Taking selfies seriously

05/20/2014 1:53 PM

05/22/2014 6:20 AM

It takes only a few seconds scrolling through Philip Hitchcock’s Facebook page to realize the guy likes to take a selfie.

Those taken in the last few months show him in Berlin, him with his new love, him without a shirt.

Several without a shirt.

Hitchcock is what you might call an aficionado of selfies. Next month, he is staging an exhibit of the digital self-portraits.

Hitchcock joins a growing group of artists and academics who are investing serious thought to the selfie – even if he can’t resist shooting his own.

“I’m smart enough to know that it can seem incredibly shallow, narcissistic and vain,” said Hitchcock, of his impressive collection of selfies.

But, as he put it, “everyone, everywhere does it.”

That would seem to be the case.

President Obama was seen taking a selfie with prime ministers from the United Kingdom and Denmark during a memorial service for Nelson Mandela in December. Ellen DeGeneres set a record for most retweeted selfie in March after posting on Twitter a photo of herself and a bevy of actors at the Academy Awards.

Last month, Vice President Joe Biden posted his first selfie on Instagram, a shot of him with Obama. And a few weeks ago, Pope Francis walked into a crowd at St. Peter’s Square following a Palm Sunday service to pose for a few selfies.

What once was an act reserved for teenagers and attention-starved celebrities such as Kim Kardashian has seemingly been commandeered by world leaders.

Still, results of a survey by the Pew Research Center released in March show that 55 percent of millennials – those ages 18 to 33 – have posted a selfie on a social media site, compared with 26 percent of all Americans.

So ubiquitous is the self-portrait that last year the Oxford Dictionaries declared “selfie” word of the year. And the video for a song titled #SELFIE has been viewed 103 million times since it was posted Jan. 29 on YouTube.

Self-portraits, of course, are not new, going back 175 years to when photography was a burgeoning technique.

The selfie is the frat party version of the self-portrait. With phones now doing double-duty as cameras, it takes just a few seconds to take a photo of yourself, then share it on sites such as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

The latter has proven especially popular because it comes with various filtering options to make smiles look brighter and skin look clearer.

“You can present a glorious life, a glorious relationship, the look of glorious parenting and you may or may not be living any of that,” said Jennifer Siciliani, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

What selfies ultimately say about us was a hot topic at the Midwestern Psychological Association annual meeting in Chicago last year.

“We don’t have research on this yet, but there are people who are in the middle of studying it, looking at how people choose to present themselves,” Siciliani said.

Hitchcock, who runs an art gallery in St. Louis, says the inundation of selfies in our culture led him to his latest exhibit, which opens next month, featuring the cellphone self-portraits taken by about 50 people.

Hitchcock sees the selfie as more than a photo.

“It’s not only taking it but disseminating it almost immediately. It’s almost not complete until it’s been transmitted because it’s not just about who I think I am and how I want to be seen but who I think is seeing me,” he said.

Cyndi Frisby, a strategic communication professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said that with selfies, “you’re your own public relations firm and can control the image of yourself.” The photo is often posted to elicit a response.

“A certain number of likes or comments can translate into a massive increase in self-esteem” Frisby said.

Frisby admits to using photos to gauge public opinion. Earlier this month, she posted a photo of herself on Facebook taken at a hair salon where she just got out of the stylist’s chair.

“I wanted to know how people were going to respond when they saw me at school,” Frisby said. She quickly got about 70 likes as well as a string of positive comments.

“‘So I must look OK,’ I thought,” Frisby said. “And I don’t see myself with self-esteem issues.”

But are selfies art?

Well, sure, says Dan Younger, a photography professor at UMSL. It really depends on intent, he said.

But then again, you can never tell intent from a photograph, he said.

“As soon as I say this is art or this is not, there will be an argument about it,” Younger said of selfies. “I would let people decide for themselves. Is it a threat to the art of photography? I like that it’s out there and flung around.”

For Frisby, the debate over selfies is less about art than prudence.

“For every picture you post, what is your motivation?” Frisby said. “There is a fine line between it being a positive thing to being completely narcissistic.”

What that line is, no one is absolutely certain. Instagram debuted in October 2010 and in its first three years 35 million selfies were posted. As more apps come online offering photo sharing options, expect to see more selfies of your friends.

Lips puckered.

Biceps flexed.

Dressed to the nines, or barely at all.

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