It’s a fraught thing, selfie-taking. One moment you’re thinking of yourself as more or less human-looking, and then — click — you realise you’ve got it all wrong, and that strangers on the street probably pity you, on account of your dead eyes and strange head. Or you see, on your phone, a perfectly normal-looking person who just happens not to resemble you in any way. Mirrors are much friendlier in this regard: you tend to know what you’re getting. To figure out why you don’t, with selfies — why, so often, the selfies look so weird — for this week’s Giz Asks we reached out to a number of experts in psychology and digital photography.
Associate Professor, Photography, Palomar College
Selfies are usually taken with wide-angle lenses, which expand space, distorting the image to get everything in. This works great for landscapes, but not so much for faces — you wind up with a bigger nose, or a bigger forehead. This is why selfies are often taken with arms extended as far out as they can possibly get, or with selfie sticks — the closer the camera is to your face, the more pronounced that distorting effect is. Distance minimizes it, but the distorting effect is still there, and it makes our faces look unfamiliar, which can be disturbing.
Then there’s the fact that people, when they’re looking at pictures of themselves, are often highly attuned to their flaws. They look at the things they don’t like, rather than seeing themselves as someone else might.
Lighting is also important. Most Instagram influences have a good intuitive lighting sense, because they’re walking around constantly with their camera seeing what looks good. But there’s actually kind of a science to it. You should be looking for soft, diffused light. This is why photographers use big softboxes — diffused light minimizes texture and volume, and hard light emphasises it. Texture and volume, on a face, means wrinkles and zits and pores. Which is why when people pull out their camera on a sunny day at the beach, the results are often a disaster — you’ve got hard direct light and a wide-angle lens and all you can see is the mole on your cheek.
Lecturer, Photography, School of Art + Design at Illinois
A selfie is a fantasy of your spectral image in the eyes of another. Basically, your selfies may look weird because when you’re looking at a selfie you aren’t just looking at yourself, you are looking at yourself looking at yourself. This engages with the uncanny because this selfie gives you access to our own double. It allows you to see a version of yourself that is usually reserved for other people, the un-reversed “real” self.
The compulsion to see yourself the way that other people see you is the definition of vanity. Social factors inform how images look as much as the limitations of the technological apparatuses that produce them. Nobody wants to be caught taking a selfie. It is vain, and vanity is embarrassing. Social disdain for vanity pushes selfie-making into the sphere of guilty pleasure (a soft phrase for taboo) which makes it in turn, more desirable. So, the looming Spector of taboo makes looking at selfies feel “off” insofar as it makes looking at the images feel naughty. This way selfies become great compulsions. Personally, I have 7,937 selfies sitting in my iCloud that are effectively useless space-wasters, though that space is negligible since the front-facing sensor for my iPhone 6s only produces a 1mb file. So my colossal archive of existence affirmations only amounts to a puny 8gb of data.
The photo community often engages in a dichotomizing conversation about what distinguishes a selfie from a self-portrait. I have heard folks wax poetic about intent and how one belongs in the art world and one belongs in the real world. I don’t find that discussion particularly productive. A selfie is a subsect of self-portraiture in which the subject is physically holding the camera in their hand while the shutter is depressed. This means that whatever ends up in the frame is limited by the length of the limb one is holding the camera with (usually their hand, sometimes their feet if they’re flexible enough.)
I am talking about psychology and social influence more than the actual technological aspects of one’s phone camera because visual perception is enormously informed by imagination, and imagination is an amalgamation of physio-psycho-social factors. I think the most interesting answer to this question isn’t about the distortion from the wide-angle lens on your front facing camera, or the colour space that your screen reproduces the pixel data in, or the image reversal some companies build into their software, but how do selfies function in your life.
Artist, and Associate Professor of Art at Arizona State University
There’s just so much pressure with selfies, assuming we’re talking about something shot with a smartphone with the intention of being shared on social media. Social media is so aspirational, in a way, and even when it’s negative it’s positive, in terms of projecting something about yourself that’s desirable — even if it’s repellant, it’s desirable-repellant. I think that pressure makes it hard to feel satisfied. We keep taking more of them because we want to get better at it. They’re so aspirational that we can never achieve a great one, so we have to keep taking more. Meanwhile, the conventions keep shifting, and the filters and tools keep getting better, or just more complicated.
I think our current isolation has only intensified this pressure — social media is the way we see each other. I think people are either engaging with it more or totally shutting out of it. The more isolated we are, the more it becomes like our sole form of being in the world, the more pressure there is. We want to keep looking better, getting better, being more desirable, promoting ourselves as humans, promoting ourselves as business entities, getting more people to love us, etc.
That said, the weirder the better, I would say, because there’s so many conventions to selfies now — we know that we’re supposed to cock our head a certain way, hold the camera at a certain angle to look good, and then we have FaceTune and all these other things. So I think when they look weird they’re actually maybe a little bit authentic.
Professor, Psychology, Washington State University
Unlike more traditional photos, selfies often involve awkward angles or centering, and the person taking the photo may be attending to different things (the angle, the camera on the device, other things in the environment). So, selfies are not particularly natural in the way that we think of our image or of traditional photos. Some of my research also indicates that people who post selfies on Instagram are viewed less favourably than those who post more traditional posed photos. One of our theories on this is that selfies seem more contrived and less natural in the eye of the beholder, too.