Selfies: Testaments to Transience
Selfies have a bad reputation these days. But as with most things, even selfies can elicit a reflection on the deeper implications of the persistence of our being. More specifically, something quite significant happens to the selfie, when the arbitrariness with which we take selfies, is taken away and instead is replaced with the consistency of every day. Through consistency, it becomes a testament to our transformation and a way to illustrate the paradox of life and aging. Taking many selfies over an extended period of time gives rise to Sorites Paradox. The sheer consistency of images makes it difficult to see the change in age, it becomes impossible for us to pinpoint an exact moment of transition. When do we change from being babies to children, children to teenagers, teenagers to adults, adults to old age? The practice of taking a selfie every day, simultaneously reveals and veils the answer to this question.
La Grande Bellezza by Paolo Sorrentino uses a fictitious account of someone, who takes a selfie every day to allow the character Jep, to explore his own confrontation with age and transformation. By locating the scene within Italy's beautiful architecture, light, and atmosphere and adding some emotional music, the "great beauty" of human transcience and decay (happening daily) is portrayed in the tearing-up eyes of Jep.
We see Jep Gambardella walking through a courtyard, whose surrounding walls are completely covered in a tapestry made up of small square photographs: selfies. The scene begins with Jep, asking the unnamed artist “what inspired this exhibit?” The artist responds that the idea arose out of the simple fact that his father took one picture a day of his newborn child. Then, from the age of 14, the artist continued himself, by taking selfies – never missing a day. His expressions are different in every shot. However, there’s a crucial inconsistency in how the idea of “taking a selfie every day” manifests in this fictional depiction. The background. Perhaps due to aesthetic purposes, the background is a neutral white wall for every picture. Very unrealistic and perpahs even idealistic.
When comparing this to a real-life example of someone who took a selfie every day for 20 years, the most astonishing things occur in the background, behind and surrounding the "self".
Noah Kalina, is probably the most prominently known real-life example of someone who uses the selfie as an artistic and philosophical tool to explore the passage of time, the self, and the everchanging context around us. Noah’s compilation of 20 years of selfies reveals something that La Grande Bellezza fails to show. It highlights the fact that a selfie is always taken within a context; a selfie, like the self, does not exist in a vacuum. It is not pure vanity, it is reassurance and reverence for the fragility of the many "selves" we inhabit through time. Noah’s selfies contain so much other life: his friends and family; the spaces around him; his home; his studio; random spaces; bathrooms; living rooms, and public spaces. All of which are in constant flux. One can even see the development of technology. In the beginning, the background captures an early, chunky computer, but slowly the technology slims down. Simultaneously, Noah’s face goes through phases of slimming and filling. Thus, the selfie (and all the other information that it contains apart from its subject), gives rise to this very beautiful illustration of the vagueness of simultaneous aging and the process of circadian regeneration. (Have a look at Noahs's video – his hair is the most charming and versatile character of his journey through time)
As Pawliszyn says in his paper on The Metaphysics of Self, The Selfie as a Splinter of Modern Culture:
“In the photograph I am depicted at a given moment of my life, in entire naturalness or even innocence. What is given to the entity looking at the photo is a fragment of the natural world, filled with me, as well as with everything surrounding me…A selfie is another way of depicting or expressing reality. This is an attack of the present day occurring now, even an attempt to dominate me. Mutual struggle between me and the surroundings is the dispute taking place inside the time going on.” (p.6)
To interpret the selfie as pure vanity is to discredit the surprising contextual value it can offer. I’m sure that if you try to find the last selfie you have of yourself, and you focus on the background rather than the self, you will find something revealing about that moment in time, something you didn’t even realise at the time.
“Context is what appears when you hold your attention open long enough; the longer you hold it, the more context appears.” (How to do Nothing by Jenny Oddell, p.155)