Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from Star Tribune art critic Alicia Eler’s new book, “The Selfie Generation.”
What exactly are selfies, and why are they everywhere? Whether you happen upon them on Instagram or Snapchat, or literally run into people taking cellphone photos of themselves on the street, the selfie is a pervasive yet elusive aspect of how people visually communicate today.
More than just a picture, selfies provide a lens through which other people view you, and a peek into how you see yourself. And like all cultural phenomena, the selfie is ripe for critique by artists.
Artists of the selfie generation use social media to build their persona or brand, while also using themselves in their work. In this IRL-URL fluid space, they crisscross from the digital to the physical, exploring and playing with the overlap between the two.
Artists of the selfie generation also engage with intersectional feminism, a term originally coined by black feminists to point out the unique intersection of oppression that they experience both as women and people of color.
One such artist is Brooklyn-based RAFiA Santana, 26, who uses selfies both to create an archive of herself and to make sure she is seen the way she wants. She knows that someone who takes her photo will come to it with their own visual baggage of historical images of black people.
Santana comes from a family of artists — her mother is a photographer and archivist, and her father is a photographer and filmmaker — and she started using a camera as a teenager. Her website has a category for “selfie,” but this wasn’t on purpose. It just happened because she tagged a lot of images with #selfie, and that created a larger tag cloud.
“I have a ton of images of myself,” says Santana. “Somebody picked it up as a series, and I was like, ‘Oh, I guess it’s kind of like that,’ but I was like, ‘Oh, wait, it’s not a self-portrait series,’ but whenever I post a picture of me that I made, I put it under ‘selfie.’ ”
The main draw of the selfie is that we can shape our own narratives.
“If somebody else is taking your picture they are seeing you through their lens,” says Santana. “With a lot of black photography in major magazines, a lot of the photographers are white and if they shoot black people they are not conscious about the inherent biases they have … making them look demonic or just the standard ‘ghetto,’ and not lit properly. They don’t understand how black people want to look — they don’t understand the black aesthetic.”
With the selfie, such issues don’t come up because she knows what looks good, and she knows how to make it so. “The selfie has been super-empowering in that way, just being able to show myself as I am,” she says.
Selfie-ing also is a way for her to self-reflect.
“Self-reflection is important because you need that to grow,” she says. “If you don’t know where you’re at, you don’t know where you need to be. Even if you are in a bad place, you usually want to get out of that bad place. You want to think about that and break down all the things that you do like and things that you don’t like — how do I change this, enhance this. The selfie is very important to me in that respect — it’s sort of like a record.”
Taking control of one’s image
Similarly, Brannon Rockwell-Charland, 24, an artist working on an MFA at UCLA, engages often with the selfie. For her it is a way to connect with herself and assert a sense of power.
I asked Brannon to share her thoughts on her relationship with the selfie:
Every time I make an image of myself, whether I make it in a darkroom or on an iPhone, I feel that I am reclaiming some kind of power. Selfies give me a sense of control in the face of the always-impending fetishization of black women’s bodies.
The way I’m “read” by others visually is at the center of my work, and there’s a lot at stake for me when I render myself. I’m attempting to clear some space to be able to express my full range of humanity while engaged with whatever aspects of my history I choose.
I think about history all the time — my own personal history and the contentiousness with which we tend to view images of black woman-ness throughout time. Jezebel. Mammy. Slut. Superwoman. Tragic Mulatto. The list goes on. I’m as tired of that list as I am intrigued by that list. I want to be able to be all of those women simultaneously and at will. I want to be able to be none of them.
I resist erasure by redefining, by embodying, by existing artistically in spaces that are amazing and problematic when it comes to the image of the black woman.
The thing about selfies as a form of image-making that is so tied to social media is that we are wrapped up in this paradox of self-reclamation and the social capitalist currency of the internet. Having just moved to L.A., still feeling very uprooted in my art practice, wondering how I’ll afford to live in this city, I find myself wondering if I should make my Instagram public.
Instagram is where I post most of my selfies; it’s the online space where I am my weirdest self. I find myself wondering how to sell my work. I am in my work. I’m sitting in this perpetually ambivalent space.
Brannon creates a type of artist persona while also recognizing that the images capitalize on her own body and likeness.
The power of the public self
In 2014, Los Angeles artist Amalia Ulman began using her Instagram account to create a performed version of herself influenced by the “extreme makeover culture” found on IG. Blending fact and fiction, the project, titled “Excellences and Perfections,” lasted five months. Ulman let all who followed her at @amaliaulman know about it from the beginning. But those who followed later didn’t necessarily know it was a performance.
Ultimately, she got almost 90,000 followers through well-liked images that replicated elements of selfie celebrity such as the “Hot Babe.” (At one point, she faked a breast augmentation, posting images of herself laid up in a hospital with bandages around her chest.) The project — a parade of carefully arranged flowers and expensive lingerie and highly groomed interiors and perfectly plated brunches — comments on the lengths to which people go to create themselves for social media consumption.
Ulman received widespread praise for drawing attention to the double standards that allow women to be simultaneously valued and shamed for how they present their bodies online.
To me, though, the most fascinating part of this project is that some people were outraged when they found out that this was social commentary and not “real.” It was real inasmuch as they had become invested in the character they were following. If their emotions were real, was it not real?
There is a projected and curated vulnerability displayed through selfies that traverses issues of privacy online.
“When I talk about our ‘right to privacy,’ I usually frame it as a choice, or a positive action, rather than a defense,” says Harlo Holmes, of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “There is indeed a lot of power in creating a public self; everyone is going to share stuff, but make sure you use technology in a way that only you get to choose which version of yourself exists for public consumption.”
Another L.A.-based artist, Genevieve Gaignard, creates work around complicated racial identities. As a self-identified mixed-race woman, she contends with different stereotypes and personas in her work, creating alter egos in a way that is more Nicki Minaj and less Cindy Sherman. She also takes many, many selfies.
In a review of Gaignard’s work, I discussed how her “high yellow femme” identity complicates her relationship to blackness and how she is read out in the world, yet isn’t necessarily a conversation about what it’s like to “pass.” She explores the various identities that she could embody, based on the ways she is perceived. I think about her work as more than either selfie or self-portrait, creating new mythologies that blend autobiography and fiction.
Because of their shared interest in characters, Gaignard’s work is often compared to Sherman’s. But where Sherman reveals nothing about herself, Gaignard reveals a lot. And instead of working with female archetypes in the media, Gaignard makes the personal explicitly political.
She’s also damn funny. A tongue-in-cheek work of hers, called “Selfie Stick,” points to the selfie’s origins: the mirror.