A little while back, the Independent ran a feature on ‘the selfie’, that genre of modern self-portrait taken with a smart phone. Hilary and Chelsea Clinton had published a selfie, which signalled the form’s crossover from youth culture to the mainstream.
When we discuss social media, the usual insight is that it allows people (whether they are public figures like Hilary Clinton or Rhianna, or just ordinary members of the public) to communicate without having to go through the established media corporations. But I think the great significance of social media is that the traditional media outlets have completely co-opted it into their coverage. The mainstream media’s tracking of Edward Snowden’s escape from Hong Kong to Russia was powered by Twitter. Sports reporters quote Tweets from players and managers to gain insights into their state of mind or the state of their transfer deal.
And selfies are now routinely used by the newspapers to illustrate tragic young deaths. Whether it is a car accident, a drug overdose, a gang murder, or a bullying related suicide, the photo editors turn to the victim’s Facebook page or Twitter stream to harvest images. The latest example of this is Hannah Smith, who committed suicide last week. I noted a couple of years ago how they were used to report the overdose of Issy Jones-Rielly. And the reporting on the joint-suicide of Charleigh Disbrey and Mert Karaoglan in June was heavy with ‘selfies’.
The next time such a terrible event occurs, look out for the tell-tale clues in the image that betrays the fact it is a selfie – the slight distortion of the face when the camera is extremely close to the subject; the eyes looking not-quite at the camera (they’re looking at the screen to the side); the arm stretched out beyond the frame; and the washed out and over-exposed skin.
Used in this new, unintended context, these images strike a discordant note. The carefree narcissism inherent in any selfie jars with the fact of the artist/subject’s untimely death. The image conveys excitement and potential, but the viewer knows that all that hope will come to nothing.
Contrast the selfies with how older people are depicted after a tragedy. In their case, the image is usually a wedding photograph. Such images are consciously official and meant for posterity – indeed, many weddings feel like nothing more than one big photo-shoot. Soldiers, meanwhile, already know that their official portrait in regimental dress uniform will be used by the media, should the worst happen at war (recall, for example, the images of Drummer Lee Rigby in his red coat). I always wonder if the pride of their passing out parade (when I assume these images are taken) is tainted by that morbid thought.
The child victims of years gone by were depicted in a similar manner, through the official school photograph. These images always had a prominent place in our visual culture, the minor equivalent of the soldier’s portrait. What parent has seen these images flash on their TV screen and not thought: Which picture would I use in the same circumstances?
The most chilling images in the school-portrait genre are those of Robert Thompson and John Venables, the boys who murdered James Bulger. Although both killers are still alive, these school photos tell a similar story to those of victims. An abrupt and premature end to childhood. A looming, inescapable destiny.
All photographs take you back in time, of course, but those broadcast to us in the immediate aftermath of a death convey the sense of past and present most acutely. When the subject struck the pose and smiled, infinite paths were open to them. When the photographer framed the shot and pressed the button, the terrible destiny of their subject was unknown. What is unique about selfies is that it was the victims themselves who pressed the button. There is something strange and sad about the fact that these modern death masks are self-portraits. When the Internet gurus talk about the new digital DIY culture, I am not sure this is what they have in mind.