I Love My Selfie: An Essay

By Ilan StavansApril 14, 2017

I Love My Selfie: An Essay
THIS IS AN EXCERPT from I Love My Selfie, a book-length essay with photographs by Adál Maldonado, out today from Duke University Press.



Of the hundreds — nah, thousands! — of selfies (also spelled cellfies) I usually store in my smartphone, including pictures of family and friends, as well as consequential places and occasions, a generous portion of them is what I call “false starts.” The relation between cause and effect is inverted in them. Rather than my taking a spontaneous picture of a natural moment, I manipulate nature to fit it into a picture. For instance, I have an image of a tombstone in a Jewish cemetery near Havana. There is an uneven pile of pebbles on top of it. When visiting a grave, it is a Jewish custom to leave a stone, not flowers, on it as a memento. The reasons, I believe, are manifold: flowers perish and stones last, symbolizing the permanence of memory — according to the Talmud, a person’s soul lingers on earth for a while after death, and placing a stone is a way to prolong that stay and even to encourage the soul to return; and then there is a semantic explanation — the Hebrew word for “pebble” is tz’ror, which also means “bond.” This turns the stone placed on the tombstone into a bridge between this world and the next.

During my visit to Havana, the grave I was compelled to photograph with my smartphone — its structure destroyed by vandals — had beer bottles and other garbage piled up on top. I opted to clean it up and even felt righteous about it. In doing so, I added, for aesthetic purposes, several extra pebbles forming an irregular structure. Thus, I doctored nature to my own needs. Of course, there is nothing either new or special about this. In fact, the strategy is as old as photography itself: we don’t use the camera to capture what we see; we invent what we see in order to take a picture. Except that the smartphone camera is, supposedly, a lens through which we capture life as is, unadulterated, in the spur of the moment, life uncontrolled by the eye.

In and of itself, maybe this anecdote is a false start — mind you, I got rid of several other — to a disquisition like this one on the profound role selfies play in Western civilization in general (whatever that means!) and in American culture in particular (again, if such a thing exists!). I like the idea of starting this narrative attempt, imperfect as it is likely to be, with what is probably a misstep, since my purpose is to explore authenticity as well as dishonesty. Or maybe I should say it in another way: I want to talk about truth in selfies, aware as I am that it is a futile proposition.

I find it curious that we condemn dishonesty at all times on ethical grounds, yet everyone engages in it. That is what hypocrisy is: being duplicitous. Inherently, false starts are dishonest; that is, they are untruthful. Yet this is the kind of dishonesty everyone practices. My tombstone photo reveals by way of hiding; it delivers a message that looks unplanned but was meticulously planned. The image it offers is a disguise, a facade, a front.

A false start isn’t a defeat; it is simply another way to engage the world. In his lucid essay “Of Cannibals,” Montaigne says that there are defeats more triumphant than victories. I for one see these false starts on my smartphone’s selfie museum as statements of purpose: they are snapshots of reality as I want reality to be.

Late in 2015, I discovered a red spot in my upper left cheek, almost under my eye. I thought it would disappear on its own, but it didn’t. I consulted a doctor who told me it was a basal cell carcinoma, a mild case of skin cancer, and it needed to be removed. The surgery was painful: a two-inch scar cut, sealed with 19 stitches. The wound took a couple of weeks to heal and several months to integrate itself to the landscape of my face. Early on, whenever I would look at myself in the mirror, I would feel like a pirate: my face was strange, different. The photos I would see of myself contained something false, an aspect of me I needed to update, to reappraise, to appropriate. Building a new self-image took time and stamina. In retrospect, my situation was small potatoes compared with more invasive, long-lasting cancers. Yet the effort at reassessing my self-image, the face I had known and the face I now had, was nonetheless traumatic. I learned to love the scar. It is true that there are defeats more triumphant than victories.

Now think of the behavior called parapraxis, commonly known as Freudian slips. These gaffes are more than mere failures of concentration; they are perceived as linguistic faux pas. Psychoanalysts love them (everyone else is horrified!) because they are a window into the unconscious, a way to get to seize on the self when the self is vulnerable and unguarded. Freudian slips are also snippets of the self when it isn’t fully in control, a vintage way to understanding that beyond the facade of restraint we project lurk other intangible forces. These bloopers are a fascinating opportunity to explore the relationship between what is concrete and what is secret in our life, between the lies the self tells itself and others in order to enhance its credibility and the lies it keeps from itself — the part that is beyond the self’s reach. The reverse of a Freudian slip might be a lapse in which a person suddenly forgets a word. Not a surfacing of unwelcome information but a scrapping of a needed one. A hairdresser friend of mine calls these hiatuses “brain farts.” The difference between a Freudian slip and a brain fart is that one reveals whereas the other conceals.

What these practices show is that the self is an inefficient, ineffective manager, that certain forces are beyond its domain, and that it likes to parade itself as strong, morally upright, and authentic when in fact its rule depends on deceit. Samuel Beckett, in Worstward Ho, says: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”


The term selfie is said to have originated in 2002, in an Australian online forum. Since then the frequency with which it is used worldwide has increased exponentially, in part because other languages (Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, et cetera) have incorporated it as their own, occasionally as a derisive artifact that satirizes “the American way of life.” There is something of a Hallmark card in the sound: be selfless in a selfie; that is, be free and let others know. Or, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, be yourself in a selfie because everyone else is already taken.

Selfies, hence, are approximations of the self. They are a business card for an emotionally attuned world. They promise smiles, happiness, and engagement. In delivering these ingredients, they shape mass taste. Selfies can’t stay still; they need to be constantly disseminated, navigating the globe, posted all over for others to endorse with a two-thumbs-up. A selfie taken but stored isn’t the real thing; it needs to be distributed through social media. Voyeurs become consumers. The media functions as an educated eye; it distinguishes between average selfies (paraded in Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, for instance) and high-brow selfies (Tumblr).

This ecosystem allows them to be in a popularity contest. People like irreverence, sarcasm; they dislike snobbism, pedantry, aloofness. Certain topics become taboo. For instance, I have seen a selfie taken next to a corpse and found it nauseating. (It never crossed my mind, in the Havana cemetery, to take a selfie with the gorgeous tombstone in the background. Taking it would probably have been more irreverent than my irreverence of cleaning up the grave.) Likewise, I don’t often come across selfies taken in a state of depression either. Or featuring blood, although I once watched a smartphone video, posted by The New York Times, of a bunch of Arab terrorists who had captured a large boat. They were doing rounds shooting at escapees swimming away from the boat in the ocean. One of the shots hits its target and blood colors the area where the victim was. The terrorists laugh, then congregate triumphantly to take a selfie near the prow. And I have also seen a selfie with blood, and its purpose was to serve as evidence for the police to acknowledge that a fight between two neighbors had taken place.

The reason violent selfies are unlikely is that these aren’t aspects of existence people want to share with others; on the contrary, they would rather keep them to themselves. For, in the end, the selfie is a portal through which we share the handsomest, less frightening side of our self. The word “fright” isn’t part of the selfie lexicon.

On the contrary, selfies are about catching ourselves halfway, in the act — and art — of living, moving around casually, being informal, laid-back, blasé, doing nothing but, to use today’s slang, “just chillin’.” Or else, about being a trickster, a fool, maybe even a dissenter. As a selfie I once got stated it, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners.” In the selfie, the mandate is to look impeccably cool in our unawareness, to be in flagrante delicto without a crime even taking place. “Funny you mention that, I was just thinking I don’t care,” reads the caption. In selfies I take of myself, for instance, I pretend to be obese. Or my face is divided in the mirror. Or I’m in the Plaza de la Revolución, in Havana, with a wall-sized drawing of Che Guevara behind me. This is me and isn’t — an impostor, a pretender.

Needless to say, this state of blissfulness isn’t achieved easily. The photographer — the selfie-taker — must work hard at it. Exiling pain isn’t enough. Being calm, composed, and levelheaded, being normal isn’t enough; one must hide any displacement, any sense of confusion. And, if possible, one must give the impression that the selfie is a product of a disinterested eye. My son Isaiah was once at Cuban restaurant. A prominent jazz musician (he called him “the Cuban Gaucho”) was sitting behind him. My son didn’t want to call the musician’s attention. Yet he wanted proof that he had been near him. So he took a photograph of himself in a way that the musician in the background could be clearly spotted. This was only a selfie out of necessity: he wasn’t intent on getting one, but no other social act would have satisfied his need of capturing the jazz musician’s face. This strategy tries for the selfie to blend into the environment. Yet that disinterest is defined by a tunnel vision.

In short, the selfie is performance achieved through overstatement. It is a show-and-tell game in which secrets are supposedly revealed, made public for everyone to savor them. In the selfie, we all become normal, ordinary dwellers in the quandary of self-absorption. Samuel Johnson argued that the narcissist doesn’t hide his faults from himself, but persuades himself that they escape the notice of others. The selfie does the exact same. It isn’t about the person but about the persona, a word that derives from Latin for mask. The self, apparently, is made of multiple masks, which is the way it projects itself to the world. For our self isn’t a unity but a multiplicity. Thus, as the night follows the day, being true to one’s self means being fundamentally adaptable, contingent, provisional, all of which are attributes of falseness.

The selfie blurs the line between the domestic and the communal, between what is mine and what belongs to others. It goes without saying that photography was always about blurring that line, but the selfie has taken the approach a step further. Mick Jagger was once sitting at a table next to mine at a Manhattan restaurant. This anecdote isn’t like the one of my son Isaiah with “the Cuban Gaucho.” I didn’t recognize Jagger. Or maybe I didn’t care who he was. Frankly, I have never been interested in the rock music scene as much as I am in Latin jazz. Be that as it may, our tables were contiguous. It was a time before smartphones but not the time before paparazzi. After dinner, the waiter asked Jagger if he could take a picture with him. Jagger demurred. Tonight he wasn’t a rock star, he said. Tonight he was a private citizen. The waiter politely objected, but he ultimately complied. Were the incident to occur now, perhaps the waiter, in spite of Jagger’s resistance, would have sat next to him at the table and would have turned the camera on him next to the celebrity. Politeness is no longer a requirement. Having the selfie is an end in itself, an expression of love that is worth the effort no matter the expense.

All emotions are volatile, therein their disposition, but love, for some reason, seems more elusive, more ethereal than others. It is often hard to pin down. We depend on love to thrive. Spinoza, in The Ethics, argued that love, as an emotion, is simply joy accompanied by the awareness of an external cause. Emotion for him is a change in the state of our physical organism to a greater or lesser degree of vitality, along with an idea, or mental representation, of that change. Selfies seek to make that love concrete, to make it tangible. Since selfies cannot convey spirituality in abstract terms, the images included in them must always be obvious, even cliché. The more extreme those images, the more unreal, the more their message is effectively transmitted. I am at awe by that love, the way selfies promote it, by the goodwill they disseminate.

It is a dangerous type of love, though. (But isn’t love always dangerous?) Although the capacity to produce selfie makes us all equal, although it creates a made-up community of supposedly happy, interconnected communities, the truth is that the tale behind it is about uniformity, homogeneity, and exclusion. Selfies serve as glue for specific groups, ratifying their intrinsic bonds. Those that are in are pictured in it or else receive it through social media, and those that are out are excluded, ignored, and silenced. The turf is quite concrete: either you’re my friend or you hate me. Thus, the selfie reaches only a small base of qualified supporters made of people who pledge allegiance to the selfie-taker and who are thus ready to believe in the fiction portrayed in the selfie. Caption: “The question isn’t can you; it’s will you?”

In other words, this is about who is hip and who isn’t. The in-crowd uses the selfie to delineate its territory, to specify its confines, and, thus, to exclude those alien to it. The out-crowd, by definition, is the one left beyond the margins, the one that isn’t supportive, the one described as uncool. The in-crowd depends on the selfie to project stability, continuity, and power. Their ultimate, tyrannical message is that normalcy is the right way; anything else is unacceptable. Narcissus is at the center of the orbit, a gravitational force keeping everyone at arm’s reach. Self-love mutates into communal love: Narcissus realizes that in loving himself, others love him as well.

It is rather easy to discredit selfies as manifestations of youthful egotism. They are artifacts of young and old, rich and poor, men and women. They are like comfort food: easy, fast, and mindless. We are all selfie-makers and selfie critics. When you see a group of tourists with selfie sticks making their way through a historic site (say, to invoke “dark tourism,” where the atomic bomb landed in Hiroshima), you are looking at the compulsion not only to frame sight but also to boast about it, to be in place and displaced at the same time. And then, suddenly, you realize you yourself are in a selfie.

The Plight of Narcissus

Try as I may, I can’t remember the first time I came across a selfie. Or, even, when I realized there was something in them — something about them — that is mesmerizing as well as terrifying. Mesmerizing because I can’t think of another cultural artifact that explains better, or else complicates more, the map of our convoluted relationship with the self. And terrifying because selfies in fact show the degree to which individualism (Spinoza was right!) is the prime mover of humankind. We are all self-aggrandizing monsters.

Not long ago, a friend of mine sent me a selfie she took in which Pope Francis is with young Catholics in South Korea. This was her second selfie of him. The first one she took while she and her family visited Vatican City. The pontiff was joyfully walking around St. Peter’s Square, greeting fervent parishioners who approached him like nothing less than a Hollywood luminary. My friend was starstruck in the crowd. Everyone wanted to take a photo with him. But that wasn’t the true prize. A few, my friend included, wanted Pope Francis to be in a selfie. And, if possible, they wanted him to take the selfie himself. He didn’t quite concede to the latter, but, as he had done countless times in the past, he was happy to pose next to his adoring fans as long as they took charge of the camera. And he does this time and again, as when, in 2015, he toured northeastern cities in the United States, such as New York and Philadelphia, to the delight — call it disbelief — of millions. And my friend was more than happy to comply. The selfie she sent me in South Korea features the Pope smiling comfortably. There is something at once utterly celestial about his looks and unreservedly mundane. The expression of those around isn’t as lofty; they are in for an instant satisfaction and for the sheer astonishment of it. Is his Holiness really next to me? That disbelief is what you see in my friend’s facial expression: “Oh my God! ’Tis a miracle. If it wasn’t for selfies, would anyone believe me?”

The papal selfies made me think of posing as a form of surrender, maybe even as a type of acquiescence. But this is a simplistic view, for every poser is also a manipulator. I remember reading, a while ago, critic Harry Berger Jr.’s reaction to portraits by Alice Neel, a painter influenced by Edvard Munch and Francisco Goya. Berger argued that posing for a portrait is a complicated tango in which the painter and the poser engage in a dynamic — and symmetrical — act of submission. They each assert themselves, albeit in different ways. That is, not only does the painter subdue his subject to model for him, but the same also goes in the opposite direction. This is much like in Pavlov’s behaviorist theory: is it the scientist who is conditioning the mouse in the box, or is it the other way around? Berger once wrote that “Neel’s portraits confirm my sense that portraits don’t merely offer likenesses of their sitters; they feature conflicted acts of posing.” He added:

I love the way the wonderful play of oils conspires with the always-almost-parodic manner in which the sitters pose (even when serious […]) to emphasize the drama of the act of posing and being painted. They’re portrayed as if they self-consciously resist what they see the paint and the organization of poses is doing to them even as they flamboyantly submit to it — submit to the way the strong form-flattening outlines barely contain the energetic slashes of color that insist on showing as paint even while they claim to represent figures.

Berger believes, and he proves it in his book Fictions of the Pose: Rembrandt Against the Italian Renaissance (2000), that “the basic conflict of the portrait genre [is] the conflict between the desire to pose and the fear of being exposed.” Pope Francis doesn’t appear to be exposed in any of the countless selfies I have seen. He is surely eager to pose, and in doing so, he exerts control over his image: he is seen as accessible, popular (and populist), and democratic. The selfie is his message: I am with you — with all of you.

Also in that period I watched a documentary directed by Wim Wenders, The Salt of the Earth, about the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. He has traversed the world in order for his camera’s eye to be a witness of famine, slavery, genocide, and destruction. After having seen the atrocities in Rwanda and losing faith in mankind, he switched topics: he gave up photographing people and opted to focus on animals. All sorts of animals: sea lions, penguins, elephants, and orangutans. The sequence about the orangutans is fascinating. Salgado comes close to a massive one sitting before him. The animal acquiesces because the photographer isn’t inflicting on his territory. They look at each other attentively. And then it becomes obvious: the orangutan is looking at the lens of Salgado’s camera, seeing himself reflected in it. The moment is precious: the orangutan makes an assortment of facial expressions, and then — wonder of wonders! — he smiles. It is clear that he has discovered his own semblance on a discrete surface. The orangutan is conscious of his looks. Does he know he is real? How much longer does he need to become self-conscious to feel the effect of that consciousness in his everyday life?

To me, these two anecdotes are as much about narcissism as they are about verisimilitude. Traditionally, popes keep themselves aloof, far from the madding crowd, even though their position is as representatives of that crowd. There is something eerie, even unseemly, about having Pope Francis as one of us. Likewise, the image of the orangutan being cognizant of his own condition gives us pause, not only because we think — we want to believe — that the only species fully aware of its own fate, mindful of the passing of time, sensitive to its own limitations, is humans. But perhaps we aren’t alone, after all. Although, given how trapped we sometimes are in our self-image and the degree to which we squander our talent because of an endless, agonizing process of self-consciousness, is there pride in realizing others are like us? Maybe it’s just a feeling of resignation. Oh well …

Narcissus (Νάρκισσος) is a myth not only about disdain but also about doom. A beautiful hunter and the son of Cephissus, the river god, and a nymph, Liriope, he loved himself. Nemesis, the spirit of divine retribution, put Narcissus in front of a pool, where he discovered his own reflection, not realizing it was just a reflection. He jumped to embrace the image and, alas, drowned in the pool. Caravaggio’s portrait of Narcissus in the act of looking at his own reflection on a water surface is iconic. Ours is said to be a narcissistic age, trapped in a tireless multiplication of its own infatuation. It is difficult to disclaim it: we are obsessed with our look, our body, our self. We define success as the capacity to manipulate what others think of us. W. H. Auden once shrewdly argued that Narcissus didn’t fall in love with his reflection because it was beautiful but because it was his.

For every selfie we keep, we discharge … how many? Half a dozen, twice that many? These aborted images are disliked because they are truly false, and, as such, they belong to oblivion. The trash icon in which we imprison them is the other side of our life, the one we reject, the one we condemn. It makes us look ugly, obnoxious, unpolished. The shots aren’t really of us but of impostors who pretend to be us. If we aren’t careful, these impostors might take over, imposing an incorrect appreciation of who we are. They might ruin life. Metaphorically, the garbage is their appropriate habitat.

Have we become more narcissistic than our predecessors? Are we infatuated with our own image (not with our beauty but with ourselves) in ways unseen before in human history? Has the selfie brought along that egotism, or is it mainly a symptom of it? In either case, the selfie might be said to have ushered in a new type of self-expression. Hollywood loves it, but it isn’t exclusive to celebrities. Nor is it an artifact employed by boasters, showoffs, and self-aggrandizers alone. Instead, it belongs to everyone. It is at once democratic and pluralistic. No training is required. All it takes is access to technology. At least in the industrialized and developing worlds, it knows no boundaries in terms of class, race, gender, and language. It eclipses those boundaries, seemingly creating an unending online flux of identities. Everyone knows everyone; everyone is with everyone. And everyone is famous, at least for as long as the selfie is suitable currency. Yes, selfies make celebrities of their subjects in the way Andy Warhol dreamed of: in a democratic way, with everyone getting their fair share for a few minutes. Carpe diem: You have the spotlight now; you’re at center stage; we are part of the concentric circles that make your fandom.

The difference between fame and celebrity is that fame is at least the result of talent. Celebrities are famous just for being famous. No wonder they adore selfies, thinking they give a perspective of themselves unavailable in the paparazzi market. They use these snapshots to be candid, to open a window into their privacy. Ask Kim Kardashian, who loves to love herself in public, as seen in her book Selfish, made of anodyne, sexually explicit selfies. Ask James Franco, who knows something about this ephemeral glow as well. Obviously, they are far from the first, let alone the only, celebrities feeding us with public, self-glorifying “private” shots. The camera as a witness of intimacy is as old as photography itself. Think of Marilyn Monroe. Think of Rudolph Valentino. Think of Walt Whitman, who wrote “Song of Myself,” a segment of Leaves of Grass (“I am large, I contain multitudes”), and loved to always have a photographer nearby. The celebrity is a freak on display for collective consumption.

James Franco the actor loves James Franco the celebrity. He feeds his fan base with a diet of selfies that gives them a true sense of who he is. He calls himself “the selfie king.” In a New York Times op-ed piece he published on December 26, 2013, he meditated on his need — his addiction — to post selfies on Instagram. To the point of not being able to control himself.

I remember reading Franco’s piece with curiosity. I had encountered Adál’s image not long before and Franco’s piece immediately made me think of it, perhaps even to reach out to him.

The celebrity selfie, Franco wrote, “is not only a private portrait of a star, but one also usually composed and taken by said star — a double whammy.” He added,

[The celebrity selfie] is its own special thing. It has value regardless of the photo’s quality, because it is ostensibly an intimate shot of someone whom the public is curious about. It is the prize shot that the paparazzi would kill for, because they would make good money; it is the shot that the magazines and blogs want, because it will get the readers close to the subject.

Franco made the distinction:

Now, while the celebrity selfie is most powerful as a pseudo-personal moment, the noncelebrity selfie is a chance for subjects to glam it up, to show off a special side of themselves — dressing up for a special occasion, or not dressing, which is a kind of preening that says, “There is something important about me that clothes hide, and I don’t want to hide.”

Either because his thoughts are rather superficial or because celebrities as such don’t interest me, I find Franco’s meditation on celebrity selfies flat and, well, uninspiring. Celebrities thrive by swimming in a pool of attention. The selfie is an invitation to see them frolic in the water. These photographs might indeed be different from those featured in National Enquirer and other media outlets, but the degree of difference is minuscule. That, in fact, is what makes celebrity selfies significant: the difference between having a filter and not, between mania and megalomania.

The Art of Manipulation

In the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, José Arcadio Buendía, founder of Macondo and patriarch of the Buendía family, becomes obsessed with photographing God — not once but many times, not a single picture but from multiple angles. Wouldn’t it be better to have God take a selfie? The quest is impossible, no doubt, and not only because God is intangible but also because he is omnipresent; that is, He exists in an eternal present. To live in such a state also means to be ubiquitous, in all places: like Blaise Pascal’s sphere, “its center everywhere and its diameter nowhere.”

The selfie has an intriguing relationship with time and place, one that might be said to even compete with God. Let’s start with time. Every shot freezes time, making it look static, immobile. The clock continues its ticking outside the selfie, but inside it it stops: the selfie is in a permanent here and now. It doesn’t age, at least not in the traditional sense of the term. One might look at an old selfie and think of it as old in regards to the persons depicted in it, who have aged since it was taken. Actually, it is the real world that is old, not the selfie, and the perspective we have of it grants us that recognition.

Photography reduces a three-dimensional world into a monochromatic, one-dimensional one. Sound, smell, taste, and tact are exiled. Not long ago, I visited an exhibit called Soundscapes at the National Portrait Gallery. A painting was selected by a contemporary musician (in one case, by a couple) and reimagined with sound. Or better, the painting was given a sound companion. Among the most memorable was Susan Philipsz’s “Air on a Broken String,” inspired by Hans Holbein the Younger’s almost human-sized Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (The Ambassadors). The image is a double-portrait of a French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII and his friend, the Bishop of Lavaur. It was painted in 1533, at a time of intense religious and political debate and marked by the rivalries between England and France. The subtle uncordial relationship, the discord between church and state, is highlighted in their expressions, in the wealth of artifacts decorating their surroundings. Philipsz’s sound installation allows that discord to be recognized, pointing to the fire between the two men.

What the music also does is give Holbein the Younger’s double-portrait an extra dimension. The protagonists don’t talk. The viewer isn’t allowed into their conversation. Nor are we invited to think of the sounds that surrounded the men in 16th-century England. The only added ingredient the musician offers is an unharmonious score that serves as her interpretation of the painting. Yet that interpretation adds depth and complexity to what we see; it even humanizes the ambassador and the bishop. When I saw the oil on oak with “Air on a Broken String” in the background, I even felt the two men were moving. They were going in and out of the scene, restless in their disposition, uncomfortable in their agreement to be painted together.

Image without sound, hence, is the equivalent of having food without taste. That absence allows us to isolate an aspect of the word, to scrutinize it in abstracto.

I said before that photography is the art of focusing the eye on a specific item. But it is also about the manipulation of perspective. A relevant example in this regard is the photograph “The First World’s Third World Mona Lisa,” featured on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic. It was taken by Steve McCurry, along with several more accompanying shots, none as acclaimed, one of the same girl with her hands covering half her face. World famous, it depicts an Afghan girl who was living in a refugee camp in Pakistan during the time of Afghanistan’s Soviet occupation. She has piercing green eyes and a red scarf draped loosely over her head. Her beauty is arresting. The picture has been controversial in countless ways, including the fact that this is a portrait of non-European beauty, and of poverty and dispossession, controlled by a Western (in this case, American) artist with a clear sense of what he wants his message to awaken: empathy mixed with pity.

For 17 years, with Afghanistan nearly closed-off under Taliban rule, the identity of the girl was unknown. McCurry himself had unsuccessfully tried to find her. Eventually, a National Geographic team set out to identify her in 2002. It took a while but finally it found her. Her name was Sharbat Gula. She was born in 1972, which means that when McCurry took the shot she was 12 years of age. After living in the refugee camp, Gula had returned to Afghanistan. She had never seen the photo of her, taken on Kodachrome 64 color slide film, with a Nikon FM2 camera and Nikon 105mm Ai-S F2.5 lens. The team took another set of photos of her now at age 30. One of them appeared again on the cover, only this time Gula was totally covered, her face included, while holding the 1985 cover. The headline was sensationalist: “Found: After 17 Years, an Afghan Refugee’s Story.” The idea of her unaware of her semblance’s global fame, her instant celebrity, is mind boggling. She had been turned into a symbol, yet she knew nothing about it. Should that ignorance be seen as rape, or at least as a form of submission?

What if Gula had taken the photograph herself, a selfie gift to the rest of us? Would the Afghan Girl portray herself differently? Obviously, the premise of such assertion is faulty because in 1984 neither she nor anyone else knew what a selfie was. It would take almost 20 years for such knowledge to become widespread, and even then, as a denizen of the Arab world, and a young woman to boot, access to smartphones is implausible. McCurry is male and Gula is female. At the time of the photo shoot, he was 35, almost three times her age. He could have been her father; in strict terms, he could also have been her lover. He is the observer, the dilettante, and she the observed, the object of praise, or else, the prize itself. The difference in age, gender, and cultural worldview positions him as the one in control and her as the one being controlled.

I dislike the dance intellectuals engage in around oppression. One might easily add a few other adjectives to the stew — colonials, subalterns, and objects of desire — but I don’t wander into the realm of linguistic belligerence. Instead, I imagine, for the sake of entertaining myself, that Gula indeed was able to usurp McCurry’s privilege, that she, and not he, was the master of her own portrait: that, anachronistically, she took a selfie. Then what? I’m convinced the actual depiction would have been radically different. It is unlikely that Gula would have stressed the mysterious smile, the Mona Lisa look, McCurry displays. Might she want to be seen less as a woman and more as a typical Afghan? Could it be that, given the discrepant ways in which we see ourselves and how others see us, plus the difference between male and female self-image, her portrait would have been less assured, more confusing?

In 2002, when Gula was photographed again, this time by the National Geographic searching team, she looks about to reach middle age. She wears an almost motherly purple scarf and her skin shows blackened spots that are a sign of aging. What was once a mysterious glimpse has become a heavy face, maybe even angry, or, at least, resigned by the recognition that life is hard. At the very least, this picture makes us grateful to Leonardo Da Vinci for not having returned to La Gioconda, the wife of one of his friends, known as Mona Lisa, years after he made her portrait. As a result, not only are we unaware of how she aged, but also, mercifully, we even seem disinterested in the fact that, well, like everyone else she must have aged too.

Obviously, had the Afghan girl taken the selfie, there would be indication that one of Gula’s arms is extended, or that she is photographing herself in front of a mirror. Those ingredients also tint the viewer’s approach: they force us to accept a certain degree of conceit, even haughtiness in the piece itself.

And then there is the manipulation of time, done through the use of shutter speeds and by the uncanny ability with which certain photographers can anticipate when a moment in time has reached its zenith. Walk slowly through the National Portrait Gallery in London and you’ll understand the meaning. It is the British (or better, the English) who came up with the genius idea of looking at their national history through faces, paying tribute to the old adage: “The face is the index of the mind.” After all, what is human history if not a sequence of faces — leaders are in the front-row seats, the proletariat is almost always in afterthought — concocting stratagems about power? Capturing what Henri Cartier-Bresson called the “decisive moment” is a photographer’s attempt at recounting that history.

It dawned on me, as I myself walked through the National Portrait Gallery — looking at Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell, Thomas More, Edward Lane, T. S. Eliot, Isaiah Berlin and Harold Pinter and Lady Diana — that, in general, we don’t do anything else but look at each other all the time, at the expense of the rest of nature. A decisive moment isn’t any moment; it is just the right moment. The aesthetics of this concept is exquisite: not everything is “photographable”; only a certain instant, the instant in which things, movement, the universe itself seem to coalesce, to reach plenitude. The task of the artist — what we call talent — is not to miss that moment, to be attentive in order to capture it as it is, when it is. Then, and only then, does time become eternal.

It goes without saying that the capacity of disciplining the eye to depict a specific second is what photography in general is about, not only selfies. Any photograph interrupts the chronology of things, it disturbs the process of time, it interrupts its sequence. Yet selfies, by virtue of their instantaneousness, their relevant irrelevance, their fixation with the self, make this quality all the more pronounced. The selfie makes us believe that time stops for us. Looking at a favorite one is like entering into a world where we, and nobody else, exist in uninterrupted fashion.

An album of selfies, a museum is what I called it in the previous section, is what baroque Golden Age poet Francisco de Quevedo called, in Spanish, “presentes sucesiones de difunto,” a deceased person’s present successions, that is, snapshots of life without the interstices, the connectors that interrupt it, that make it seem bumpy, interrupted, in a dizzying stage of constant zigzagging. Death lurks in the background. It is pervasive in its invisibility. Its presence is felt in the way the subjects of a selfie defy, proudly announcing their cheerfulness, their delight in being alive. Each selfie is a fleeting instant. If instant is understood to be synonymous with second, a day is made of 86,400 seconds, a week 604,800, a month 2.63e+6, a year 3.157e+7, and a lifetime that amount multiplied by the number of years, months, weeks, and days. Quevedo, ever a sarcastic pessimist as well as a scatologist (he wrote a notorious sonnet to the anus), thought of life as a race toward the grave. It would therefore be intriguing to contemplate fate as the number of selfies an individual is granted in life. Let’s imagine each of us being born with a number: 52,754. Once the last selfie is taken, nothingness begins.

Another way of approaching fate is to think of each instant, each selfie as a self-contained eternity. The 52,754 selfies aren’t really of the same person but of variations of it, frozen modalities of the self. In each of the selfies the self exists forever. As long as the selfie continues to exist, death shall never infringe on it. When it does, that, in and of itself, will be the end: no more selfie, no more life.

As does Alice when she sees the white rabbit with pink eyes looking at a watch he takes out from his waistcoat pocket, then going down the rabbit hole into Wonderland, where she quickly follows him, the selfie is a rabbit hole, a portal into another dimension: a land of smiles and agelessness, where everything stands still and is flat, where there is permanent light and no noise whatsoever, a land where nobody needs to work, no food or sleep is required, a land with no memory or regrets. Being trapped in it might be like spending a life sentence in Disneyland.

The selfie is also framed place. There is always a background, a scenario where the action occurs. Sometimes that scenario is a mere prop, other times it is the story within the story. Place, even when unidentified, is never devoid of value. I once took a photograph at the Jordanian-Israeli border. The site is rather insignificant: a desert landscape, an empty tent, a pile of rifles near the tent, and, in the background, two separate and perfectly identifiably groups: a gathering of Jordanian soldiers talking casually to each other on the left side and on the right side a bunch of Israeli intellectuals looking nervously at the tent. The two groups are divided by language, class, and politics. The soldiers have no interest in the intellectuals. They have been called to patrol the occasion and do so mechanically. And the intellectuals think of the soldiers as unsophisticated. For them these enlisted men cannot be interlocutors: they aren’t self-conscious; they know little about history.


Ilan Stavans is a Mexican-American author and translator, the publisher of Restless Books, and Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College.

LARB Contributor

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of the NEPR podcast In Contrast. He has written Quixote: The Novel and the World (2015), Oy, Caramba!: An Anthology of Jewish Stories from Latin America (2016), Borges, the Jew (2017), and The Wall (2018).  He has recently written The Seventh Heaven: Travels through Jewish Latin America (Pittsburgh), and his book-long poem “The Wall” (also Pittsburgh) won the 2019 Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!