But First, Let Me Take a Historical Selfie

While there is a general consensus that the selfie, in all its duck-faced glory, displays the narcisstic, self-indulged tendencies of today’s youth, there is no denying the significant impact this new genre of ‘art’ is having on photography and meaning itself.

Jerry Saltz describes how the #selfiemovement is changing the way in which we communicate. Selfies provide instant visual communication and imply, “control as well as the presence of performing, self-criticality and irony.” Selfies are an intrinsic part of creating a digital avatar- the ‘virtu-real’ you.

A relatively new selfie-nomenon is what we will call in this blog the ‘historical selfie’: there are scores of selfies taken at heritage sites of historical significance around the world. Some of these selfies are causing controversy, in particular those taken at sensitive locations such as Auschwitz and the 9/11 memorial in New York. These selfies are seen by many to violate the solemnity and respectful memory inherent to these sites.

Selfie at the 9/11 memorial- New York

Selfie at the 9/11 memorial- New York

However, we cannot always be so quick to judge the nature of these photos as disrespectful. Thomas P Thurnell conducted a study in 2009 on youth visiting Auschwitz. His findings displayed that every person who took a photo at the camp did not have a desire to convert the site into a spectacle, but rather to create a meaningful documentation of their personal experience.

As such, perhaps these selfies convey an attempt to connect time and historical significance in a process of place-making, as Elizabeth Losh writes, allowing the sense of a place to be constructed around a tourist’s personal context and insights.

A perfect example of selfies having the ability to encapsulate such profound meaning can be found on the Tumblr blog Selfies at Serious Places. In line with the name, here selfies from ‘serious’ locations around the world are published; however the artists are given the opportunity to explain the meaning behind their photos.

One photo, taken by Jake Fletcher, shows Jake standing; mouth agape, in front of the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine.

Jake's selfie at Chernobyl

Jake’s selfie at Chernobyl

It was here in 1986 that a catastrophic nuclear accident occurred, with the ensuing contamination affecting an estimated 500,000 workers. Jake’s caption reveals a more meaningful evolution of selfies.

That expression on my face is meant to be shock, not some vacuous, feeble attempt at narcissistic irony… I hope that some people will now think about images like mine for just a bit longer before bemoaning that they show society’s failures laid bare before them.

Jake’s profound comments demonstrate that we cannot so easily dismiss the selfie as an act of narcissistic self-affirmation in a digital world dictated by a currency of likes.

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A Thousand Words and a Window to the Soul

It could be said that one controversial photograph changed the fate of the Vietnam War.

Kim Phuc, nicknamed the ‘Napalm Girl’, became a universal icon for suffering and the human capacity for atrocity when she was photographed, by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, running burned, naked and screaming from her home. The picture denotes the aftermath of an aerial napalm strike in 1972, as South Vietnamese planes mistook their own fleeing civilians for Vietcong near the small village of Trang Bang.

Vietnam Napalm Girl

What meaning lies behind this controversial photograph?

As the image was globally disseminated, public outcry grew. While the denotation of the picture may be blatant enough, a study of the connotations and semiotics behind the text reveal a different perspective relating to our cultural ideologies.

The response to the image of a child, a socially accepted incarnation of innocence, with arms outstretched and an expression of pain and fear eternally etched on her face, demonstrates the power of a picture to drive a political action. The image signified to many the disposable nature of civilians in the war, they were simply collateral damage.  Kim’s story tugged at the heartstrings of the global audience, united in their moral conviction of justice and the protection of the innocent. She inspired global condemnation of the war and may have indirectly influenced America’s ultimate decision to withdraw troops.

Here we see a strong example of how a representation can generate a united response based on the core values and beliefs it connotes.

However, in the evolving media landscape, these cultural ideologies may be losing their power and conviction. Images of violence and suffering have become commonplace as news outlets release daily reports on the most recent car bombing in Baghdad, or the latest conflict in Afghanistan. Dominating our media landscape, these pictures can be seen to desensitise us to the individual’s suffering. So a question to leave you with- is overexposure in the media undermining our values?

Picture sourced from http://asiancorrespondent.com/83538/napalm-girl-photo-from-vietnam-war-turns-40/