Visual Resonances

by Karin Bareman

English Essays

Moral Panic – The Selfie As Photography Out of Place

There is something about selfies that puts our knickers in a twist. Eminent photography collector W.H. Hunt notes in despair that “making and sending pictures of your lunch, your outfits and giant body parts: your boobs or package all plumbed up…The world has gone mad; it’s the moral apocalypse. At least we will have the photographic evidence.” [1] Art critic Jonathan Jones, in a scathing renouncement of the phenomenon, states that “the selfie marks the end of the age when people thought photographs could be refined works of art, and [Kim Kardashian’s book] Selfish is the final grave marker of that aesthetic delusion.” [2] And Todd Hido mutters in some disbelief that “in this age of increasing utter narcissism seen in the millennial generation, assisted and created by technology, there’s a mind-numbing amount of [selfies]. It actually frightens me that there are so many people so thoroughly interested in themselves and that they actually think that other people really care — and maybe they do, but just for a minute.” [3] Strong words. Strong words indeed.

Book cover Selfish by Kim Kardashian
Book cover The Do-It-Yourselfie Guide by Willem Popelier

It seems, then, that selfies have the incredible capacity to have usually sensible people completely out of sorts. I believe this is because selfies constitute a type of photography that is ambiguous, anomalous and entirely out of place. I am running here with an idea first postulated by the anthropologist Mary Douglas, stating that “dirt is matter out of place.” [4]

Her argument essentially boils down to this: amongst all social and cultural groups, certain notions evolve of what is pure and impure, clean and dirty, sacred and profane, as a way of understanding the universe. Unfortunately, life is not easily divvied up in such neat and binary categories. So problems arise when events or objects are seen as anomalous or ambiguous. Taboos and rituals then emerge as a way to help interpret events, categorise objects, clarify things, and thereby reduce or eliminate any ambiguities and anomalies. [5]

Santa Monica, California, 1996, from the series Self Portraits (c) Lee Friedlander

So just as dirt is matter out of place, selfies are photographs out of place. The various attempts of professional photographers, art critics and curators to grapple with the selfie phenomenon can be understood in this light. More importantly, these attempts all seem to fall within Douglas’ framework of how social and cultural groups deal with dirt, that is, through reclassification, control, and avoidance. [6]

Indeed, the biggest conundrum for professional photographers, curators and art critics alike seems to be this: the selfie is a portrait of the self, but it is not considered to be an artistic self-portrait. I believe this is because artistic self-portraits tend to get judged in aesthetic, conceptual and visual terms, whereas selfies get judged solely in moral terms. A friend of mine opined, for example: “I think that the self-portrait in the vein of [Lee] Friedlander is much more about the world than about himself. They’re about the swallowing of self by the machine of progress rather than the machine of progress producing a billion shallow ‘I am here’ selfies.” [7]

An installation shot of Richard Prince’s New Portraits series.

In other words, selfies are seen as narcissistic, selfish, egotistical, shallow, whereas photographs such as found in Lee Friedlander’s series ‘Self-Portraits’ are not. These are big assumptions to make by the viewer on behalf of the maker, however. But by ascribing such motives to the maker, the photographs at hand get either neatly put into the safe and accepted category of the artistic self-portrait or into the dangerous and taboo category of the selfie.

As a result, fine art photographers appear keen to avoid being associated with selfies at all cost. After all, artists such as Willem Popelier, who actually do seriously and positively investigate selfies in their arts practice, catch a lot of unfounded flak for their interest. [8] Apparently, the only acceptable way for fine art photographers to engage with selfies is by attempting to subvert the system. Antonio Gramsci, however, teaches us how futile that exercise is. After all, one has to buy into the existing world order to at least a certain extent in order to overthrow it, which is why subverting the system proves so difficult. [9] And so it proves with selfies too.

An unselfie by Alec Soth
An example of an Anti-Selfie by the Anti-Selfie Club

Richard Prince, for starters, simply refuses to take selfies himself, but he is not averse to nicking them off Instagram, presenting them as his own work, and then selling them for large sums of money. Prince justifies this approach by arguing that through adding his comments underneath each of these selfies on Instagram, the work has been altered and has therefore become his creative output. [10] This seems to be a classic case of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it. Alec Soth then, possessing somewhat more integrity than Prince, offers us the unselfie. This involves him making selfies with his face obscured. [11] But whilst we may not see Soth’s face, his unselfies display all the other visual markers of a bog standard selfie down to a T. Similarly, the Anti-Selfie Club – the result of an exhibition dedicated to the lasting influence of Kasimir Malevich at the Fondation Beveler in Riehen/Basel – is made up of a bunch of people digitally blocking out their faces by using a black square or circle. [12] How this might enable an understanding of Malevich’ Black Square remains a mystery, but like Soth’s unselfies, we still recognise the resulting images as selfies.

These three examples throw the question of artistic intent into sharp relief. It seems that the plain old positive selfie is a definite no-go for fine art photographers and institutions, whereas if some conceptual and antithetical thought can be attributed to it – no matter how shallow that thought actually is – it somehow makes it alright. And whilst The Mauritshuis in The Hague at first sight seemed to be an exception to the rule and appeared to positively embrace selfies in a show in 2015 entitled Dutch Self Portraits: Selfies from the Golden Age, we are quickly disabused of any such notions and are sternly informed that “whereas the modern selfie can be taken easily, sometimes even carelessly, painting a self-portrait in the seventeenth century required a long training and considerable craftsmanship.”[13] In other words, like sex, selfies sell. But the gods forbid we see them as a proper form of fine art or indicative of a photographer’s craft.

Selfie in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp by Breanna Mitchell
Selfie by Miss Israel Doron Matalon

So the two main issues at play here are the skills and intent ascribed to or provided by the maker. According to the Oxford Dictionary, however, a selfie is “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smart phone or web cam and shared via social media.” [14] So whilst the type of camera and the sharing aspect do play a role in this particular definition, they are not phrased in as necessary preconditions. More importantly, intent is completely absent in this definition, and the lack of craftsmanship is only implicitly referred to by stating the type of camera ‘typically’ used.

This puts us in a bit of a pickle. How do we know whether an image is a selfie or a self-portrait if we don’t know the maker’s intent? And how do we judge beautifully crafted photographs of oneself taken on an smartphone versus sloppily taken pictures with the latest professional DSLR? Setting aside the matter of craft for the time being, it seems that we judge a selfie not so much for portraying the photographer herself, but for when and where such a portrait was captured. Indeed, we often seem to consider the taking of selfies as as inappropriate, as the wrong thing to do in the wrong place and the wrong time with the wrong consequences.

David Cameron, Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Barack Obama pose for a selfie. Michele Obama, meanwhile, remains focused on Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.
Photograph: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

Famous examples abound. They include Breanna Mitchell taking a selfie in Auschwitz, the man taking a selfie with his wife giving birth in the background, Barack Obama taking a selfie with David Cameron and Helle Thorning-Schmidt during Nelson Mandela’s funeral, or Miss Israel taking a selfie with Miss Lebanon and thereby creating a massive stir in both countries, technically still at war with each other. [15] And if it is not the wrong thing to do at the wrong moment, do we judge photographs to be selfies when they document the photographer-subject allegedly having a good time? Or do we infer that, by its very capture, ordinary people are barred from actually enjoying the moment? Or do we believe that selfies as simply mementoes of an event, of a ‘having-been-there-and-done-that’ are somehow not worthwhile? But as Susan Sontag teaches us, this has always been an important characteristic of photography: “Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had. Photographs document sequences of consumption carried on outside the view of family, friends, neighbors.” [16]

Sontag’s last sentence hints at the real issue with selfies. The problem is not so much the content of the images as such, but their dispersion. Indeed, selfies are believed to be blurring the distinction between public and private consumption in a way that self-portraiture does not. Artistic self-portraiture is explicitly aimed at public consumption by means of exhibitions or monographs, pure and simple. Selfies, on the other hand, can be considered as a private, personal, vernacular form of photography, which in the past would have been be viewed only by and shared with friends and family. Rather than being stuck in family albums, however, selfies are shared publicly, instantaneously, potentially virally and globally. And it is this accessibility that sets commentators on edge.

Screenshot of video of ASU Sorority Girls taking selfies

As a result, a lot of the language surrounding selfies is couched in terms of purity and danger, coloured by emotions and not rationality, as we have seen above. It is also evinced by the ongoing documentation and rolling commentary on people taking selfies. So despite taking a moral and sometimes legal stance regarding selfies, self-appointed guardians are often almost frothing at the mouth when documenting and commenting on the taking of selfies.

The most famous example is perhaps the footage of the female students from Arizona State University photographing themselves during a baseball game. [17] They had the camera locked onto them for minutes, with the male sports commentators lambasting them for not paying attention to the game. The irony of course is that neither the camera operator nor the commentators were paying attention to the game either. Not only that, the girls were taking part in a selfie game set up by T-Mobile in the stadium. This very clip brings significant gender and age imbalances to the fore, whilst simultaneously ignoring the whole issue of corporate advertising for and on behalf of the technology that actively enables selfie taking.

Selfie by Jamie Raines
Selfie by Jamie Raines

As sexuality and gender are one of the most ambiguous and contentious issues of all times just about everywhere, and as selfies are statistically mostly taken by young women, it is perhaps not surprising that the discussion surrounding selfies is laced with sexual connotations and prohibitions. [18] The quotes by Hunt and Jones at the start of this essay in fact explicitly link selfies with (female) sexuality. Anne Burns argues that “beyond a critique of photographic form or content, the online discussion of selfies reflects contemporary social norms and anxieties, particularly relating to the behavior of young women.” [19].

It is interesting in that light that examples abound of marginalised groups actively using selfies as an empowerment tool. British student Jamie Raines, for example, documented his transition from woman to man over a period of three years, whereas Christine Beynon recorded hers from man to woman over eleven years. [20] These examples show that like dirt, selfies can draw attention to other levels of existence outside of the norm. But it comes at a cost. Anne Burns points out that the common acceptance of selfies as narcissistic, vain and feminine, acts as a subtle but significant form of social control and maintaining gendered power relations. [21]

Selfie by Christine Beynon

In a way, there is nothing new under the sun here. As John Berger points out in his seminal book Ways of Seeing: “One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male, the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision.” [22] 

Anne Burns goes on to make one final important point: “Emulating the degree to which women’s behaviors are marked within wider social discourse as being in need of guidance and modification, selfie taking is conceptualized as a practice that requires instruction to do it right.” [22] But the question begs itself, can selfies ever be done right? Considering the ongoing condemnation of the phenomenon, the taboos that seems to rest on it, it seems an impossible task. The danger remains, and dirt as well as selfies persist in being matter out of place.  

[1] W.H. Hunt, “This is a warning about “selfies,”” L’Oeil de la Photographie, 15 October, 2015.
[2] Jonathan Jones, “Kim Kardashian’s Selfish: a nail in the coffin for artistic photography?” The Guardian, 5 May 2015,
[3] Lensculture, “UCP-UMCG,”, accessed 13 June 2020.
[4] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge Classics, 2002), 45.
[5] Douglas, Purity and Danger.
[6] Douglas, Purity and Danger, 48-49.
[7] Michael Lundgren, email to author, 12 October 2015.
[8] The essay #showingandblaming in Extra no. 19 details the flak Popelier gets in great detail.
[9] Antonio Gramsci, Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (eds.), Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (International Publishers, New York, 1971), 7–8.
[10] Hannah Jane Parkinson, “Instagram, an artist and the $100,000 selfies – appropriation in the digital age,” The Guardian, 18 July 2015,
[11] Sam Anderson, “The Unselfie,” The New York Times Magazine, 9 October 2015, .
[12] The Anti-Selfie Club, accessed 22 February 2017,
[13] Mauritshuis, “Dutch Self-Portraits – Selfies of the Golden Age,” accessed 13 June 2020,
[14] Lexico, “Selfie,” accessed 14 June 2020,
[15] Jessica Durando, “Auschwitz Selfie Girl Breanna Mitchell Defends Her Controversial Picture,” Huff Post, 24 July 2014,; Samuel Osborne, “Reddit user takes selfie while his wife gives birth in the background,” The Independent, 10 November 2015,; Judith Soal, “Barack Obama and David Cameron pose for selfie with Danish PM,” The Guardian, 11 December 2013,; Haaretz, “Asymmetrical Warfare: Did Miss Israel Photobomb Miss Lebanon?” 18 January 2015,
[16] Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin Classics, 2008 [1977]), 9.
[17] Life Spam, “[Uncut] ASU sorority sisters taking selfies during Diamondbacks game,” YouTube, 1 October 2015,
[18] Nicholas Mirzoeff, How to See the World (London: Pelican, 2015), 56.
[19] Anne Burns, “Self(ie)-Discipline: Social Regulation as Enacted Through the Discussion of Photographic Practice,” International Journal of Communication, 9 (2015): 1716.
[20] Rose Troup Buchanan, “Trans man takes a selfie every day for almost 3 years to document transition,” The Independent, 8 October 2015,; BBC, “Transgender woman’s selfies document transition,” 18 June 2017,
[21] Burns, “Self(ie)-Discipline,” 1716.
[22] John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin Books, 2008), 47.
[23] Burns, “Self(ie)-Discipline,” 1727.


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