Monday, 21 September 2015


I readily admit that I take many selfies - photographs of myself, taken by myself, which I may publish for people to see.

But my motivation is often a serious one. Like many a person emerging from a long period of submergence, selfies play an important role in showing, over time, how that person is re-asserting themselves, and developing from a state that was not good to a state that clearly is. The growth in self-confidence is clear and highly reassuring. The very place where the selfie has been taken - in a crowded place, say, where many people might watch and comment; or next to someone well-known, a TV personality or politician; or literally next to a cliff edge - speaks of a new willingness to put oneself forward, take risks, cope with rebuffs and refusals, and generally get out there and live more daringly. There are also physical changes: a happier face; a less hunched-up posture; a smile that invites approach; eyes that are bluer, franker, much less wary, and no longer expecting criticism - all the little indications that a person has cast off their chains and is stepping out.

Prior to six or seven years ago there were photos of myself, but they were only occasional, almost accidental. And I would hand the camera to someone else for the shot - so these were not 'selfies', but another person's view of me. And sometimes not especially well-composed. I wouldn't have minded - then. They were simply incidental.

And I remember much further back, to when I was young, in my teens say, when I felt ashamed of my introversion and awkwardness, and my unexciting appearance. In those days, I certainly cut a poor figure next to other kids. On hot beaches I would be over-dressed, anxious to cover myself up. Anxious to conceal thin arms, bad hair and acne, if nothing worse! And yet, surprisingly, there are more pictures of me as a young person than I'd thought. And I know this because I am gradually scanning the 2,500 transparencies that remain from the 5,000-odd taken between 1965 and 1989, my pre-print era. I am discovering shots I had forgotten. Mostly scenes from family holidays in Cornwall. My goodness, what a slim creature I was! And yet gawky, uncomfortable, horribly and embarrassingly self-conscious. But how fascinating now. That was me.

And yet a me as remote as Pluto. Apart from the nose, and something about the mouth and eyes, what has endured in my appearance? Very, very little. This might be another family member, another sibling, another person entirely. And the so-so capabilities of the cameras then used have masked the detail somewhat. It's so different from the see-every-pore-in-the-skin rendition that modern cameras can give you.

Fifty years ago, nobody attempted hand-held selfies. There were reasons. First, camera ownership was very far from universal. Second, most of those who did own a camera were strictly casual users, content with simple cameras incapable of close-up focussing, and in any case with no idea of the best technique to employ. Third, print film costs were high, and few could afford to 'waste' shots on self-portraits - if taken at all, they would be accomplished in carefully set up conditions, probably indoors, using the contrivances of a studio. Portraiture was still the preserve of the professional or advanced amateur, and not a DIY activity.

Fourth, the act of taking a selfie in the modern manner would have been frowned upon as a crass thing to do, obnoxiously narcissistic, to many an example of offensive behaviour. So I would attract enormous attention if - transported back to 1965 - I took a selfie on a beach, or in any crowded city shopping street. At best it would be regarded as a stunt. At worst, a policeman or council official or officious member of the public would intervene, and have something to say. (I suppose I would quickly attract attention anyway, a woman in 2015 clothing with a 2015 demeanour, using 2015 gadgets - but that's a fantasy subject for another post!)

Social acceptance of selfies is very recent. People would have stared and frowned in 1975, 1985 and 1995 just the same. It's only in the digital camera age, and especially in the smartphone age, that selfies have become the usual thing to do, at least among the young of heart. As recently as June 2013 I was challenged by a blazered old gentleman and his wife for taking a selfie at the South of England Show, as reported in my post South of England Show 1 - Setting the scene on 9th June 2013.

But now it's OK. And so, like many other people, I feel uninhibited about pointing a picture-taking device at myself and recording not just another adventurous situation, but establishing the vital fact that I managed to reach this amazing place, that the notable effort was made. Selfies serve to show that the picture-taker gets around, goes boldly, has fun, and has - beyond dispute - been there and done it.

I was listening to a BBC Radio 4 programme recently about selfies. It was asking why selfies get taken, and what their purposes - social and personal - might be. Among several possibilities was the wish to 'prove' to anyone who saw the picture that the selfie-taker had been to Place X - any named or geotagged exotic location. (Ah, my own homemade conclusion above had some support!) Mind you, the programme went on to mention that there were websites from which you could download specially-taken, constantly-updated background shots of the holiday location of your dreams, into which (with an app) you could seamlessly superimpose your selfies - and then post them to the world at large. In that way, you could claim you'd been somewhere you hadn't. Hmmm. I dare say it's now possible to concoct a convincing picture that shows you taking a selfie while a herd of wildebeest stampedes around you on the Serengeti, or as a Javan volcano erupts behind. Or in the Oval Office, or at the top of Mount Everest, or on the Moon, or about to be swallowed by a Black Hole.

The programme made a big thing about how selfies are used in social media. How, for some people, the daily selfie (real or fake) is used to make out that their lives are interesting and fulfilling, or just that they are alive and functioning, leading them into a desperate cycle of empty and narcissistic picture-taking for its own sake. How, indeed, the original Greek tale of Narcissus ended with his complete physical disappearance - no dead body to be found, only a flower left behind. A warning of how inward-looking self-love offers nothing to others, achieves nothing, and builds no lasting monuments.

Am I similarly guilty? I upload many selfies to Flickr, but they do tell a true tale of a trek to some place worth seeing in a photographic sense. And I insert many selfies into my blog posts, but they support the text, and are not mere pin-ups. And you do get to see my wrinkles and blemishes. I think it's essential for the credibility of my blog that I show many contemporary pictures of myself, just as I really am, with no flaw photoshopped away. So that, if we ever meet, you will say, 'You are exactly like your pictures. And exactly the sort of person I thought you would be.'

And I want my selfies to say something else. Not 'It's me, me, me! And I'm gorgeous!' But 'Look, life at sixty-three is brilliant: and you can have all of this too. Take heart, be encouraged, and don't give up.'


  1. From my perspective, the biggest difference between the run of the selfie snapper and you is the quality and quantity of prose that accompanies your selfies.

  2. There was a Yahoo News article today entitled, "So Sad, So Dumb. Selfies Kill More People Than Sharks." Just how journalists gather such information is a mystery to me. I assume statistics from the Bureau of Shark Killings and information from the Council of Selfie Photography are compared. To me it seems like spurious journalism whenever you compare apples and oranges. Just how relevant this message is to your original posting is an open question. Perhaps this is just as spurious.

  3. Once I got past early childhood I hated being in photographs. At about sixteen I bought my first ever decent camera and would try to take self portraits, when I got a SLR a couple of years later my examination of how the world saw me compared to how I felt grew apace. How I regret destroying them once I was told that I would never get any help in my lifetime...

    Once I started to change I restarted to observe the transformation and years of dodgeing any chance of being recorded came to an end. Interestingly once I was happy with the change I stopped some time before the horrible new word was invented and before it became so easy!


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