Selfies: Egocentric or Authentic?

Selfies: Egocentric or Authentic?

Our previous post discussed the long history of the snapshot and how early trends in camera use reflect popular use of camera phones today. But that was a broad overview. In this post, we dive into the most controversial use of photography in our time: the selfie.

Much like the snapshot, the selfie has a history dating back to some of the first cameras. The earliest known selfie was taken by Robert Cornelius in He used a daguerreotype, which is an early form of photography that took a long time to develop. One theory is that he was able to set up the exposure and get into place, sit for the exposure time, and then rush to close the aperture. Since the exposure was so long, he was able to move quickly without ruining the photo. However, most early photographers preferred the classic mirror selfie. You can visit Mirror Portraits from the Early Days of Photography to see a gallery of such photos.

PBS Art Assignment host and former art curator Sarah Urist Green believes that self-portraits were sometimes more of a necessity that conscious choice in the early, experimental days of photography. It was easier to practice on oneself than have other people pose for so long. But even when ignoring practicality, people loved having photos of themselves. In 1925 DH Lawrence lamented that “each of us has a complete Kodak idea of himself”. Though Lawrence probably saw the “Kodak idea” as evidence of humans’ selfish, narcissistic nature, he also pointed to another interpretation of selfies. Do selfies help us get a better grasp on our identity?

The Guardian interviewed Rebecca Brown, a 23-year-old graduate trainee from Birmingham, who sees selfies as a form of self-exploration. “It’s almost like a visual diary,” she says. “I can look back and see what I looked like at a particular time, what I was wearing. It’s exploring your identity in digital form…People think if you take pictures of yourself, you’re self-obsessed but that’s like saying if you write a diary or an autobiography, you’re self-obsessed. Not necessarily. A selfie is a format and a platform to share who you are.”

blog-post-7bMost arguments against selfies point to the fact that they are different from a diary because they are made for public display. However, there are layers of privacy and publicity involved. Some people take selfies as a personal record, much like a diary. Some are taken to show a new hairstyle or cool pair of shoes, shared only with friends. And some are taken to show the world and hear its response. Brown finds that need for feedback normal. “Before I go out, I’ll take a couple of pictures almost to see how I look in other people’s eyes. In the same way that if you wrote a really good piece of work and had people commenting about how good it was,…if people start liking your selfie, then obviously you’re going to get a natural buzz. It gives you a nice boost and you can walk with that little bit more confidence.”

Urist Green also sees significance in a selfie. She finds that “the basic motivations and potential for expression have stayed the same. I am not saying all selfies are art. Dear god no. But I am saying that there’s not really a difference in nature between a photographic self-portrait made by an artist and your run of the mill selfie.” There is no shame in wanting to see yourself and to see how the world views you. So “go forth and selfie. Just try to do it well.”


Further reading:

A Brief History of the Selfie, Huffington Post, 10/15/2013

Mirror Portraits from the Early Days of Photography, Michael Archambault, 6/2/2015

Why Snapchat is Valuable: It’s All About Attention




Before the Selfie: A Brief History of Looking at Ourselves, KQED Arts, Carly Severn, 6/9/2016,

The Invention of the “Snapshot” Changed the Way We Viewed the World,

PBS offers a surprisingly artsy history of the infamous selfie, Joe Blevins, 6/3/2016