The Psychology of Selfies & A Handmade Pinhole Camera
We learned this week that the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is selfie, the informal noun defined as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” It was added to the Oxford Dictionary Online (not the Oxford English Dictionary), which bases its entries on current and practical word usage, meaning they can be removed when they are out of use.
Blog posts about the psychology of the selfie abound. It’s a cheap fad. It’s a an evaluator of social reach. It’s a modern iteration of the self-portrait fueled by a hunger for social feedback. It’s a reflection of our loneliness and desire for image control. And on and on.
And then there is this.
Photographer Tatiano Altberg teaches children in a Rio de Janeiro favela how to make pinhole cameras out of recycled cans. There is no viewfinder and no button. They learn to create narratives through their photos, and to take self-portraits.
But unlike the countless “selfies” they were already used to seeing on social networks, these forced them to be more introspective, considering both their mood and environment.
“The challenge of working with pinhole photography is to make the self-portrait a process of reflection about one’s self — a product of an intention,” she said. “The idea is not to take photos in an automatic way, with poses and gestures that are seen in the pictures teenagers take with their cellphones and digital cameras. It’s necessary to pay attention to the surroundings and think before making an image. Pinhole is a slow process of creation that demands a lot of thought.”
The payoff has come with students who have become excited about the possibilities of self-expression. Jailton Nunes was a skeptical 12-year-old when he started the workshop, deflecting any compliment with jokes. But over time, he came to embrace the project, and a self-portrait of his was used on the cover of “Everyday My Thoughts Are Different,” which was published this year.
“Another photo taken by him that is very significant is the one where he appears beside a miniature sofa,” Ms. Altberg said. “He looks like a giant. The image has special symbolic meaning since he was explicitly self-conscious about his height, something that diminished throughout the year as he gained confidence.”
FJP: Here’s a thought. For young teens who live busy lives in crowded spaces (Rio or elsewhere) that are then compounded by an abundance of digital imagery in online social worlds, it’s difficult to find the space to know yourself, to construct an image of yourself for yourself and to capture that image. In a sense, the digital selfie is a way to try to create and preserve a controllable record of who you are in an otherwise uncontrollable world of too many records. It’s a very human need. If we look at it that way, the potential for teaching projects like Altberg’s is enormous.—Jihii
Image: Yasmin Lopez, via Brazilian Stories and Selfies Through a Pinhole, NY Times.