First Words, by Ilan Stavans; Illustration by Flavio Marais
Illustration by Flavio Morais

On Selfies

A friend of mine once sent me a selfie that young Catholics had taken with Pope Francis in South Korea. The pontiff is smiling comfortably. The image is magical, at once lofty and mundane. Those around him are in disbelief. “Oh my gosh!” their expressions suggest. “’Tis a miracle.”

I’m a selfie lover. I have hundreds in my iPhone, not only of me, my family and friends, but of scores of people I’ve never met. It is not that I collect selfies but that I study them: what they say about us—or not.

The term (also spelled selfy and cellfie, and defined as a photo taken by one of the people who appears in the photo) is said to have originated in 2002, in an Australian online forum. Since then, its use has multiplied exponentially, in part because other languages have adopted it as their own. There is something of a Hallmark taste in the sound: Be yourself in a selfie because, as Oscar Wilde said, “everyone else is already taken.”

No doubt selfies are easy to dismiss as manifestations of youth. I have seen them described as comfort food: easy, fast and mindless. Many art critics look down on them as trivializations. Everyone might have a camera, they say, but not everyone is a photographer.

That’s true, but it is the wrong approach. What makes selfies fascinating is that they are a manifestation of that most elusive entity: the self. They are not about the person but the persona, a word that derives from Latin for mask. Ask around what the self is and you’re likely to get a stuttering response. A part of the response, sooner or later, will be the word selfie, as if people agree that the self is impossible to define but easy to spot with an iPhone. (An acquaintance of mine calls selfies “soulfies,” arguing they are “corporeal expressions of the spirit.”)

The selfie ecosystem is built as a popularity contest.These images promise smiles, happiness and engagement. Indeed, the selfie taker is a trickster, a self-appointed fool, maybe even a dissenter. Selfies liberate people from themselves. Women make a “duck face”; men muscle up. I once got a selfie from a colleague whose persona is built on stoicism. It was taken at 2 a.m. He wrote, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners.” Finally, even he can be happy, I told myself.

Selfies are unparalleled examples of how democracy and technology interact. Not only is everyone a photographer, but we are all self-portraitists, in the tradition of Rembrandt, van Gogh, Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman. These self-portraitists, though, took a long time to finish a single painting. We instead take dozens of selfies, discarding the majority in order to keep the precious one—the selfie in which we are close to perfect.

Our judgment of perfection is subjective: How different would the image of Mona Lisa be had she made it herself? Probably her expression would be more foolish, less enigmatic.

Although the capacity to produce selfies makes us all equal, they function through exclusion. Those who are in the picture click together. The rest of us are out, bypassed, ignored. Indeed, the in-crowd uses the selfie to delineate its territory, to specify its confines. The out-crowd is beyond the frame. The in-crowd projects stability, continuity and power. It makes a pitch at normalcy, believing that as it loves itself, others will love it too.

The nature of selfies is not to stay still. To make them real, we must press “Send” and allow them to circumnavigate the globe through social media. An unshared selfie is like a tree that falls alone in the forest. My readers send me pictures of themselves reading my books. My students do it when they travel to a place we explored in class.

Selfies erase for us the boundary between private and public. They also makes us believe—foolishly—that the medium is a manifestation of absolute freedom. Yes, they defy all sorts of taboos: People photograph themselves in dangerous places, or in the shower, or in bed. Yet there are boundaries. A few weeks ago, I saw on the internet a selfie of a girl smiling near a coffin. Somebody commented on it: “Not okay!” I remember reading of a driver involved in a fatal crash who took a selfie just before it. I searched for it online: it was painful to see.

In short, the selfie is narcissistic performance achieved through overstatement. Samuel Johnson argued that the narcissist does not hide his faults from himself but persuades himself that they escape the notice of others. And Ambrose Bierce described an egotist as “a person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.” The selfie is the exact same way.

It is easy to discard all of this as vulgar, transient and inappropriate. I myself have that temptation. But I am reminded of the line from Hamlet when Polonius advises his son, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” The self in the selfie is an invitation to think about truthfulness. 

 Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture and publisher of Restless Books. This essay is adapted from I Love My Selfie (with photographs by ADÁL), just out from Duke University Press.