Selfie and the experience of the virtual image

Gabriela Farías , Puebla, Mexico


 Don’t cry, I’m sorry to have deceived you so much, but that’s how life is.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita


People know the world through images; new realities are created and new identities are developed. Consequently, portraits may become a representation of one’s personality and a reflection of the society of spectacle. These digital pictures change the experience of memory and inherently trace back to photographs. Thus, the “screen” mediates the relations among people and the information flow carrying different meanings. In this way, the photographic material and the virtual image will be analyzed, and distinctions will be noted regarding the aesthetic experience, specifically regarding the self-portrait and the selfie.

Keywords: Photography, virtual image, selfie, self-portrait, and aesthetic experience.

The photographic image

Images are the core of society today; they have become the means of massive communication and, therefore, the essence of daily life. Humans have become homus photographicus. Almost every person has a camera, whether it is in a cellphone, iPad, tablet, point and shoot or any other device. People have learned to express emotions, ideas and concepts through images regardless of its complexity.

Photos may be digital images but not every image is a photograph. In this section, the photographic image will be considered as a print, different from the virtual image, based on their structure, materiality and distribution.

In general, the image is defined as a figure, the representation of something. That is, the copy of an object, a mental representation subject to cognition and interpretation. In that regard, Flusser (2001) writes about images as containers of signified meaning, as an abstraction of something projected into time and space. From ancient cultures and civilizations, the copy made of an object represents that entity along with other attributions given by individuals or a group. In that way, a symbol is created.

Pictures are a means to transmit ideas and even knowledge, since they are the bases of visual communication and they are also a cultural product.

When an artistic representation (drawing, painting, engraving) of an object is made, there is a certain distance between the copy and the original due to skills and techniques used by the author. This is what makes the art unique and provides an aura as Benjamin stated in 1936. However, upon the arrival of photography and the reproducibility of images, this gap is reduced to such an extent that the object depicted may be taken as the object itself conveying its authenticity. In this way, sight is the preferred sense emphasizing that seeing is believing. The image is proof of the subject’s existence, “it has been” as Barthes affirms, undeniably in a specific time and space.

However, the object portrayed no longer subsists, the photograph becomes a testimony, an index of a former event. Then, the picture has a diachronic relationship with the beholder, who has a memory and builds an emotional connection based on something that only exists in the past. In that regard, the image retains significance over time as if it were a ghost, the meaning remains on the surface. In fact, Brea argues that it (the material-image) remains static as a result of their production process in which there is a specific and unique time lapse (Brea, 2010; 113). The material photograph is always in delay, “it has been” and the significance is retrieved through diachronic memories.

Before the appearance of the virtual image, photographs (and previously painted portraits) were consumed, generally in a more intimate context, for example in a private album or they were displayed in the family room. The aesthetic experience was closer to a painting and according to Moxey (2013), the meaning was clear, that is, the viewers easily appreciated the significance since the portrait was conceived for a particular audience in a certain time. In contrast, virtual pictures are distributed in a different way and have diverse spectators.

Fig.1 Hippolyte Bayard, 1840
Fig.1 Hippolyte Bayard, 1840

The material images, under their production scheme, are prone to depict the world as a canvas, the medium determines how people look, read sings and tell stories. Additionally, the narratives are considered to be truthful because, in order to photograph an object, it has to exist; it has a referent, contrary to painting, where the artist may create chimeras based on imagination.

Nonetheless, the veracity of a picture may be questioned since it could be staged or transformed into something else, even something that is not as it appears in reality. For example, a portrait may be an idealistic version of a person, an alter ego or simply not the subject as known in daily life. To illustrate further, the case of Hippolyte Bayard becomes interesting to mention. In 1840, Bayard photographed himself as a drowned man, and people who saw the picture believed it was real. At the time, these images were believed to be real because a mechanic device, a camera, had taken them. In this way, Bayard created an alternative reality, where he was found dead.

In the 19th century people may have been keener to be deceived, but what happens when images are mass created? Presently, the sense of unreality is inherent and it is harder to believe that the subject “has been” the way it is portrayed….Access Full Text of the Article

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