Selfies: pioneers of a visual revolution?

They are not just a narcissistic fad. They're also this generation’s richest form of communication –  or so they tell Lena Corner

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The Independent Tech

What to say about the selfie? Are they in or out? Good or bad? Dying a death or potent symbol of our narcissist times? And which to do? A no-make-up selfie? Gym selfie? After-sex selfie? Is it OK to airbrush? Do temporary snaps from photo-messaging app Snapchat count? And what if, after all that, no one bothers to “like” it?

It seems barely a week goes by without a selfie setting the news agenda. There’s the thumbs-up selfie by 19-year old terminally ill Stephen Sutton from what was very nearly his deathbed, which went viral and raised £3m in the process. There were those taken by Pope Francis commemorating Holy Week with fans at the Vatican. There was the first selfie from Space; that Obama funeral selfie; the Ellen DeGeneres Oscar selfie – the most retweeted ever – and of course carefully staged-managed selfies of Kim Kardashian’s bum.

The way we have been clamouring on about the selfie, especially since the word wheedled its way into our dictionaries recently, is as if we have stumbled upon something new and brilliant and profound. In fact, we have been taking selfies for the best part of the past century. There’s a photo that has done the rounds on Twitter of five moustachioed men on the roof of the Marceau Studio in New York, peering into the lens of an old analogue camera they are holding at arm’s length. It’s arguably the world’s first selfie. The date is December 1920.

“We didn’t have a word for it until recently,” says Jason Feifer, creator of the infamous Selfies at a Funeral Tumblr. “And it is that word, I think, which helped propel it into a cultural focal point. Will we get bored of taking selfies? I doubt it. Selfies are a convenient way to document yourself. But I’m sure we’ll get bored of talking about selfies, or treating them as if they’re new.”

The fact is, we live in a world in which we are all armed with cameraphones. And the generation that has grown up with them has created a new visual language which is understood by both sender and recipient, shortcutting anything as laborious as text. So we asked them if they could spare a moment, between filling our timelines with self-portraits, to explain themselves…

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The gym fanatic - Amy Ball, 23

"There was a time when I wouldn't have considered taking a picture of myself. I used to weigh 17 stone and hated the way I looked. If someone tagged a picture of me on Facebook, I'd hide it.

"Then about two years ago I found the willpower to do something about it and lost six-and-a-half stone. I started taking selfies then because suddenly I liked the way I looked. When I was big, I was always thinking people were looking at me going, god, she's fat. Now I don't care.

"I train twice a day, six times a week and most of my selfies are taken in the gym. Sometimes when I get really hyper I take loads and send them to friends. There are masses of gym selfies online. Often they're of a girl in full make-up, gym kit and a duck-face pout. I find that kind of selfie annoying. The pictures I take are never for attention or for lads.

"I've taken thousands and thousands of pictures of myself. I have no idea how many. I had to get on [online file-hosting service] Dropbox because I ran out of space to store them all. It sounds vain, but I'm not vain at all.

"I do collages on Instagram where I get a picture of me from a few years ago and another one of me now and splice them together to make a before and after shot. It feels really good. I think I look good. I might as well let other people see that too."

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The aspiring pop star - Charlie Jones, 14

"I am massively inspired by Justin Bieber. He is a talented guy and his fans are crazy about him. He started his career at 14 - the same age I am now. Twitter and Instagram have been crucial to his career. He usually uploads one or two selfies a day. I usually upload about three.

"I'd love to follow in his footsteps. I've just released my first single; it's called 'Belieber for Life' and it's all about Justin Bieber fans. So far it's had about 330,000 views on YouTube.

"Like Justin, taking selfies is a massive part of what I do. I upload them all the time, as it's a way of updating my followers with what I'm doing throughout the day - whether I'm in the studio or out with my friends.

"I've got about 7,500 followers on Twitter now. I wouldn't have a fraction of my fans if it weren't for social media, because that's how I communicate. I check my phone constantly. I think it's totally natural to take a photo and put it on Instagram. It's nothing to do with being vain. Everyone I know does it. It's just updating your status through a picture."

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The purist - Isabel Pullman, 15

"I take about 40 selfies a day, but that's including Snapchat. Rather than sending someone a text, I'll send them a snap of myself. I know it's a lot, but it's just another way of communicating.

"If I'm meeting friends on the weekend, we always take selfies. It's not like we plan to, it's just something we do. It's a habit now. It's awful! I would never take a selfie in Nando's because there are older people there and that would be embarrassing. I'll do it in my own home or at a party because that would be full of other people taking selfies as well.

"I'll happily send unattractive pictures of myself to my friends because I know who they are sharing it with, but if it's a boy who I don't know that well, I'd definitely only send a nice one.

"People talk about other people's pictures so much. There is competition to see how many 'likes' we can get. The most I've had was something like 119. Some people delete their pictures if they don't get enough. There is a lot of pressure to look as good as you do in your profile picture. It means you have to look perfect 24/7; if you don't, you get called a fake.

"I think it is vain. But as teenagers it's natural to be obsessed with yourself. We don't have husbands or kids or a job. Our main focus at this age is ourselves. My mum said that when she was a teenager, whatever reflective surface she could find to look in, she would. This is just a new way of doing that.

"For me, the positives outweigh the negatives. It is a nice feeling when you go on Instagram and you've got X number of followers or 'likes'. Or when someone walks past you and says, 'Oh, that photo you've got on Instagram is so pretty,' it's great. It gives you a boost of self-esteem."

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The model - Charley Simmonds, 28

"I started taking selfies when I got an iPhone about four years ago. I do a bit of modelling and singing, and I realised that taking pictures of myself and putting them on Twitter was potentially a way to get more work. I think of it as my online portfolio and it's definitely boosted my profile. I've now got almost 7,000 followers.

"I probably take about 30 selfies a week but I don't upload them all. It usually takes me about an hour to get ready. I tend to look away from the camera as if I'm gazing at something else and I experiment with angles all the time. I think my best selfies are the ones with my head at an angle taken from the left. That's my better side.

"I have lots of male followers. Most of them say things like, you look lovely or you look hot. Some ask if I'll post topless or nude, but I don't do naked. And some ask if I want to work in the glamour industry but I'm not interested in that either. A while back I put up some pictures of me in my underwear but realised it wasn't getting me the attention I wanted. It was just guys who wanted to play with themselves. So I took them down. I have a much better response when my clothes are left on.

"There are loads of people doing naked selfies on Twitter but I think it's desperate and tacky. If you're getting paid good money for it, good for you, but why do it for nothing? Seventy per cent of why I do this is to try to get work out of it. The rest is because I've got followers asking for pictures, so I try to keep them happy.

"My ambition is to get a record deal. I work with a rapper called T-Dot and he's just booked me a studio. If I could make money from that it would be my dream come true. You don't have to be naked to get good work."

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The photography student - Owen Law, 17

"I'm studying photography at college, so I suppose I understand flattering angles and lighting a little better than others. Taking selfies is just a pastime. I'll do one if I've spent time getting ready and have 10 minutes to spare, or if I'm feeling good about myself. 'Likes' aren't important and I certainly don't crave attention.

"I think it's a bit odd that it's become such a big part of our popular culture. People have been taking pictures of themselves in the mirror with their phones since mobiles first came with cameras. It's just that as technology has advanced and we now have high-quality cameras on the front of our mobiles, it's become second nature.

"It's wrong to say that older generations don't understand selfies, but I would say that the people who have grown up with this technology will migrate more naturally towards it. I think that visual communication is now as important as speech."

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The activist - Olivia Whitton, 22

"Taking a selfie doesn't mean you are narcissistic or fishing for compliments. It doesn't mean you are shallow and self-absorbed either. There is huge negativity and stigma surrounding selfies, and given that girls take many more than boys, it's definitely a feminist issue.

"I started a project, #ForYourSelfie, earlier this year in an attempt to reclaim the power of the selfie and turn it into something good. It started out in one of my women's studies classes where we were asked to bring in natural-looking selfies. I was shocked by how uncomfortable my classmates felt about taking their own pictures and how insecure they were about the way they looked.

"I've now collected hundreds of selfies on my site. I hope that by reclaiming the selfie in this way we can begin to address issues about unattainable media perceptions of beauty.

"Beauty doesn't mean unnaturally skinny with a face free of blemishes and perfect teeth. Doing it our way means we can affirm our own beauty and boost our self-esteem."

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The ‘Selfie King’ - Benny Winfield, 38

“They call me the king of the selfie movement. I first posted a selfie in December 2012 as a joke. It got retweeted and retweeted and then started trending on Twitter. Overnight I went from having zero followers to 8,000.

“I’ve posted a new selfie virtually every day since. Every day I take the same picture – I’m always smiling and I always have my eyes turned towards the camera as if I’m looking into your soul. I like to think of them as Mona Lisas for the modern age.

“People either love it or hate it. Some people think it’s hilarious, others that I’m arrogant and egotistical. It’s funny because I’m totally the opposite. I’m a goofy person who just likes to make people laugh.

“I couldn’t ever have dreamt my life would take this direction. It has brought me fame and celebrity. I now get stopped in the street by people wanting to have their photo taken with me. I love it.

“I printed up some T-shirts with my face on and I’ve sold about 3,000 of them [see shop.chillteeshouston.com]. My aim is to get businesses to use my face as a way of promoting their products and then eventually maybe get a TV show. I’m hoping I’ll be able to give up my job as a security guard later this year. I didn’t set out to do this. It just happened.” *

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