by E.B. Bartels
I feel like taking a selfie. I received two rejection emails – for an internship and a fellowship – within ten minutes. Well, onward and upward, I guess. So goes life. But something sneaks under the skin. It stings. And before I say screw this, I want to sit in the moment. I write in my journal. I drink a beer. I stew. I want sympathy. I’ve noticed my eyes are brighter green after a few tears. I hold up my beer and toast myself in the mirror. I’ll take and post a selfie. Maybe the friends who “like” the image will cheer me. Maybe it will soften the sting.
Three friends commented revealing they had also been rejected.
A virtual cheers followed with the beer emoji icons. I felt better.
This is one reason to take a selfie. But it’s not the only one. There have been many articles lately making broad statements about the meaning of self-portraiture. We’re self-involved, narcissistic, crying for attention, lonely, lacking self-esteem, overly-confident, proud, superficial, appearance-obsessed, depressed, egomaniacs. All of the above. It’s ridiculous to prescribe one philosophy. Just as the photographers are diverse in age, gender, race, and class, reasons for their images are also varied – and they change over time and from image to image. Each selfie and photographer is individual. Everyone has a story. Here is mine.
I started taking selfies in 2003. Then they were “self-portraits,” because the word “selfie” did not exist. I took them for my tenth grade photography class. I would have an idea for an image – a person dashing across my backyard in a disintegrating prom gown I found at a rummage sale – and, being the afraid-to-inconvenience, it’s-ok-I-don’t-need-help kind of person I am, I was scared to ask someone to model. It was easier to put my Nikon SLR on a tripod and run across my backyard myself. I didn’t want to impose. As an almost-only child – my siblings are a decade older – I was usually alone. I was used to relying on myself. As I ran by the timed shutter, I was self-conscious, but slowly I became breathless and giddy. I was alone and uninhibited. I had complete control over my shot. And I was having fun – mud splattering up from my rotting Converse sneakers onto the disintegrating tulle. Though, when I presented the pictures in class, I was often embarrassed and also a participant in teenage cattiness: of course she took an almost-nude photo, I sighed,or, she thinks she’s soooo pretty in her white dress in the woods, rolling my eyes.
Self-portraits for my high school photography class, spring 2004.
Silver gelatin prints using double negative exposures.
A little later, I got my first digital camera – a Canon PowerShot SD500 Digital Elf. Film was expensive, and I used it to get the light right, to play with composition before shooting a roll of 35mm. I was free to experiment. I took photos no one else would see. Unlike the silver gelatin I manipulated in the darkroom alongside joking, judgmental classmates, digital photos were private. I could hide them on my computer or delete them immediately. I was learning to use make up and dress myself, trying to figure out how I appeared to other people. Again, I began self-conscious – closing my bedroom door, startling if my mom surprised me, embarrassed that I was spending so much time taking and analyzing photos of myself. But they made me feel good. This was how people viewed me. This was the woman I was trying to be. I used my digital camera to remember a successful outfit, or a day I felt happy. I like to document my life – I have kept daily journals since eighth grade – and I took digital pictures to capture particularly joyful or dark moods. I used my digital camera to remember a successful outfit, or a day I felt good. I like to document my life – I have kept daily journals since eighth grade – and I took digital pictures to capture particularly happy or dark moods. I saved these as reference points, self-esteem boosts on rough adolescent days, temperature checks. I had a MySpace profile, but I uploaded only a few. My digital self-portraits were for me.
Assorted high school-era digital self-portraits, 2003-2006.
In college, I majored in Russian and minored in Studio Art, specifically photography. I spent June 2008 to June 2009 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Before I left, my parents gave me a digital SLR, Nikon D80. My mother was nervous, so I joked I would photograph myself to prove I was still alive. Every day, I composed a self-portrait, sitting on my bed in my host family’s home and, later, on my bed in the apartment I rented with another American. Sometimes I would add friends to my frames. Sometimes I held a prop – a sought-after umbrella, an American flag on the Fourth of July, an incoming postcard. I posted the images online as I took them – sometimes lagging and posting seven in one go. My parents checked religiously. Why don’t you smile, my dad asked, concerned. I smile when I’m happy, I said. . And, in Russia, I wasn’t always happy. Not every day in Russia was easy. I was exhausted. My brain was perpetually tired from speaking in my non-native language. I was often homesick and lonely. But there were days too when I was over-joyed – having successful purchased train tickets, scoring well on a vocab quiz, able to explain directions to someone in Russian. I sat for my self-portraits and tried to capture the overall mood of the day – or at least how I felt in that moment. These photos were a document of a year for better, for worse. I never missed a day. When I returned, I hung an exhibit 365 Days (Plus One): huge grids of me staring into the lens, over and over, in the orange glow of my Petersburg bedroom.
Photos from 365 Days (Plus One) in St. Petersburg, Russia, 2008-2009. I didn’t smile much.
By 2010, smart phones were common, and, therefore, so were selfies, even if the word was not yet coined. There was already a sneering response to the let-me-look-as-great-as-possible-self-portraits:images that were purposefully unattractive, tongues out, I’m-trying-to-look-like-I’m-not-trying, and the self-portrait-not-of-the-self: a pair of sneakered feet, a hand, a beer or book with the caption self-portrait. Then, I was teaching at an all-girls middle school. My eclectic jewelry quickly gave me reputation as The Teacher With The Earrings. I took a weekly photo, lining up Monday through Friday’s earrings, saying this is me as a teacher, this is Ms. Bartels. I posted the images to Flickr – my mother enjoyed them – but I did not upload regular selfies. I wanted to create a portrait of myself as a teacher, without taking a portrait of myself. Arranging the earrings in a row – assessing my past week based on how fun or serious were my jewelry choices – I was able to take a moment to reflect, just as I did when I was taking my St. Petersburg self-portraits. But my internet-savvy students had made me self-conscious again – palpably aware of my face on public view. I didn’t want Internet-savvy students to find them. I already had to change the privacy settings on my 365 Days (Plus One) project.
Teaching, fall of 2010: self-portrait in earrings.
In 2011, I got an iPhone. I used it to take self-portraits as usual: to play with light, to document artful eye shadow, to hold onto a mood, to text my mother yes, still alive. They accumulated on my phone; most I saved to my computer and forgot. But with Instagram, easily linking to Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook, I began to share. Self-portraits became selfies. Something once for a limited audience or just myself, became a dialogue. dialogue – a way to share how I am feeling, what I am thinking, with the friends and family who keep track of my Instagram and Flickr, Facebook and Twitter. And, even though other articles online might make you think otherwise, in every selfie is a different emotional state. Here I am: exhausted, disheveled, get me through the day, I need support. (My mom responded: “Still looking good for disheveled!”) Here I am: showing off, making fun of my outfit’s pattern-clashing, looking for approval. (My friend commented with emoji hearts, smitten with my fashion statement.) Here I am: with my friend, buzzed on wine, in a bathroom, red lipstick, sequins. (Another friend wrote: “GD gorgeous.”)
Assorted selfies from Instagram. X-Pro II is my favorite filter.
Yes, that’s Hillary Clinton on my phone case. Yes, I wear that scarf a lot.
I post feminist, girl-power selfies described by Slate– hell yeah look at ME! I post selfies to flaunt a new look or an unusual locale. I post sympathy-seeking, encouragement-hungry, cry-for-help selfies described by Jezebel– tell me I’m ok, I wish I didn’t value my appearance, but I’m pretty, right? I upload photos to brag, look at me having fun with my mom. I take selfies of who I think I am, and who I want to be, as The New York Times wrote. I enjoy my friends’ selfies: from the goofy bored at work variety to the serious project my friend did documenting his female-to-male transition. Regardless, as The Guardian said, selfies are a marker of our time.
Every selfie serves its own purpose. Every one captures a specific moment. Every one is a check in with yourself and the world. This is me. This is my body. Here I am. I’m alive.
E.B. Bartels is Boston native currently living in NYC to pursue an MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia University's School of the Arts. Her writing has appeared in Agave Magazine, The Wellesley Review, and the anthology The Places We've Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35. Bartels is a regular contributor to Wellesley Underground, and she has read in the Lamprophonic Emerging Writers Series and in series at Columbia. Her memoir piece "Just a Trim" received an honorable mention in New Millennium Writings 36th Competition. Her photographs have been exhibited at Harvard University, Wellesley College, Boston University, and Smolny College of St. Petersburg State University. E.B. works as an Editorial Intern at the Frances Goldin Literary Agency, teaches an Intro Writing class at Columbia, and is the Online Content Editor for Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. 365 Days was exhibited at Wellesley College's Jewett Arts Center in Wellesley, Massachusetts and at Smolny College of St. Petersburg State University in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Images: courtesy of E.B. Bartels