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That Selfie Isn't Self-Love -- It's Activism

Sticking yourself in a photo doesn't necessarily mean you're a narcissist.

It’s not great to take selfies at Auschwitz, but why? What part of it is morally wrong, exactly?

Mona Kasra, who is getting her PhD in arts and technology at the University of Texas at Dallas, looked around a small convention center meeting room for an answer.

No one could quite put their finger on it.

I went to a South By Southwest panel called “Speaking Duckface to Power” expecting humor, a gentle ribbing of the teens. But the title here wasn’t a joke.

Kasra and Lea Muldtofte Olsen, who are studying aesthetics and communication at Aarhus University in Denmark, gave an impassioned plea to rethink selfies and see them as something more than simple narcissism.

Selfies receive a lot of cultural stigma, they said, largely because they’re most popular among tweens. But never underestimate the tween. Like texting or Snapchatting, selfie photos are changing from silly to serious very quickly — becoming “an assertion of the self into space.” Now, there are political movements using the selfie as their primary mode of protest.

Kasra cued up a series of Auschwitz selfies that were categorized with hashtags like #IsThisImmoral, as well as more mundane hashtags indicating family vacations and such.

“We really don’t know the definition of selfie or how to respond to selfies,” she said. “We don’t know how to respond to people using and taking them perhaps at funerals or places they’re not supposed to.”

Someone in the audience suggested the problem wasn’t the selfie but all the hashtagging that seemed bad. Kasra asked the audience why hashtagging was bad, and no one quite knew how to answer that, either.

Then Kasra highlighted two movements that are using selfies to give political campaigns a sense of intimacy and urgency.

In Tunisia, protestors upset over the government’s inefficiency began taking “Trash Selfies,” self-portraits with trash in the background.

“Trash Selfie”
“Trash Selfie”

In Florida and Texas, lawmakers are trying to make it illegal for trans people to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. Trans people have begun taking bathroom selfies to show the absurdity of the proposed legislation and rallying around the hashtag #WeJustNeedToPee.

Audience member Sarah McAbee raised her hand to add a comment about why people often make fun of selfies.

“The criticism of the selfie is anti-woman, especially the specific critique of duckface, which has been associated with teen girls,” she said. “Making fun of duckface is a critique of women who are owning their space and asserting themselves into the world.”

At the end, the audience gathered for an “ussie,” but it was hard to fit everyone in, Ellen-at-Oscars style. One member split out from the group and offered to just take the picture for everyone.

There was a quiet, disapproving moment. He rethought the idea.

Kasra and Olsen’s whole selfie mission statement is worth reading, below:

From the Syrian Jihadist #selfies to the recent #selfie rallies conducted on social media websites in solidarity with various economic, political, and social issues around the world, taking and sharing #selfies have turned into a popular form of visual expression and activism in the digital networked era. This Core Conversation will thus examine the aesthetic, technological, commercial and sociopolitical function and impact of online self-portraits, and will particularly focus on the ways by which #selfies and #selfie activism challenge the contemporary notions of the state, government, Capital, urban design, copyright, privacy, and civic engagement. Aside from revisiting the historical dichotomy between the private and the public within the feminist discourse, the conversation will also trace the global history of portraiture in the arts and photography from the 19th C to the drug cartel #selfies of present day Mexico to self-shot and uploaded close-up orgasms on indie-porn sites.

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