Behind the Selfie

Students Annie Dao ’17 and Arianna Segura ’18 on a Jan Term trip to Brazil.Last Jan Term I worked as a teaching assistant for a class called Literary Selfies, a course on the personal essay. The aim: to find a way in, through writing, to that beautiful, sometimes messy, often complicated thing—the self.

On Day 1, we started with visuals. A few iconic selfies: Ellen DeGeneres and Bradley Cooper and a pack of celebrity faces at the 2014 Oscars (actually a group selfie); smiling youth gathered around an equally cheery and social media savvy pontiff, Pope Francis; and, of course, a photo of Kim, the queen of the selfie, with her signature duck-face pose (protruding, pouty lips and sucked-in cheeks) à la Kardashian. The photos were a prompt, but the students didn’t need any bait. Most were 20-somethings, millennials, and this was their turf. They came of age with Facebook and have been navigating the social media landscape since it started. The discussion quickly veered to the cultural implications of the selfie, and the conversation got heated. Words like fun, memories, crazy, and cool were bantered about alongside narcissistic, self-absorbed, vain, and needy. So which was it? When we took a break, a few students chatted, most were quiet, heads down, thumbs scrolling, eyes glued to their phones.

I began to wonder what was behind the selfie. The idea of the shared self-portrait isn’t new. For centuries, artists like Dürer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Khalo have put their faces before us. But everything about the selfie is new, the technology and the access, the smartphone, the webcam, and the evolving social media platforms—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. It’s all barely a decade old, still in its infancy, really. Yet the ubiquitous selfie has the strength to carry both poles of the magnet, pushing you away and pulling you in at the same time. How does that work? I didn’t have an answer, but already I sensed these students were going to lead me there.

When it comes to social networking, I was late to the game and spend most of my time on the sidelines. I’m 53, born on the cusp of the Baby Boomers and Generation X, decades before the dawn of Facebook. I have the accounts, the logins, and the passwords, but I’m a voyeur, not a poser or a poster. What intrigues me most about the selfie is not what I see, but what I can’t see, what’s left out. Maybe it’s the writer in me. I love a good story.

On Day 10, we asked each student to submit a selfie. Here we broadened the definition—photos taken by someone else and old family photos were OK. The idea was to get inspired, find an image, and tell the story behind it. The students were thoughtful in their choices. Some chose traditional selfies: a young woman on a street in Paris during a semester abroad, a young man and his buddies getting ready for a poker night, two sisters smiling. Others were nostalgic: a toddler propped on a piano bench, a baby in her mother’s arms. All chose selfies of people and places that mattered to them.

In turn, they told each other the stories behind the photos. They shared the basics: who, what, when, and where. Along the way they sat down and wrote. They wrote about what made them happy, sad, excited, and challenged. They recognized themselves as funny, scared, empathetic, and flawed. They revealed themselves as human and vulnerable. That’s when things clicked. That’s when they got to why. That’s when I realized what’s behind the selfie. The image—the selfie—is just the starting point. What comes next—the words, the reflection—that’s what matters.

—Andrea A. Firth

Firth, a freelance journalist and contributing writer at Oakland Magazine, will complete her M.F.A. in Creative Nonfiction at Saint Mary’s in May.