A Self-Portrait of the Artist as a Young Narcissist?

Earlier this week an article on the BBC website caught my eye, it addresses the social media phenomenon which has become increasingly prominent on our Facebook and Instagram feeds, namely, ‘The Rise of the Selfie’.

Being (shamelessly) guilty of more than a few self-snaps myself (see above, exhibit A), I usually reserve judgement on others’ offerings, let he without sin cast the first stone and all that biblical bollocks, but the article (this one, right here) got me thinking, why?

What is it that encourages people to flaunt these posed pictures to the digital world?

Why do people feel the need to plaster their mugs all over the world wide web?

Why do I feel the need?

I’ve never given it much consideration before, but now, casting a judgemental eye over my Instagram account I’m hesitant to admit that around 20% of my photographs could be deemed guilty of the selfie hash tag.

By that calculation, am I 20% vain? 20% narcissist? 20% attention seeking?

Even as I write the words I can foresee my dearest friends nodding their heads in agreement: “Yes love, yes you are… though 20% may be a gross underestimation”.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t consider myself particularly vain or narcissistic but as someone who spends 23 hours of the day looking like something that’s just been dragged through a bush backwards, I quite like having photographic evidence of that twenty minute period directly after fixing hair and applying make-up  before it all begins to go downhill. Its quite nice to look back and think ‘Oh, I remember that day, that was a good hair day’ or ‘I remember that night out, that was an awesome night out!’ and inevitably ‘I remember that hangover, that hangover was worth every aching moment’. That’s what I see when I look at the collection of selfies which I’ve racked up since diving into the sepia-toned world of Instagram, but other people might see it in an entirely different light.

Of course, the psychologist in me (making up under 1% of my whole self, after enduring just three months of psychology lectures in my first year of university) would concur that these self-portraits are indeed a manifestation of some underlying ‘love me, love me’ insecurity, no doubt stemming from some unfulfilled emotional need in my past (send you answers on the back of a postcard to…).

But the writer in me (making up 63% and increasing daily) is more hooked on that term ‘self-portrait’. Essentially that is what selfies are, a modern day expression of self, one self-mutilation away from Van Gogh’s masterpiece. We may be holding a camera instead of a brush, painting with flash and filter, but it is the same premise, ‘this is how I see myself’. This is how I would like the world to see me.

It isn’t necessarily the true me, or the whole self, as my bedraggled look for 23 hours of the day will confirm, but it is the filter through which we see ourselves, the fragment of self we’d like to be remembered by.

It is the same in creative writing, we hold the pen, we set the stage, give life to the characters, direct the fates, we show the reader a filtered image of ourselves, whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not.

It’s something I discussed with a fellow writer friend earlier this week, unrelated to the ‘selfie’ debate. As creative writers, everything we produce comes under the scrutiny of those who know us best, friends and loved ones, seeking out any autobiographical betrayals written between the lines. Sometimes we even surprise ourselves, not realising the source of inspiration behind a character of plot line until the second or third reading. Even the most fictitious stories are a kind of self-portrait.

As a semi-committed diarist, self-portraiture is something I’ve become cringingly familiar with. Anyone who has ever kept a diary will know what I’m talking about.

You flick through the decade old pages on which you confessed your most personal thoughts and secrets as a hormonal, thirteen year old girl and you just cringe, physically, vocally, most emphatically. And that’s you, that’s a shade of your former self making you cringe. The you who was still experimenting with fashion sense, hair colours, handwriting, friends, that is a self portrait of you becoming yourself.

Worse still when you flick through the pages of diary only three, two, one year old, and still cringe, perhaps not as dramatically because the emotions which spilled out onto the page then may still be a little raw, wounds may not have healed entirely. But there it is, the real you in black and white, a self portrait that you can’t edit. Blurring the edges or adjusting the filter won’t change it.

I kept another kind of diary a few years ago, one entirely made of up of selfies. I attempted, and inevitably failed, to keep a photographic diary, one picture a day for 365 days of the year. Looking back over the 200 or so images, they have an even greater impact than the cringe-worthy words written in decade old diaries with hearts over the ‘i’s. These selfies didn’t follow any of the Instagram standards, these images caught me not just in my preferred hour 1 state of perfect hair and make-up  they captured the me the rest of the world sees in hours 2 to 20, and sometimes the exhausted self that retreats home at hours 21 to 24. I smiled to camera when the day had made me smile, in some photos I just look fed up, in one or two it’s clear I’ve been crying.

One series of photos really brings me back, during the Rugby World Cup in 2011 when I was working two bar jobs, finishing a busy night in one bar at 3am and getting up at 6am to be in work for the televised matches in the other. Over a series of three or four days you can see the physical strain of burning the candle at both ends, running off two or three hours sleep a night, eyes still wide from the rush of adrenaline in one image, struggling to stay awake in another. The final selfie in the series is taken at around 5pm on a Sunday when I had just worked the last shift in a two week run, I had been up since 6am, operating on naps, and this picture caught me just before I KO’d for an actual real 8 hour sleep. The following day I am entirely myself again. And smiling.*

From my attempted photo diary: Candle burnt out at both ends.

From my attempted photo diary: Candle burnt out at both ends.

Weirdly, seeing the pictures now, I don’t remember how exhausted I was all that time, I remember how bizarre it was working in a bar full of drunks at 9am in the morning, serving full Irish breakfasts to people who had been going steady from the night before, these people were running on less sleep than me, but did have the advantage of alcohol on their side. I remember when cabin fever kicked in and there was no other way to keep going than by laughing and dancing.

It almost recollects as fun.

But I don’t want to do it again.

I’ve been there, I’ve taken the photo, that will do.

That’s what I like about selfies, the real ones, snapped at all hours of the day in night in various states of sobriety and mental attitudes, it’s honest.

The quote from the article which struck a chord with me was from Dr. Pamela Rutledge, from the Media Psychology Research Centre in Boston. She said that in selfies “we see ourselves alive and dynamic, a person in progress” whether that’s in weight loss or beard growth, its a snapshot of us becoming the person we want to be (very after school special I know, but we all need a taste of Sesame Street in our cynical little lives).

So if selfies are on the rise, I embrace them, after all I’m a seasoned people watcher, this way the people come to me. Yes people only tend to share the snapshots of themselves looking good (which, let’s be honest, none of us are really interested in) but it’s only natural, I’m sure even Van Gogh discarded a few self portraits where his hair just wasn’t sitting right over the bloodied bandage.

Self-portraits are a very personal thing, but all portraits are meant to be shared… unless you’re Dorian Gray.

* Further research and date checking has established that on the said date, rather than sinking into a long deserved eight hour sleep, I power napped, was in MOJO by 10pm, drinking jugs of sangria by midnight, playing darts by 2am and slipped into comatose on a friend’s sofa at around 6am.

Because you know, you can sleep when you’re dead.

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