At around eighteen-months of age I uttered my first sentence , “Mum, look at me!” Now at that age when brain development is still coming to terms with the self as a concept, children will often try to get their parents attention just to be witnessed in whatever activity they are engaged in or just to ask “do you see me?” Now so many years later my own children are at ages seven and ten and can still be heard saying “Mum, look at this.” or “Mum look what I can do.” with such regularity they are like my personal push function for sixteen hours a day. Our need to be witnessed in almost everything we do is seems to be so intrinsic to who we are as human beings that the selfie as a form of witnessing seems like a natural extension of a specific human need. A form of validation of the “I am here” or “look what I can do” drive.
Now let me be clear, this conversation around witnessing and the selfie is a tunnel visioned one only for the purpose of this discussion. The motivations behind the selfie movement are as diverse as the stars in the sky. This discussion of the motivation of witnessing and how it may relate to selfie taking and viewing is only exclusive for focus, not because it is unrelated or does not act in combination with any other behaviour.
The term ‘witness’ has many uses and meanings, but its use in this blog post will be in reference to its meaning as a discursive term, “of stating one’s experience for the benefit of an audience that was not present at the event and yet must make some kind of judgement about it. Witnesses serve as the surrogate sense-organs of the absent.” Peters 2001 (p.709)
I don’t believe for a second that the importance of being witnessed is purely a human concern. Many a David Attenborough special can be seen showing a male bird of paradise performing some spectacular choreography on the forest floor, or a baboon shaking their bare-ass at a mate, just waiting to be noticed. But, naturally humans took it a step or ten further, painting pictures of their daily activities on cave walls, making frescoes depicting their wealth and exploits or developing photography so that their likeness will continue long after the organic being is gone. Long before the term ‘selfie’ came about, people have been asking other people to take pictures of them as part of the environment.There is an importance around witnessing and being witnessed that the selfie can now fulfill with ease due to technological accessibility. It may be important to note here that the behavior appears to have remained constant with the medium changing or expanding due to technological advance.
In ‘Selfies: Witnessing and Participatory Journalism with a Point of View’ Michael Koliska and Jessica Roberts describe witnessing as “crucial to communication”, they say that “Before information can be shared or passed on to news audiences it has to be first acquired or witnessed.” They are referring in part to the essential nature of witnessing within the profession of journalism, but the principle could be applied to people’s need to be witnessed in their relationships, cultural activities and life events. The idea of “truth and experience, presence and absence” as well as “the trustworthiness of perception”(Peters, 2001, p.707) (2015 p.)
At the age of fourteen I spent two months in traction in Wollongong hospital. A girlfriend had decided to have a bit of fun and scare me by jumping beside me as we jumped from the rocks at the ‘grotto’ in North-Nowra and into the Shoalhaven river. As often happens when kids decide to do something stupid, something went wrong and a broken left femur was the consequence. After two months in hospital I had lost all concept of my face. It sounds strange, but how I looked was not part of my sense of self at that time due to spending two months without a mirror.
I remember seeing my face for the first time in two months, the pallor of my skin , the shape of my face, my blue eyes looking back at me deep and alive. Maybe it was shaped by the idea of Narcissus staring into the water entranced by his own reflection, but our mirror image has always fascinated us. As if we can find clue to our true identity there, hidden away in the upturn of our mouths. My eyes tracing the newly unfamiliar features of my face, my visual identity slowly returning and with it the awareness of how I witnessed myself and how my external presence was witnessed. It gave me insight into how image is present in the construction of the self.
In her paper “Bringing sexy back: reclaiming the body aesthetic via self-shooting”, Katrin Tiidenberg discusses how our stories of bodies and sexuality have often relied of images to discover or create their truth. In reference to the role of selfies in constructing the self Tiidenberg says, “Traditionally photographs were seen as showing us the reality (cf.Bogdan & Biklen, 2003); according to Rose (2001), some historians of photography have argued, that the use of photographs in a specific regime of truth (Foucault, 1977), resulted in photos being seen as evidence of “what was really there”” Tiidenberg (2014 p.2) She goes on to discuss how this is no longer a prevalent view among visual scholars, that photographs are now seen as a ‘negotiated reality’. Tiidenberg however contests the idea of ‘negotiated reality’ particularly in the case of sexuality and candid shots, saying that in the case of candid photography it can be a case of the individual taking back the right to tell their own story of self, “According to Lasen and Gomez-Cruz: “self-portraits seem to be taking part in embodiment processes and in the shaping and knowing of the self” (2009, p. 206). Taking an active role in one’s sexual storytelling through both, images and text, can serve as empowering exhibitionism that allows us to “reclaim a copyright to our lives” by rejecting the “regime of order and the regime of shame” (Koskela, 2004, p. 206-207) or an act of “self-storying as activism” (Crawley & Broad, 2004, p. 68 as cited in Sheff, 2005). Tiidenberg (2014, p.2)
Selfies as a form of witnessing is a fairly new area of exploration particularly in relation to citizen and professional journalism. In the era of fake news journalists have been using selfies as tools of credibility of their witnessing of events and by extension validating their experience. This is another form of self-storying and places the journalist in a position of power by exhibiting their role as witness to their audience, but also as validation for the self.
So, despite the relatively new term of ‘selfie’ and the popular obsession of discussing it in a predominantly negative light. As the discussion progresses and accusations of narcissism are cast aside by psychologists who have a solid understanding on the psychological drives of the disorder, the behaviour of reflecting the self back to the self and exhibiting it to others will gain perspective. The behavior is not really new as evidenced by Foucault and other scholars (some discussed here), even though the medium is. Perhaps the focus could be brought to how the conversation or manifestation of self images changes in content, use and impact according to accessibility. Perhaps the objections and uproar of how the self is being portrayed through selfie is due to the possibility of wider distribution and its different temporal relationship to us than that of its predecessors thanks to the immediacy of the technology.
Durham Peters, J, 2001, ‘Witnessing’, Media, Culture and Society, vol.23, p.p.707-723, University of Iowa, Iowa City, SAGE Publications, London
Hall, K, (2016), ‘Selfies and self-writing: Cue card confessions as social media technologies of the self’, Television and New Media, Vol.17, No.3, p.p.228-242
Koliska, M & Roberts, J, (2015), ‘Selfies: Witnessing and participatory Journalism with a point of view, International Journal of Communication, Vol. 9, p.p.1672-1685, University of Maryland USA, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, China
Tiidenberg, K, (2014), ‘Bringing sexy back: Reclaiming the body aesthetic via self shooting’, Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, Vol.8, No.1, Article.3