Today I had the pleasure of attending the RMIT nonfictionLab‘s symposium on interactive documentary. A great many interesting talks were given, and I’m hoping to collate some of my notes into coherent ramblings here and elsewhere over the coming days.
I was reading various tweets today, watching some of the presentations at the conference, and ruminating more generally on photography, mobile media and the ‘self’. As something of a disclaimer, I abhor selfie sticks. I find their presence and purpose incomprehensible, and the people who use them (for the most part) arrogant and, possibly appropriately, self-absorbed.
In spite of this, my mind kept returning to them today, in light of some of the discussion around ‘autodocumentary’. In using our smart devices to track and photograph and record and measure every movement we make, we are, in a sense, creating a narrative; a documentary of our lives.
The ‘selfie stick’, ostensibly, aids in the act of taking ‘selfies’, or photographs of the photographer. The ‘selfie’ finds its origins in the ‘fridge shot’: an often poorly-composed, over-exposed photograph of the photographer and one or several other people. I find this origin important, given that the current ‘selfie’ is a refined and technologically-improved (allegedly) version of the earlier iteration.
What struck me today is that the ‘selfie stick’, by its nature, is a step in a weird direction. Physically, the device distances the camera from the ‘self’, allowing a modicum of control over the composition and quality of the resulting artefact. I think it could be argued, then, that the selfie stick does not create ‘selfies’ as we have come to know them. A photograph taken with the aid of a selfie stick is more akin to one taken with the aid of a tripod, in that the photographer takes much more care with the composition and preparation of the shot.
‘Photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention,’ writes Susan Sontag in her magnificent On Photography (1977), ‘[though] the act of photographing is more than passive observing.’
Sontag is relaying here that while photography necessarily detaches any interaction or meddling with the subject (if recording something as it appears in nature or, for want of any other word ‘reality’), it cannot be seen as just that: recording. In the framing up of any given subject, you lose any claim to objectivity.
I would argue that in holding the camera at arm’s length, with no idea of what the frame is, or what the light is like, or whether you and your mates are even in the damn picture, the ‘fridge shot’ and, to an extent, the original smartphone selfie (before front-facing cameras, introduced to Apple devices with 2010’s iPhone 4 – yep, only five years ago), are more in line with the former definition. This is mainly due to the fact that the artist’s control over the artefact is limited, both physically and in terms of the relinquishing of some of the act to the technology itself.
The ‘distancing’ that comes into play with the selfie stick is an attempt to control the entirety of the act of taking selfies which, in some small way, detracts from the entire philosophy and purpose of the selfie.
Yet another, this time thoroughly thought-out, reason to detest the selfie stick.