The first selfie selected is taken by a reporter Yuzrig Meyer who reported for the Bushradio blog and is taken in Cape Town with students congregating in the background. The second selected image is taken by Michelle Gumede for the student paper Wits Vuvuzela of a student of the University of Witwatersrand (Johannesburg) enrolling in January 2016, while the university campus is locked down by security guards and police officers after bloody clashes between students and police.
The two selfies should be differentiated as the first image is an actual selfie (image maker and taker are the same person) while the second is an image of a selfie-taker (Image maker differs from image taker). In the first image the direction boards towards CPUT CT (Cape Town University of Technology) campus, and the Damelin building (Private Tertiary Training Institution) in the background are clear indicators of its location. The selfie-taker is visible in the righthand side of the image forming a montage by merging his own image with that of the protestors in the background. The second selfie-taker is wearing a T-Shirt with the slogan #FeesMustFall while making a typical selfie ‘duckface’ with the security guards looking on in the background. She is provoking the security guards by asserting her presence as a protestor in their midst.
The two images are selected to engage with the growing selfie scholarship also in the field of image studies. The selfie has predecessors in the rich tradition of artists painting portraits and self-portraits, and then democratized further with the invention of photography as a means of self-expression to include a broader audience and artistry. Until finally in the contemporary moment anyone with a smartphone can create a self-portrait or rather, take a selfie. The two images sampled here showcase the expressive and participatory possibilities of selfies as voicing dissent against the powers that be on the one hand, and on the other hand, showing solidarity with those uprising. As such they form part of a new visual activism that is created via online participation and images.
The selfie is notorious for its insertion of the human subject into the digital sphere that appear ubiquitously on social media platforms. More than any other mediating technology the front-facing smartphone has enabled the human subject to create and capture images of the self as never before. The immediacy and the circulation of selfies are extraordinary.
Depictions of the self is however not a new venture within the history of images, in fact, any reflective surface has sufficed as a tool for creating self-images in the past. Most notably the mirror which shares an intimate relationship and history with self-portraiture and self-representation. The progenitor of the selfie can probably be found in Andy Warhol’s self-portraits taken in photo booths (circa 1964-1965). The selfie that became a substantial category on its own since 2012 and 2013 has elevated self-expression to a new level. The two selfies collected here fall within the insertion of agency within the image, as both photographers insert themselves and their subjects within political events. In the first selfie, the creator can only be seen in the bottom half of the image so that the world behind him becomes visible. In the second selfie, the photographer also puts the selfie-taker on display surrounded by an environment of contestation. The images state: look at me but even more importantly, look over my shoulder at the world behind me. I am a witness to these events, and by sharing this image with you, you are also now becoming complicit and a witness to the event. It is a calling forth of a visible agency.
The attempt of the artists to show his or her witnessing of an event – being there – is also not a new endeavour in the history of images. We are reminded of Jan van Eyck’s (1390-1441) signature and presence left in the small mirror in The Arnolfini Portrait (1434), and later Diego Velázquez’s (1599-1660) mocking presence in the company of royalty in Las Meninas (1656). In all these instances, the artists insert or interject themselves into the picture plane. In the case of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s (1880–1938) Self-Portrait as Soldier (1915) we see the artist inserting himself into the horrors of war, with an arm lost (although only imaginary), trying to work through the aftermaths of terror. Granted it is not the same interjection we see as in the case of the selfies but one may argue that something of that tradition of witnessing, making present, announcing an event is already born in these earlier examples from Western art history.
The selfies selected here as part of the #FeesMustFall events testify to being present to a historical event and also to being interpellated into the activities. Interpellation as used by the French Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser shows the status of the individual as always already being a subject subjugated in terms of power and ideology. The selfie makes that power hegemony visible as the subject negotiates his or her status apropos the powerful and ideological hegemony. There is an awareness in the #FeesMustFall selfie that not only bears witness to the riotous event but also positions the self in a particular participatory and supportive position towards what is happening. As Yuzrig Meyer euphorically states about his participatory #FeesMustFall selfie: “I may not have been around in the apartheid era in freedom struggle as an active participator, but from my experience of today I (sic) may have a better understanding to what it was like to be in the atmosphere of passionate comrades and the feeling of camaraderie in the air.” It is both an act of uncovering how power works, by making power visible, especially in the second selfie, and showing solidarity with the riots by inserting the face of selfie-taker as a montage onto the events in the background, as in the case of the first selfie.
These two selfies could also be interpreted as decolonising images as they disrupt what can be considered to be colonizing powers and assert themselves as agents of what Nicholas Mirzoeff (2011) terms “the right to look” and moreover, asserting “the right to be seen”. These two images refuse to look the other way by pretending nothing is happening. Instead, they inject themselves into the event and confront us as viewers with their message.
Discussion of the interpretations:
If we accept the interpretation that these two selected examples of selfies create a new decolonized agency by inserting themselves as both witness and participant of the #FeesMustFall events, it can be suggested that selfies allow for an expansion to the gamut of the traditional self-portrait. The contribution or democratic expansion of the selfie to the history of self-portraiture can be identified in at least the following three categories, namely skills required, immediacy, and generating a broader reach expanding the self-portrait genre. These three categories are not exhaustive but add to the meanings attributed to the two #FeesMustFall selfies.
In the case of skills, one does not require much talent or particular artistic skill to take a selfie. Where the self-portrait traditionally required set skills in the medium utilized for creating the self-portrait, whether painting, sculpture, etching or photography, the artists had to master basic techniques. This is not the case for producing a selfie. One merely requires a front-facing smartphone and the willingness to share in order to create a selfie. In this respect the selfie can be interpreted as a democratizing tool.
Similarly, whereas the creation of a traditional self-portrait mostly implied time (duration) and space for the artwork to be executed and to be exhibited, the selfie can be immediately uploaded online and shared. The selfie also potentially has a far broader reach than the traditional self-portrait as it can be viewed by hundreds (conservatively estimated) of viewers immediately after being shared. The selfie thus further democratizes the self-portrait by being available instantly and anywhere. The selfie is not bounded by time or place and space, as is the traditional self-portrait – it crafts a tele-presence.
Although, like all images the selfie is a complex and multi-layered occurrence and therefore not all selfies produced can be considered as democratizing and destabilizing agents. What is however accurate for most selfies is that they expand the genre of self-portraiture in significant ways.
published November 2019