’ll each take 25,000 selfies in our lifetimes. Your tally may differ, but there’s no denying that India loves them. Phone sales figures indicate that the West values battery life and shatterproof screens. In India, nearly 33% of buyers prioritise selfie camera, preferably with halo lighting and AI beauty filters.
Chinese brand Oppo has 9.3% of the Indian smartphone market. “Our success can be largely attributed to our focus on mobile photography,” says Will Yang, the brand’s CMO for South Asia. “We understand that our young phone buyers are looking for a camera that can help them take natural and perfect selfies.”
It’s not just the camera that’s expected to be more selfie-friendly. Early this year, the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery reported that a chunk of patients are seeking facial cosmetic procedures because they don’t like how they look in selfies. Where clients used to come in with a sample photo of a celebrity whose nose, jawline or lips they liked, now they bring their own selfies, enhanced by filters. A London doctor even coined a term for it in 2018: selfie dysmorphia.
WAYS OF SEEING
India loves selfies so much, we’d die for them. Several reports point to India as the country with the most selfie-related deaths — ahead of Russia, the US and Pakistan. In the Western world, deaths occur when users pose with a gun that accidentally fires. In India, people stretch so far for a memorable background, they drown, get hit by a train, attacked by a wild animal, or fall off a cliff. Local governments have begun putting up ‘No-Selfie Zone’ signs in a bid to prevent such deaths.
Other nations have enforced selfie bans to protect heritage sites and keep selfie-stick-wielders from ruining the experience for everyone. The Netherlands don’t allow selfies at their tulip fields. Canada has a similar ban at sunflower farms. At Lake Tahoe, California, a selfie with a bear now attracts a fine. Europe has ‘No Selfie Sticks’ signs at historical monuments.
New York museums like the Met, MoMA and the Frick have trained staff to watch out for visitors adopting risky shooting angles. The Guggenheim, however, decided to play along. In 2016, artist Maurizio Cattelan installed a fully functioning 18-carat gold commode in the fifth-floor restroom. Visitors were encouraged to ‘participate’ and use it. Selfies on the gold pot were, for a while, the museum’s most sought-after activity.
Where might selfies take us next? “The hype will die down,” Sheorey reckons. “The next generation will be born into the idea of selfies; it won’t be a novelty.”
What we will have is more data to help us make sense of the world and ourselves. An ambitious ongoing project, SelfieCity, has been analysing lakhs of images from Bangkok, Berlin, New York, Moscow and Sao Paulo to see how we differ and how we don’t.
Tools like Google’s hit Art Selfie can now read your features and match them to faces in famous paintings (so you know if you look more like Mona Lisa or Whistler’s mother). It stores your photo only for the time it takes to search for matches. Other apps are less scrupulous. FaceApp, which uses your selfie to create an older, younger or more celebrity-like version, has been found to be holding on to data. Several beauty-filter apps have stolen photographs and other data.
As facial-recognition software improves, you might soon be able to take a selfie and blink or smile to authenticate an online payment. Selfie cameras are getting better too. Oppo’s prototype, unveiled in March does away with the hole lens, the entire screen acts as the lens.
“I expect we’ll soon have palm-sized personal drone-cams that keep you in focus as you move; it’s better than holding your hand up all the time. And we’re all waiting for a proper selfie-cam film,” says Sheorey. “The selfies of the future may not come from a cellphone at all.”