Give us a selfie!

Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh
Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

Flip the view on your phone and hold it high. Then, make your eyes look bigger, your cheekbones defined and if possible, pout to the camera. Now, position your thumb over the button, turn your face to your photogenic side and click. Your quick recipe to a selfie is done.

On 10th March 2015, a Sri Lankan man identified as Udhai Ri found himself to be the butt of social media ire when his selfie with his deceased uncle became viral. Apart from captioning the photograph as ‘my periya appa passed away’ (my uncle passed away), Udhai Ri posed on camera while his late uncle hovered as the quintessential background to his selfie. Though, social media reacted, argued and debated over the politics of a selfie being taken before a dead loved one, a point was made. An era of selfies had begun.

The art of clicking a selfie has been going through an ongoing process of perfection ever since the word got popular in 2002. While some of the selfies clicked during the period of early 2000s had subjects appearing before a mirror under conditions such as bad lighting and poor camera quality, technological revolution and a better sense of the camera has been impetuous to an onslaught of self-expressions. According to a recent survey conducted by Press Time in 2015, more than 31 million Instagram photos were found to be hashtagged #selfie. In effect, the statistics suggested that selfies were more or less entrenched in our imagination and connected to our news feed.

However, an interesting facet of the selfie culture is the rise and growth of industries such as cell phones, dermatology and cosmetology. Since necessity has oft been deemed as the route to invention, these industries have had booming success owing to its new breed of consumers. For instance, five years back, most cell phones had cameras situated on the rear end of the phone and had minimal image improvisers. However, the present crop of cell phones have shown an increasing trend towards front cameras and exceptional image applications including features to smoothen out skin, erase dark eye circles, create thin facial structure, etc. For instance, cell phone giant Micromax cashed in on the selfie craze, by launching a camera-centric phone named Micromax Canvas Selfie.

According to a source based in Micromax, “the phone has a 13 mega pixel camera on the rear and the front of the phone keeping in mind the selfie trend. Similarly, the phone has editing and makeup tools such as skin smoothening,face slimming and many more to beautify the image” In addition to such unique features, the evolution of the selfie stick or monopod that came up side by side with new cell phone features has also contributed to the ever-growing economy around selfies. On an average, a selfie stick with minimal features such as an aux wire and built-in clicker could be priced close to 500. On the higher end, one could even find the likes of Apple joining the trend of selfie sticks through its very own ‘iPad selfie stick’. Thus, products attempting to encourage selfies, have in effect, shined a way to creating a brand new economy for themselves.

Another sector that has seen remarkable growth over the last few years is the industry of dermatology and cosmetology. The construct around these industries primarily begins with the idea of boosting one’s self-esteem. Suruchi Puri, a premier cosmetic and facial surgeon based in New Delhi, admits to experiencing a radical boom in industry. “Ever since selfies became a way of living globally, there has been at least a 10 percent hike in rhinoplasty surgery consultations. One could have the desire to have a perfect nose for a selfie. Although such measures might seem drastic, one cannot but say that the ‘selfie industry’ is single-handedly boosting the plastic surgery industry.”

A fast self-portrait made with a smartphone’s camera and immediately distributed and inscribed into a network, the art around a selfie is a new visual genre. Changing aspects of social interaction, body language, self-awareness, privacy, and humour, selfie alters temporality, irony, and public behaviour. In other words, the genre has structural autonomy unlike its contemporaries. “The cult of the selfie celebrates regular people. There are many more photographs available now of real people than models,” says OP Verma, PhD, faculty director at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Selfie culture also helps in enabling empowerment as it allows one to control one’s image online. To get a better idea of this scenario, it is essential that we look back to our sorry past of passport-size photographs. “I am painfully self-conscious about photos of myself,” admits Kritika (19) from Delhi. “I like having the power to choose how I look, even if I’m making a funny face.”

Despite such positive traits around the selfie culture, it is impossible to ignore an important aspect. The most common selfie is the one where you click for the sake of a nod from a clique of admirers. “If I feel pretty, I take one,” says Rahul (23), a native of Lucknow. “When other people like it, it is a mini boost of confidence.”

Rajiv Mehta, a leading psychiatrist based in Delhi tells Tehelka, “A majority of patients that I see with Body Dysmorphic disorder have a tendency to click selfies. Prateek Khanna (name changed), one of my patients, had explained how he grew suicidal over his addiction to clicking selfies. Apparently, he used to spend at least 10 hours a day clicking selfies. As a result, when he couldn’t click a perfect selfie, he overdosed on drugs. Adding to that, his parents also told me how he lost weight dramatically through the course of his addiction.” Thus, the rise of digital narcissism has put an unprecedented pressure upon people owing to its trait of distorting reality and consolidating delusions. “Selfies frequently prompt perceptions of self-indulgence or attention- seeking social dependence. That is, if you indulge in it, you are damned because then you add to the spectre of narcissism. If you don’t, then you are damned again because you end up with very low self-esteem,” adds Dr Mehta.

The advent of the selfie and its rapid evolution cannot be seen as a new phenomenon. Historically speaking, the first selfie was reported to be Robert Cornelius’ self-click at his backyard in October 1839. Unlike other photography projects, this photograph stood out owing to Cornelius’ informal pose and unkempt appearance. If Cornelius were alive today, this writer believes that he would have been surprised to see how he almost became the father of the selfie revolution that is storming its way through the global economy.

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