The Darker Side of 'Selfies'

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-RiellyAnd the reporting on the joint-suicide of Charleigh Disbrey and Mert Karaoglan in June was heavy with ‘selfies’. Continue reading “The Darker Side of 'Selfies'”

Self Portrait Death Photos

Our culture continues to be defined by the screen and the lens. The works of Marshall McLuhan and Andy Warhol remain disturbingly current. Politics continues to be defined by image, not ideas, to the extent that the Leader of the Labour Party feels the need to have work done on his sinuses (or something), the better to appeal to floating voters.

One area of interest for me is the collision of the media with ordinary people – and by that, I mean those who find themselves caught like rabbits in the spot-light, as opposed to those who seek it out. In particular, the sub-genre of media Death Coverage. The visual grammar of a press conference is fascinating. I have also written before on how the images of the recently dead are manipulated to fit an established template (even when the deceased was very different to how they are described).

Issy Jones-Reilly in The Times
Issy Jones-Reilly in The Times
Issy Jones-Reilly in The Evening Standard
Issy Jones-Reilly in The Evening Standard

The sad death of Issy Jones-Reilly who overdosed at a party last weekend, has sent me back to this subject once more. The pictures of this pretty girl have featured heavily in the papers for a couple of days. What I have found noteworthy is that in almost all cases, the picture illustrating the victim has been a self-portrait. In this era of cheap digital imaging, that means an arms length shot, with the camera (or smart-phone) pointed back down at the photographer. The arm must necessarily extend outside the shot, and the wide-angle distorts and swells the face a little. It’s the polar opposite of professional portraiture, where the subjects are lit from the sides and rear and a narrower angle lens is used to put the face in better proportions.

I find these images of Issy quite sad. First, of course, that she only found fame in death. When she took those photos of herself she was engaging in a form of sel-promotion (I don’t doubt they were used as Facebook profile pictures at some point). She would never know the context in which those photos would finally be used. It seems to me quite tragic that, for her allotted 15 minutes of fame, she had to take her own photos.

Meanwhile, an accomplished and quite brilliant photographer suffers the indignity of having his own death illustrated by someone else. The case of Tim Hetherington, killed in Libya last week, was not quite as bad as that of Meredith Kercher (whose death was illustrated by the prettier of her alleged killers). However, I still found it odd and a little disrespectful that Hetherington’s death was reported in The Evening Standard by a picture of his girlfriend. A perfectly serviceable image of the man who actually died was relegated to the inner pages. Of course we know that pretty girls are always the choice of photo editors. But in this case, when the subject was a fellow journalist, I thought the Standard editors’ cynical bid for eyeballs was particularly crass.

Tim Hetherington's girlfriend
Tim Hetherington’s girlfriend
Tim Hetherington in The Evening Standard
Tim Hetherington in The Evening Standard