I am not sure I even remember my first selfie. It was definitely taken on a 35mm semi-automatic film camera, and definitely using a timer. It probably involved precarious balancing – both of the camera, and of me. I was probably 19. While I may have taken self-portraits at most twice a year, millions of people now take multiple self-portraits daily. As a genre, selfography bloomed in the 2010s. It found a home in social media, travelling from MySpace, to Facebook and beyond. But it’s not the internet that makes today’s selfies different from the self-portraits I took as a young woman; its little things like face recognition, auto-focus, and the ability to reliably take photos at close range.
The bathroom or public toilet has become a ubiquitous setting for selfographers worldwide. Well lit, often private, with a nice big mirror. Why weren’t we all taking photos in bathrooms when I was in my teens? Because most of us couldn’t afford the macro lenses that allowed you to take a photo in such a small space, and even if you could, you never knew what the camera had focussed on while you were smiling hopefully into its big black eye. Digital cameras and their user-friendly technology have created a new genre in photography that plays to the advantages of auto-focus, auto-exposure, face recognition, and close range. Selfies quickly became a visual style, where subjects often photographed themselves looking upwards at the camera creating a flattering distortion of the face. Then came the duckfaces.
With informal, popular standards for selfie taking, comes the possibility for selfie subversion and selfie play. For at least my first year as a facebook user, I rebelled. I tried to look bad in selfies to break the monotony of smiling eyes and strategically blown out complexions. I used tomato sauce and chicken feathers to create a Halloween selfie for my profile picture that was also a tribute to Anne Noble’s photography. And I don’t even celebrate Halloween.
In 2013 the National #Selfie Portrait Gallery, at the Moving Image Contemporary Art Fair in London, became one of the first exhibitions to take selfies seriously. Two years later the Charlotte Museum Trust is doing the same with our ‘Me Myselfie I’ exhibition, due to open at the Charlotte Gallery on 16 August.
As many in our community know all too well, lesbians don’t always get the opportunity to define themselves for the world: to put their real selfies forward. Lesbians have been medicalized, stigmatised, pathologised, categorised, and misunderstood for years. In 1886 Richard von Krafft-Ebing published Sexual Psychopathy: A Clinical-Forensic Study where he identified lesbianism as pathology. For Kraft-Ebing, sexual inversion (the reversal of gender roles) was the result of poor breeding and poverty. A little later in 1897 Havelock Ellis published Sexual Inversion. Ellis associated lesbianism with sadism and bestiality as sexual deviations. For Sigmund Freud, who began writing at about the same time, all humans were born bisexual, where proper healthy psychological development resulted in heterosexuality, not homosexuality. When teenagers Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme conspired to kill Parker’s mother in New Zealand in 1954, their apparently lesbian relationship was used as evidence of a medical illness during the trial. Internationally, this postwar period saw women who loved women medicalised as promiscuous, predatory, and psychopathic. Many of us live and have lived under this shadow.
In a world where others have always had the job of defining us, the Charlotte Museum Trust believes the selfie is an awesome medium for reclaiming ownership of what it means to be a lesbian.
And selfies are also a whole lot of fun. Let’s not forget the fun.
And thus The Charlotte Museum Trust wants your selfies! As an added incentive we are also offering a tidy little competition. Our judge Jac Lynch will select two selfies to be professionally printed and mounted by Imagelab, to be sent to the winners at the close of the show.
Entries for both the exhibition and the competition close 29 July. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for an entry form, but do be quick!
Open to New Zealand residents only. Terms and Conditions apply.