Did you catch the piece, “Toward a More Radical Selfie” in The Paris Review? Author India Enneng levels a harsh but honest critique of “an era characterized by the self-portrait… an era characterized by relentless anxiety around the self as a product: what it means, who owns it, what it costs, what it’s worth.” She ultimately finds redemption in a very specific self-portrait, albeit one from 1711, but not before defining the current zeitgeist with devastating clarity:
To be digitally femme means to bathe anxiously in the images of others and act impotently in response, liking a photo or congratulating others on their beauty. More stultifying is that this is done in spite of knowing the effort that went into each composition. The selfie is a cover-up, hiding both the means of its own production and the true self.
Selfies become even more difficult to fathom when one asks for whom they are made. Certainly not for the selfie taker, from whom they demand exhausting, self-negating labor, nor is it for the general viewer and their tepid responses. Perhaps they are for prospective mates, competitive friends, the general sphere of female spectatorship? Or maybe no one at all, maybe we don’t know who we want as an audience. Maybe selfies are what happen when a society sends a missive without a recipient.
I think an interesting diametric is the equally pervasive ‘woman who won’t be photographed.’ She doesn’t, “like her picture taken.” Her reactions to a raised camera exist on the spectrum between discomfort and violent aversion. The question about selfies and audience can be applied here in reverse. Who is this woman hiding from?
I believe, in both cases, the audience is the subject. From the woman who posts a bathroom selfie, “felt qt, might delete ltr” to the one who begins rattling off her physical imperfections when presented with a photograph of herself. Humans see photographs, even very constructed ones, as a clarification of reality. Even if she doesn’t see the photograph as conclusive proof, she feels it builds a strong argument.
I believe the portrait, and particularly the ultra intimate boudoir portrait, are opportunities for women to build more positive, honest stories about themselves. To be clear, I am not referring to “glamour” images meant for sexual consumption. I’m talking about intimate portraiture where the subjects don’t hide their bodies under swaths of clothing. I wish we could invent a new word for it, a word that would differentiate it from male gaze and objectification. In fact, I’m actively working on finding that word, and using it to champion a new kind of portraiture. If you have some ideas, let me know.