Origins & Foreword
This project was an extension of my dissertation research on selfies and identity. In my dissertation I proposed that the selfies fulfil three major functions:
The autobiographical function of the selfie is crucial in memories-building and I argue that the selfies are a tool to confirm our physical existence and then add it to the “organised record of lived past and anticipated future” (Damasio, 2010), that Damasio (2010) calls “the autobiographical self”.
The performative aspect of the selfie extends further into an identity-branding function; we perform to be (and become) our ideal selves and this performances are constantly adjusted by peer feedback.
The conversational function of the selfie communicates all these ideas; a never-ending exchange of utterance and response where verbal and visual communications mix in order to produce a complex narrative, mediated by social media channels.
My Final Major Project takes into consideration all three functions; however, it attempts to take this discussion a step further into a hypothetical stage of alienation, where the selfie from a simple tool, has become the sole purpose.
Is There Anybody Out There?
What if no one sees our selfies? What if we desperately need an approval if who we are and we use selfies trying to communicate this message to peers? What if no peers want to engage in conversation?
In the age of social media there is the risk of feeling alone among the (online) crowd. Social media channels such as Instagram and Facebook are full of examples of people snapping their own photos many times a day, with and without any particular reason, using enhancement tools provided by the social media channel. I am certain that anyone with some social media presence has at least two ‘serial selfie snappers’ in their friends list – one of mines shown on the right.
But if there is no one to respond to our utterance, if there is no peer pressure to which we “adjust” our selves, are we not falling deeper and deeper into the pit of alienation, loneliness and desperate approval-seeking and thus, are we not going even further away from our selves?
So the starting question of my project was:
If unobserved and unanswered, can an excessive selfie-taking instead of facilitating the creation of our autobiographical self lead to creating a downward spiralling vacuum, where our identities bounce incessantly between ourselves and our skewed perception of ourselves?
The Mirror Stage
J. D. Salinger is one of my all-times favourite writers and although I like the “Catcher in the Rye” (by far his most popular book), my true favourites are the novels about the Glass Family. In these novels his setting is often a bathroom – the space where one can remain unobserved and does not need to take on a social role, but rather be themselves. In the “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” (published in 1963 together with “Seymour: An Introduction”) a communication between two family members who are not present in the novel is read by a third family member – a message written with soap on the bathroom mirror. I cannot help but like the symbolism of Salinger – the bathroom as the soul-cleansing personal space, which is often invaded by uninvited family members; a message that appears next to your face, written with perishable substance. While reading through Lacan’s work (The Mirror Stage, 1949), that mental image of the bathroom scene from “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” kept popping into my mind. Why are mirrors of such importance to us; why was Vivian Maier fascinated by reflective surfaces and imposed her reflections onto scenes she does not belong to; why was I subconsciously superimposing reflections on scenes while shooting weddings, often being featured in the reflections myself?
Mirror reflections are not reality – they are the opposite of reality. They are the reflected image of reality. And this is what selfies give us – an image which is the exact opposite of reality.
When deciding how to visualise my idea, I went through few ideas like a selfie-taking vanity mirror or studio set up. Then looking back at old work, I found images from a wedding at the Jockey Club Rooms in Newmarket. And the setting there suddenly made perfect sense. The pompousness and poshness of the King’s Suite represented the perfect imaginary setting with its golden framed carved wood mirrors, heavy dark paintings, the four poster bed in the bedroom and horse racing memorabilia on the shelves in the living room. It is not that pompousness and poshness is the ultimate goal for everyone – it is that the pompousness and poshness will normally be decoded as symbol of success on many different levels.
I needed a model who will look like they don’t belong in this setting; I wanted to have this discrepancy between the model and setting. I wanted the viewer to have the feeling that they are looking into someone’s mind and can see them as they are in the setting that they strive to achieve.
The model was worried about having jeans and trainers on; I have intentionally asked her to put simple everyday black clothes and not to worry about the shoes. She is physically in the room but she feels uncomfortable, like she happened to be there by mistake. I used the natural lighting of both the bedroom and living room and the model faces the light source every time – I wanted her to face the light and leave the shadows behind her.
The bathroom setting was a direct result of any mirror-related thought and idea that I had. Although initially I did not want any recognisable facial features in the photos, the image on the right is impactful because the viewer makes contact with the model’s eyes. But what is actually impactful is that this is not the model herself – it is her reflection that is staring back directly into the lens.
The last set of images is a simple play with mirror – the model face is not visible and we can only guess about her identity from what we see in the image. The background is completely black – the vacuum of solitude and the lack of the presence of others.
The Exhibition Feedback
Overall feedback from the MA show visitors was that:
- It is immediately obvious that my project is treating identity
- Viewers were puzzled by the reversed bathroom image
Most people could not work out the reversed bathroom image. Here are both bathroom images in the way there were originally taken and then the way they were printed and displayed:
All images were displayed in pairs and this is a very important decision that I made in the process – I wanted to accentuate the mirror effect and to take it out of the photograph frame and into the exhibition layout.