In 2016, Kim Kardashian broke the internet with a mother’s day selfie. We’ve all seen the picture; she’s stood in front of a mirror wearing pretty much her birthday suit. It becomes such a big deal that Emily Ratajkowski and Kim Kardashian go on to recreate the thing. Break the internet twice! Why is this such a big deal though?
Before I actually jump into the actual article, I want to highlight that this is written less from a place of “this is photography,” “this is how you take a photograph,” “this camera is great,” and more from a place of more broadly talking about image-making practices.
There really isn’t a right answer. Or a wrong answer. Heck, there might not even be any answer at all. Just a discussion.
So, with that, buckle up, take in what you can, reject what doesn’t resonate with you, and let’s have a discussion in the comments below. I look forward to reading your thoughts!
Prior to the invention of cameras, the only way to have a self-portrait was to either paint it yourself, or to commission an artist to create one for you. Of course, the former was difficult without the requisite tools and skill base; and the latter was only possible for those who could afford one, such as royalty, nobility, or later, the rising merchant classes.
Once cameras were invented, portraiture became more democratic in that it was more accessible. Photography wasn’t nearly as time-consuming or expensive as a painting.
In both painting and photography, unless you had the required equipment and skills, self-portraits still weren’t readily made. That is to say, only a painter could make a self-portrait painting. Only a photographer could photograph a self-portrait photograph. Outside of this, there was still the mediation between the patron to artist to image.
The selfie (and by extension, self-portraiture) has only become accessible in a widespread and meaningful way within about the last 25 years.
Jean-Paul Sartre was a French philosopher whose work helped define philosophy for the 20th century. Sartre defines three states of being.
In-itself: is what it is and nothing else. A cup is a cup and nothing else. Glasses are only ever glasses.
For itself: exists in self. So, I might be a student. But I’m also a photographer. I cook. I go on hikes. These are ways in which my definition of self is internalized.
For others: having the self-awareness that your own “in-itself”-ness (as viewed by others) is reductive.
So, I might be “for itself” an entrepreneur. But my “in itself,” as viewed by “for others,” is based on their belief of myself.
In Othered Body, Obscene Self(ie): A Sartrean Reading of Kim Kardashian-West, Else Dowden argues (and in my opinion, correctly so) that through the selfie, our sense of self of “for others” and “for itself” merges, in a way. For the first time, people, especially women, are able to take ownership of their own image.
As the image has traditionally been mediated through others (in both what the image looks like, as well as how that’s disseminated), having both access to creating images and sharing images of courses changes the power paradigm of the self as well as the self-image.
A convention is a kind of like an unspoken “rule” for images. We intuitively know these rules (and we’ve all pretty much seen them at one point or another). As an example, stock photography is riddled with them.
You look at stock images of university or college students, and they're always the same: clean cut with not a piercing or tattoo in sight, traditional hair and clothes, almost as if they’re about to ask you for a cucumber sandwich or something, and always so danged delightfully happy.
Go to a real university or college campus, and not only do students not look or dress like that, but who is that happy?
That’s a convention.
Most stock photos are actually like that. Stock photos of office workers, families, tradespeople. All the same conventions of acceptability apply to the image. Clean cut. “Normal.” Acceptable.
These images are created through the lens of Sartre’s “being for others.” So, any deviation to that upsets that framework.
I’ve very briefly touched a bunch of topics without actually talking about that selfie. So, let’s circle back to it. Why is it such a big deal?
You have to take inventory of who Kim is as a person: a woman of color with a large social platform who has taken ownership of her own image. People of color were traditionally only photographed as the “other” — "exotic" or "savage."
Women were really only thought of in relation to others (wife, mother, daughter). This was actually a lot of the criticism the selfie receives as well. Celebrities, traditionally, had their image controlled by the media. Social media shifts some of that power back.
Once you consider all of these things (and probably so many more that I haven’t mentioned here), you realize how many conventions were actually broken by a single image. And then, once you realize that, you can consider how the power shift that social media allows is simply just a catalyst for broader shifts in conversation.
What does all of this really mean?
For the longest time, we as humans didn’t really have the power to control our own image or how we are presented. For the first time, we are experiencing a shift in the power dynamics of image-making.
The power of modern cell phones allows not only the creating of any image you can imagine but also the power to share it with any other person who has a phone and access to the internet. Because of this, we’re beginning to see a shift (and almost of merging) of “being for itself” and “being for others.”
I asked a few Fstoppers writers and staff to share some selfies for this article. These folks could have photographed themselves literally any which way, and this is what they did.
Thinking about conventions and Sartre’s states of being, do any stand out more than others? Why or why not?