In Defense of the Selfie

Selfies look like the very expression of narcissism, but our columnist argues that maybe these images mean just a little bit more.

I remember the first selfie I took. It was in 2011, while I was visiting my friend Jill in Indianapolis. I wanted someone to take a picture of us, and she grabbed my phone and said, “Actually, I think we can just turn the camera to face us.” I had just gotten an iPhone a few months before and didn’t even know that was a thing. But our faces suddenly appeared before me. It was jarring. I smiled and clicked.

Illustration by Julia Yellow

According to my iCloud account, I now have 773 selfies. While many of them belong to my daughter, who uses my account on the iPad, it’s safe to say I now know my way around a selfie. I have often pretended to hate selfies, because I fear turning the camera to face me smacks of narcissism. The truth is I kind of love them.

I suspect my dad loved them, too, because of what we found in the file cabinet in the garage.

Last year, my mom decided it was time to fix a longtime leak in the foundation of her house. The crew doing the work needed to access the garage, which meant we needed to help her clean out said garage, including the unwieldy old metal file cabinet that had belonged to my dad. He died in 2013, and we had sorted through much of his stuff already. But we’d stalled out when we got to the file cabinet, because it had a trick drawer that got easily stuck and because the man saved everything. I’m talking pay stubs dating back to his first job in the 1940s. With workers scheduled to start jackhammering any day, though, we knew it was time to dig in.

My dad was a wonderful amateur photographer, and growing up I recall him always having a camera around his neck. I knew his interest in photography blossomed when he was stationed in Germany in the early 1950s, and I remember several of the pictures he took from that time.

But in that cumbersome file cabinet, my sisters and I found stashes of photos we had never seen. With delight and awe, we opened cigar boxes impossibly stuffed with tattered yellow Kodak envelopes, each bearing the smudgy blue ink of my dad’s unmistakable handwriting: “CPL HJ KETTELER, 4th Signal Co. APO 39.” He had scribbled details (like “Wildflecken, May 1954”) on some envelopes and penciled in captions on the backs of many of the black-and-white prints.

In addition to documenting post-World War II Germany—the rubble and the rebuilt spires, the hillsides and the people—these photographs also document him. Among the few hundred images were dozens of self-portraits. No two were the same. Sometimes he was looking off center, posed with intent. Other times, his eyes quietly challenged the camera. The shots captured a mix of moods: lightness as he posed with his coffee inside the truck he drove, a slight smile on his face, and intensity when he stared down the cam­era with a cigarette in his mouth. It was always apparent that he was a solider.

Photograph courtesy of Judi Ketteler

Something else was apparent, too: These were basically selfies. True, there was no social media back then—but something about his self-portraits feels anachronistically “social.” I imagine him developing the shots and sharing them with his fellow GIs, who were also frequent photographic subjects, or shuffling through the prints and sending his favorite self-portrait home to his mother and sisters. What I’m saying is that his selfies don’t strike me as private. They feel as if they’re serving some purpose beyond being an artistic exercise about light and contrast.

We don’t really know what to think about selfies. A recent study tried to figure out if “selfitis”—an unhealthy obsession with taking selfies—might be an actual condition, after there was a hoax article about it. It’s kind of funny. And not. The study mapped the selfie habits of about 400 university students in India, and from those habits the authors created a behavior scale—ranging from borderline to chronic—to describe the levels of selfitis.

The study authors don’t have a conclusive takeaway, other than to say this might be a thing we need to look at further because some people in the world may or may not have semi-serious problems with taking and posting selfies. When I hear stories about people spending their entire vacation trying to get the perfect selfie, I agree there is something unhealthy going on. In fact, the researchers found that people take selfies for a variety of reasons, many of which have to do with conformity and boosting social status. But they also identified a category of motivations related to making meaning.

So often, when I turn the camera to face me, that’s what I’m aiming to do. For example, last July I was in Savannah, Georgia, for business, which meant long days spent with a client. Several days, I got up at 6 a.m. to run, just to have some time to myself. One morning, I ran halfway across the Talmadge Memorial Bridge, a sketchy thing to do because it’s frighteningly high—engineered to accommodate supersize barges moving up and down the river. Also, traffic moves fast. But its striking architecture beckoned me, and I knew it would be the perfect vantage point to see the sun rise over the river.

We associate selfies with fakeness, but when I look at my dad’s selfies and my own, I believe that these quick self-portraits designed to be shared can also originate from a more honest intention.

Standing in the middle of that bridge, seeing that pink cottony sky and the way the light cast itself over the sleepy city, was a transcendent moment for me. I lifted my phone, took a selfie, and posted it to Instagram later that day. I didn’t post it because I was self-absorbed. I definitely didn’t post it because I thought I looked pretty. (I looked pretty terrible, to be honest.) I posted it because the experience was so meaningful to me, and I wanted to claim the moment for myself and share it. To say, Sometimes you catch the sunrise from a freaky high bridge and it changes how the day feels. Here is a slice of me doing that, and maybe you will find a slice of something meaningful today too.

After spending many an afternoon staring at the pictures my dad took, I’ve come to the conclusion that he was also attempting to make meaning with his version of the selfie. After all, he always said that when he got drafted in 1952 he assumed he was going to die in Korea. Instead, he was sent to Europe to join NATO forces. He realized his good fortune, even as he had to dig ditches and follow orders without question. To me, his self-portraits say, It is neither all good nor all bad, but I am lucky as hell. Here are some moments, and here I am living them as best I can, because that’s what we do.

Maybe he took these self-portraits because he wanted his widowed mother to see that he was OK. Maybe he wanted to show himself that he was OK. Maybe he wanted to celebrate that he made it through another boring field maneuver. Maybe all of it. Maybe none of it. But I’m his daughter, and we’re wired similarly enough that I feel like my instinct to turn the camera on myself on the Talmadge Bridge is not so different than his instinct to take a picture of himself sitting inside his Army truck or drinking beer with his buddies.

We associate selfies with fakeness, but when I look at my dad’s selfies and my own, I believe that these quick self-portraits designed to be shared can also originate from a more honest intention. Maybe we’re obsessed with ourselves. So what? We’re the ones walking our bodies through life—on trails and bridges, at monuments and under sunsets, with friends and alone—and showing how we see ourselves in those moments needn’t be a disorder.

My dad never owned a smart phone and had no concept of social media, but I think he would have loved Instagram when he was a solider. He would have felt joy and meaning in sharing these little moments with the world. And I would have hearted them all.

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