From Justin Bieber to the Obamas and Madonna, the self-taken cameraphone photo has become one of the cultural markers of our time.
When the time comes for us to reflect even more closely on the cultural markers of this generation, we will note the increased use of social media, the astonishing popularity of “haul videos” on YouTube, overblown sentiments on reality television shows (“this is my last chance, Simon!” – Katie, 19), and naturally, the stratospheric rise of the selfie.
My first mobile phone arrived in 1999: a camera-less and brick-like early Motorola model. Already, my toddling cousins – the people we call “digital natives” today – would pose in front of my phone and make clicking sounds: smart enough to understand what phones should be able to do; stupid enough that they could not see mine was not fit for purpose. Cut to 2013, and I’ve finally caught up with the technology. I love selfies, and I am not alone. From the White House to suburban homes across the world via shiny plastic Hollywood, we are all peering into dirty mirrors and contorting ourselves to snap a selfie.
What is its allure? For one thing, it’s ridiculously easy to do. The photographs of my youth were deeply considered affairs – was it worth using up a 24-exposure FujiFilm roll on a photo that might not even be in focus? No such worries with a cameraphone. Selfies offer a modicum of control in a snap-happy era, where you’re in charge of the image produced, and all editorial decisions are yours (you can see why the celebs love ‘em). They are also often silly, an immediate snapshot commemoration of the big and small events in our lives: witness Sasha and Malia Obama mean-mugging into Sasha’s phone shortly after their father was sworn in a second time, or Hillary Clinton and Meryl Streep taking a toothy joint selfie at a state department gala last year.
Inevitably, we look to Instagram for the finest examples of selfie-ism. I am not blameless in the furthering of this terrible culture: among photos of what I’m reading and street scenes, my face pops up alarmingly regularly. There are those for whom the art of selfie is a natural talent, and others who struggle. Last month Kelly Brook imposed a ban on posting selfies, breaking it hours later with a “Couldn’t resist!! Lol xxx” message. Brook’s photos show her appealing to her core market – straight boys and girly girls – so there are lots of pics with full makeup and/or rugby boyfriend Danny Cipriani. Look at enough and you start to realise the key to a good selfie – nonchalance. Whether you’re showing off or looking less-than-“perfect”, you want to look like it doesn’t matter. Madonna doesn’t seem to care if she looks polished (and her fans love that), and Rihanna excels at the big gesture selfie (ditto). Justin Bieber does age-appropriate smouldering (and monkey shots) for the tweens and Tyra Banks “smizes”. Relax. It’s just a selfie.