The Freedom to Express Your Selfie

Selfies have become an integral part of 21st-century culture.

They are snapshots of where we are, what we’re doing, and how we feel in the moment.

But are they a new phenomenon or have they been a part of human culture for much longer?


Selfie noun ˈsel-fē

: an image of oneself taken by oneself using a digital camera especially for posting on social networks
—Merriam Webster.

 2013 was the year of the selfie … or at least “selfie” was chosen as the word of the year by the editors of Oxford Dictionaries. It saw a staggering 17,000% increase in usage in the preceding 12 months.

So, where does the word come from?

Apparently, it can be traced back to this post on an Australian forum in 2002:

Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer [sic] and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.

Dictionary editor Katherine Martin said that Australians have a habit of making up slang words with an ‘ie’ at the end.” Consider the words “barbie” for barbeque, and “tinnie” for can of beer.

In a statement, editorial director Judy Pearsall added: “The use of the diminutive -ie suffix is notable as it helps to turn an essentially narcissistic enterprise into something rather more endearing.”

Worries Over Narcissism

Have we entered an age of narcissism?

Narcissus by Caravaggio, 1596
Narcissus by Caravaggio, 1596

According to site websta, #me is the third most popular hashtag on Instagram, with a whopping 314m posts. Although not all posts are selfies, a quick scan through some of the posts reveals that most are self-portraits.

This obsession with the selfie has led some sociologists to ask what it all means.

The posing and recording of oneself must mean something they ponder. But opinions vary.

Psychiatrist Dr David Veal said that two-thirds of his patients with Body Dysmorphic Disorder have a compulsion to repeatedly take selfies.

A 19-year old patient was spending ten hours a day taking up to 200 selfies with his iPhone.

The treatment for such extreme addiction involved denying him access to his iPhone for gradually increasing periods, which the patient later described as “excruciating” in an interview with the Sunday Mirror.

“Selfies frequently trigger perceptions of self-indulgence or attention-seeking social dependence that raises the damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t spectre of either narcissism or low self-esteem,” said Pamela Rutledge in Psychology Today.

Public health officials in the UK announced that addiction to social media such as Facebook and Twitter is an illness and over 100 patients seek treatment each year.

However, a study conducted by researchers at the University of North Florida indicated that only certain aspects of Facebook use, such as the photo feature, were linked to narcissism.

The overall pattern of findings suggests that social media is primarily a tool for staying connected, rather than for self-promotion.

Social Connectedness

And staying connected is nothing new. We have been doing it across the sands of time.

Before we knew how to draw ourselves, we would use a form of hand painting, perhaps as an early way of communicating “I was here”.

These handprint paintings from Cueva de las Manos (Spanish for Cave of the Hands) in the Santa Cruz province in Argentina were made some 13,000 years ago.

Experts think they were made by placing a hand on the wall and blowing pigment at it through a pipe of some kind, to create a roughly circular area of solid pigment, leaving the uncoloured shape of the hand in the center.

Hands at the Cuevas de las Manos upon Río Pinturas, near the town of Perito Moreno in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. Credit Mariano

The Human Form as Art

Drawings of humans were rare in cave art and were usually schematic, lacking the detail of animal images.

One explanation is thought to be that painting the human form was a religious taboo.

Rock Paintings, Phillip’s Cave, Usakos Namibia. Geof Wilson, flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

But by the time of the Ancient Egyptians, we left the taboos back in the caves and become skilled at representing the human form in 2D and 3D.

Amenhotep III (left) Credit Sa.hprw and Nefertiti (right). Credit Giovanni
Amenhotep III (left) Credit Sa.hprw and Nefertiti (right). Credit Giovanni


A portrait is a representation of a person, in which the face and expression are predominant.

In addition to a faithful likeness, the personality, and even the mood of the person is captured.

Having a portrait painted or sculpted was an expensive business.

For centuries, only the wealthy and powerful could afford to commission artists with enough talent.

The subject had to sit still for hours, often looking directly at the painter to produce the most engaging image.

Queen Elizabeth I Darnley Portrait, 1575
Queen Elizabeth I Darnley Portrait, 1575
Pope Clement IX by Carlo Maratta, 1669
Pope Clement IX by Carlo Maratta, 1669


A self-portrait is a representation of an artist, drawn, painted, photographed, or sculpted by the artist.

It was not until the Early Renaissance in the mid-15th century that artists frequently depicted themselves as the main subject.

Perhaps this is when the “selfie” concept was born. Improved, cheaper mirrors made it much easier for painters and sculptors to try self-portraiture.

The only thing in painting that excites me to the depths of my soul, and which makes me feel the infinite more than anything else.Vincent van Gogh
Albrecht Dürer self-portrait in a Fur-Collared Robe
Albrecht Dürer self-portrait in a Fur-Collared Robe
Vincent van Gogh Self-portrait, 1889
Vincent van Gogh Self-portrait, 1889

The Age of Photography

Photography was one of many inventions of the industrious 19th century.

Around the beginning of the Victorian Era, Louis Daguerre developed the daguerreotype process, which required only minutes of exposure and produced clear, finely detailed results.

Generally accepted as the birth year of photography, it was commercially introduced in 1839.

The below image is thought to be the earliest known “selfie” photograph c. 1839.

First 'Selfie' photograph of Robert Cornelius, 1839
First ‘Selfie’ photograph of Robert Cornelius, 1839

By 1920, the selfie had become a group affair.

This image shows four photographers posing together and is probably the oldest known “group selfie”.

Photographer Joseph Bryon and friends on the roof of Marceau Studio in 1920. Credit Museum of the City of New York
Photographer Joseph Bryon and friends on the roof of Marceau Studio in 1920. Credit Museum of the City of New York

The popularity of self-portrait photography was no doubt helped along by the invention of the photo booth.

Although a patent was filed as early as 1888, it was not until a photo booth with a curtain arrived in the U.S. from Russia, that self-portraits gripped the public imagination.

In 1925 on Broadway in New York City, people queued to pay 25c for eight photos that were developed and printed in around ten minutes. The booth proved to be a sensation. 280,000 people used it in the first six months.

The Photomaton Company paid Anatol Josepho $1m for his invention, worth $13.5m today.

Anatol Josepho inside his photo booth
Anatol Josepho inside his photo booth

We may be mistaken for thinking the selfie is purely a human phenomenon.

But our mammalian cousins also find great pleasure in selfies.

Self-portrait of a female Celebes crested macaque (Macaca nigra) in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, who had picked up photographer David Slater's camera and photographed herself with it. Via Wikipedia. PD
Self-portrait of a female Celebes crested macaque (Macaca nigra) in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, who had picked up photographer David Slater’s camera and photographed herself with it. Via Wikipedia. PD

What Does It All Mean?

Have we become more narcissistic and self-absorbed? Perhaps it only appears that way.

Jonathan Jones of the Guardian wrote:

I think the true meaning of the selfie is obvious: it’s a rebellion against traditional photography. Photographers have always posed their victims for portaits. In the Victorian age, this meant staying still for a long time, frozen as if dead. For my family in the 1970s, having your picture taken was still a formal, awkward experience.

We have a propensity for finding new ways to integrate technology into our culture. Much as the improvements in mirror design and accessibility enabled Renaissance painters to experiment with self-portraiture, so too has the advent of digital photography—and in particular the cell phone camera with its front-facing lens — made it far easier to compose and take self-portrait photographs.

Pierre Bauduin, via Wikipedia. PD.

Jonathan Jones sums it up nicely:

From the passport photo to the family snapshot, the camera has largely been an instrument of social control, ‘stealing souls’ and imposing identities. The selfie is a revolution against the camera’s tyranny. It puts the person being photographed in control of the photograph. It is an art of freedom.

So there we have it. The selfie is an expression of freedom.

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