Let’s face it. We have been making and taking pictures of ourselves for countless years. Millennia. The earliest known cave paintings (thought to be around 35,000 years old), in Sulawesi in Indonesia, were made by people stencilling around their hands. The Ancient Egyptians were at it. A bust by Bak, sculptor to Pharaoh Akhenaten (c.1364 BCE), is known to be a self-portrait. Rembrandt, pre-empting Kim Kardashian, made at least 50 self-portraits. Some of our most famous paintings are ones artists have made of themselves. A self-portrait by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold for $57.3 million in 2016.
But the rise of the selfie, brought about by the rise of the smartphone, has come in for some bad press. There are some admittedly terrifying statistics. More than 93 million selfies are taken every day. In 2015, two years after the word ‘selfie’ entered the dictionary, more people died taking selfies (approximately 232) than from shark attacks. Surveys are reporting greater levels of suicidal feelings among young adults due to the pressures of social media. We are, it seems, obsessed with ourselves to unhealthy levels.
But is it all down to the selfie? I ask this as a fully signed-up selfie sneerer. Show me a selfie stick and you will get my meanest arched eyebrow (of which you may not take a picture). But I’ve come to think we should stop being so superior about it. Or, as Margaret Atwood (she of Handmaid’s Tale fame) puts it, so ‘puritanical’.
Will Storr, whose new book traces the history of selfies, says that it’s all down to our need for validation: ‘In Ancient Greece you had to be a hustler and an individual to make your mark, with this evolving into the adoration of thyself. The selfie is the modern adaptation of this. In this way, van Gogh and Kim Kardashian aren’t so different.’
And is showing yourself off to the world quite so bad? Van Gogh never showed a particularly flattering image of himself. Nor, for that matter, did Rembrandt. In fact in some of his later self-portraits he looks positively haggard. But they wanted to show and share a facet of themselves. Just as Kim Kardashian likes to show and share a facet of her behind.
In his book, Storr makes the point that the vast majority of selfies taken in Europe and America are of people on their own while in Asia the selfie is a celebration of the group. This, he says, is down to ancient ways of thinking. In the West, where one God was the centre of the universe, the individual took centre stage. In the East, where cycles of lives and numerous gods take precedent, the mentality is inclusive.
But even the individualistic European selfie is made with more than one person in mind. After all, as Storr also points out, a selfie ‘is an image that’s made to be shared’. Few of us take selfies just to look at ourselves. We want to show ourselves off to other people and it is the competitive mindset that is souring the selfie, as well the trend for comparing and even re-touching images. It is not the selfie itself that is the problem.
At its best the selfie is a celebration of being human, part of a long tradition of self expression. Look at it this way, and you’ll start seeing a rather different kind of picture staring back at you.