The 2013 International Word of the Year from the Oxford Dictionary is… selfie. It is defined as “a photograph of yourself that you take, typically with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social networking website.” Selfie won out over some tough competition, with twerk, showrooming, bitcoin, and binge-watch in the running.
The earliest known use of the word occurred in 2002, appearing on an Australia-based onlineforum having been written by an apparently inebriated party-goer with a smashed up face: “Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer [sic] and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”
A Brief History of Self-Portraits
Of course, self-portraits have a rich history in the art world. The advent of inexpensive mirrors was meant that artists could explore their own countenance with ease. Perhaps the first self-portrait was by Francesco Mazzola (AKA Parmigianino), Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1523-24. The portrait was done as a sample of his work in hopes of gaining a church commission from Pope Clement VII. While unsuccessful in gaining papal employment, the work was groundbreaking in that it showed the artist, even if in a somewhat distorted image. In addition
to the use of a convex mirror, it was painted on a convex mounted canvas. By the mid-15th century, the Early Renaissance, artists were depicting themselves in self-portraits quite routinely. Self-portraits continued in popularity throughout the Renaissance and on into the 20th century,
Self Portraits and Real Cameras
Early cameras (pre-digital) that used film often featured a self-timing device, that gave a delay between pressing the shutter release and the shutter activating. It was designed to allow the photographer to get in position to be in the photograph. Before self-timers were standard on many cameras, they were an accessory that was screwed into the shutter switch that would allow the time delay to be set manually. While all this sounds archaic now, it was the best that technology available to take a self-portrait.
The first selfie is a portrait of Robert Cornelius with crossed arms and Bernie Sandersesque hair. In October 1839, Robert Cornelius (1809-1893) made a daguerreotype (a silver-plated copper sheet treated with iodine to make it light sensitive) of himself posed in front of his family’s store. From that day forward people have been taking self-portraits. Although before the advent of digital cameras self-portraits were usually not public, but often were private attempts at capturing an image of something noteworthy about yourself, or simply a reflection of life. One of the most interesting self-portraits taken by the former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, United States Army General (retired). Taken when Powell was a teenager, it offers a unique perspective on the man.
The Advent of the Modern Selfie
With increasing technological sophistication, selfies have become a part of our culture and are a staple of all social media websites. Not content with an outstretched arm to take your own picture, inventors devised several devices that could be used with cameras for self-portraits. The “Quik Pod” was patented in 2005 by Wayne Fromm, a Canadian inventor, and was designed to be used with a conventional SLR camera so that the camera had to rested on a solid surface when used.
The modern selfie stick has been on sale in the US since 2011 and it has revolutionized modern photography. Selfie sticks have grown so popular that there use is prohibited in many public venues. (See attached list). The main reason given is the potential for damage to exhibits in museums and art galleries. At concerts and sporting events it is the obstruction of view that is the prime complaint.
The popularity of selfies is not in doubt. A week after the Oscars in 2014, 70% of smartphone owners in the UK had seen the famous group selfie. Nine out of ten British smartphone users surveyed knew what a selfie was and 70% said that they had taken one, with 50% doing so in the last month.[i] Instagram, one of the primary websites for uploading selfies, reported that 58 images are uploaded and one new user is added every second.
Hazards of Taking Selfies
There is trend among social media aficionados that the best selfie is one taken in the most precarious or dangerous position possible. Certainly a contender for first place is a selfie taken by Daniel Lau and two friends who climbed to the top of a 1,135 foot tall skyscraper in Hong Kong. The Centre is one of the tallest buildings in Hong Kong at 73 stories tall.
Not all aspiring risk-takers are so lucky. One daredevil suffered minor injuries when he was kicked in the head by a Peruvian train engineer. Of course, he was standing as close as possible to the tracks for this memorable selfie. Jared Frank, from Regina, Saskatchewan attempted to explain that he ‘tried to take a selfie while a train passed a ‘safe’ distance behind’. He conceded, ‘I guess I was still too close and got kicked in the head. I messed up’.Others, however, were not so lucky.
Amritpal Singh, 29, and a passenger were killed when his Cessna 150 crashed into a wheat field on 31 May 2014 outside of Denver. During the climb-out portion of a previous flight, Singh used his cellphone to take a selfie. The camera’s flash was activated and illuminated the cockpit area, according to NTSB. “During the climb-out phase, the pilot was seen making keyboard entries to his cell phone and additional keyboard entries on a portion of flight consistent with the downwind leg.”
In Mexico City Aguilar Oscar Otero, 21, shot himself in the head with a .45 caliber handgun while taking a selfie. Alcohol was involved.
Courtney Sanford, 32, died shortly after posting a selfie and the message “The happy song makes me so HAPPY” on her Facebook timeline. Sanford’s car crossed the median on Interstate 85 near High Point, North Carolina, crashed into a recycling truck and burst into flames.
Xenia Ignatyeva, 17, slipped and fell while attempting to take a selfie from the top of a railway bridge near St. Petersburg, Russia. She attempted to break her fall and grabbed electrical wires and was electrocuted.
Christine Rosello, 14, a Grade 9 student at Rizal High School, died in Pasig City, a suburb of Manila, Philippines. She slipped and fell down stairs at her school while attempting to take a selfie. She died of head wounds.
Sylvia Rajchel, 23, a native of Poland was studying medicine in Spain, lost her footing while attempting to take a selfie on the ledge of the Puente de Trianna Bridge in Seville, Spain, and fell to her death.
A Polish couple died, when they slipped and fell 260 feet to their death while attempting to take a selfie on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at Cabo de Roca, a popular coastal tourist destination near Lisbon while their two children ages 5 and 6 looked on.
Most recently yet another tourist visiting Yellowstone National Park was gored by a bison while attempting to take a selfie as she stood very close to the one-ton animal with horns. This summer there have been five gorings at Yellowstone so far, all because people were trying to take selfies while standing too close to the animals. What is it about an animal that’s the size of a VW equipped with horns that makes them appear as docile pets to the mentally challenged?
Selfies also pose a hazard in any large group of people. At concerts, selfie sticks are used by some to get a better photo of a favorite star. Of course, the simple-minded that raise selfie sticks high above their heads are completely oblivious to the other concert-goers behind them whose vision is obstructed.
Amusement parks are another favorite target for selfie takers. For some, riding in the front car on the roller coaster and not holding on with a white-knuckled death grip is simply not enough for these thrill-seekers. In addition to not holding on and raising you hands over your head, the experience should be topped off with a selfie just as your car goes inverted. All Disney theme parks have banned selfie sticks because careless riders have dropped selfie sticks on the tracks, lodged selfie sticks in objects close to the passing cars, and dropped them while negotiating rapid turns allowing the selfie stick to hit other passengers.
In somewhat more serene environs, self sticks not only pose a threat to others, their indiscriminate use also endangers objets d’art. Museums and gallerias all over the world are banning selfie sticks in fear that a clumsy patron will inadvertently damage irreplaceable paintings. See the No Selfies Table for a listing of places that prohibit selfie sticks and in some cases all photography.
The Culture of Selfies
I have been puzzled by selfies and why people take them. My experience with self-portraits would predict that no one would voluntarily take a selfie, except for a practical reason (e.g., hairstyle, item of clothing, etc.) or as evidence of visiting some exotic spot on vacation. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I have ever taken a selfie. I shy away from any pictures of myself.
There is something deeply disturbing about people taking pictures of themselves and then uploading them to a social media site. I allow exceptions for vacationers taking selfies without mechanical assistance. An arm’s reach should be just fine for anyone. If you require a portrait of yourself with another person at a particular spot for total happiness there is nothing wrong with asking a passerby to snap the image. Incessant snapping of photos of everything you do and everywhere you go to simply post it on a website is not only a waste of time, but of considerable computer resources. It seems to me that the selfie enthusiasts are a narcissistic lot that have the mistaken impression that someone is interested in what they do, where they go, or where they eat. I could care less, and I suspect that most recipients feel the same way. That anyone would measure self-esteem based on the number of followers or likes they accrue suggests that he or she has some serious issues and is in need of professional help.
It is clear that my objections to selfies will fall on deaf ears. Deaf or not, please don’t poke my eye out with the damn selfie stick.