With online photos, a new sense of self

Updated: 2013-12-01 07:18

By Jenna Wortham(The New York Times)

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Recently, I came across an old black-and-white photograph of a female pilot on a mountaintop, her aviator glasses pushed up on her forehead, revealing a satisfied, wind-burned face, the wings of her plane just visible behind her. But the best part of the discovery was that she was holding the camera herself. It was, for lack of a better word, a "selfie."

It reminded me of another self-portrait of sorts, one I've been watching evolve online of the mysterious Benny Winfield Jr.

I don't know Mr. Winfield, but I've seen his face most days for the past few months, on Instagram. He calls himself the "leader of the selfie movement" and each image is hypnotically the same " his grinning face fills the frame, and is usually accompanied by inspirational text.

The self-portraits are worlds " and decades " apart. But they are threaded together by a timeless delight in our ability to document our lives and leave behind a trace for others to discover.

"There is a primal human urge to stand outside of ourselves and look at ourselves," said Clive Thompson, a technology writer.

Selfies have become the catchall term for digital self-portraits abetted by the explosion of cellphone cameras and photo-editing and sharing services. Everyone from the pope to President Obama's daughters has been spotted in one. Oxford Dictionaries Online has added the term to its lexicon. A recent project on Kickstarter raised $90,000 to develop and sell a small Bluetooth shutter release for smartphones and tablets to help people take photographs of themselves more easily.

At times, it feels largely performative, another way to polish public-facing images of who we are, or who we'd like to appear to be. And selfies raise all sorts of questions about vanity, narcissism and our obsession with beauty and body image.

But it's far too simplistic to write off the selfie phenomenon. We are becoming accustomed to online conversations and interactions that revolve around images and photos. They are often more effective at conveying a feeling or reaction than text.

"The idea of the selfie is much more like your face is the caption and you're trying to explain a moment or tell a story," said Frederic della Faille, the founder and designer of Frontback, a new application that lets users take photographs using both front- and rear-facing cameras.

Selfies strongly suggest that the world we observe through social media is more interesting when people insert themselves into it " a fact that many social media sites have noticed.

The feedback loop that selfies can inspire doesn't hurt, either. As an early Instagram user, I rarely turned the camera on myself. I preferred sharing pictures of sunsets or crazy dance parties to showing off a new haircut or outfit. But over the last year or so, I've watched as all my peers have slowly begun turning their cameras inward on themselves. It's made my feed more interesting and entertaining. And I'd much rather see my friends' faces as they prepare food than a close-up photo of the finished meals. The rare occasion when I feel bold enough to post a full-face frontal, I see spikes in comments..

The New York Times

(China Daily 12/01/2013 page10)