Monday, November 7, 2011

Curating Ourselves: Facebook, Photography, and Good/Bad Pictures

While in the midst of a twentysomething identity crisis, I took a spate of deliberately ugly photographs of myself. I’d been possessed by a sudden fear that not only was I a troglodyte, but that I’d been a troglodyte all along and just hadn’t known it, so I decided to face my fear by proving that I could look like a troglodyte but wasn’t sentenced to it. The grand outcome was that I wound up with a bunch of troglodytic self-portraits. (I no longer believe I’m a troglodyte, for the record, but that’s a different post.) This was before digital cameras, and I’ve since lost the prints, but here’s a photograph that’s about on par with them:

Fun fact: The Troggs were originally called The Troglodytes!

It’s probably obvious why you haven’t seen this photograph before: It’s terrible. But it’s hilarious to me, and I’m reasonably assured that it in no way captures my essence. (Right?). That’s exactly why I can show it to you. What’s harder for me to put out there is this photograph:

It’s not like my eyes are half-closed or that I’m wearing a goofy expression, or that it highlights some flaw I’m self-conscious about (even if I do look a hair jowly). I dislike it not because it’s particularly unflattering, but because I look timid and reluctant. It was a fleeting moment (I was at a joy-filled brunch but was quite ready for my second bloody mary), but it captures my hesitant, mousy sidea side I’d prefer not to exist at all. Yet it’s easier for me to show you the first phototaken at an unflattering angle, while I was making a weird face, halfway through a four-day backpacking excursionthan it is to show you the second, in which I look perfectly fine and have done a certain amount of "beauty work" to look presentable.

I write here about beauty: conventional prettiness, the beauty of the individual, the work we put into our appearance. But sometimes I lose sight of what’s at the heart of beauty work: the desire to be seen in the way we wish to be seen. In other words, our desire for beauty is often a desire to determine our image. How better to do that than to keep a tight control on the tangible images we supply to the world? Not for beauty’s sakeeven the best portrait of me won’t turn me into Helen of Troybut for the sake of the traits we think make us who we are. The images we select for sharing (or at least don’t quietly untag ourselves from on Facebook) are a better indicator of how we regard ourselves than the retouching we might do on any of them.

When we start talking about sharing photographs through social media, the importance of the photographs themselves diminishes in comparison to the sharing of them. Social media encourages us to fashion our identities through editing and telegraphing our tastes: Since we can’t list every musician we like, by selecting only a handful we’re telling the world that these are the tastes that really form who we are. It doesn’t matter if you know I like Fleetwood Mac, but if I don’t put out there that I’m a jazz fan, a crucial part of my taste identity is missing. (Actually, I deleted all my tastes from Facebook and now only “like” musicians and such whom I’m friends with, but even that’s another form of telegraphing something: Nyah nyah, you don’t know anything about me.)

In the same way, the photographs we choose to share of ourselves form another arm of our public identityand because of the primal power images have, they take up more psychic room than listings of our favorite bands. How good we look isn’t the most important factor in deciding what photos of ourselves to publish, if my quick perusal of some friends’ Facebook photo albums applies across the board. Activity appears to be king: weddings, birthdays, big nights out, costumes, social gatheringsthese are the photos Facebook showcases, not merely our sleekest, most groomed selves. For that’s the point, right? That Facebook allows us to share our real lives? But what that actually does is further the onus on each of us to only publish photos of ourselves that match the image we’d like to put forth into the world. And more often than not, that image is casual, carefree, not heavily styledbut looking pretty damn good. And why wouldn’t it? Back when we had to pay for each print and rely on the goodness of friends who bothered to make doubles of a roll of film from a party, we didn’t have the luxury of curating only the best photos of ourselves. Now there’s no reason for us to put forth photographs of ourselves that are downright unflatteringbut more than that, there’s no reason for us to share photographs that don’t match our self-image in some way. Sometimes it can feel like there’s not even a reason to take a photo unless it’s going to be shared, making the act of sharing transcend the details of any given photo.

If sharing a photograph can transcend the photograph itself, sometimes the photo can transcend reality, something we recognized long before we could all easily create, discard, and share photographic evidence of our lives. “It is common now for people to insist about their experience of a violent event in which they were caught upa plane crash, a shoot-out, a terrorist bombingthat ‘it seemed like a movie,’” writes Susan Sontag in On Photography, 1977. “This is said, other descriptions seeming insufficient, in order to explain how real it was.” We allow photographs to supplant memory, in part because they are static and reliable, and can be referred back to, where our memories become muddled. In the same way, portraits of ourselves become static, reliable externalizations of who we think we are, where our identity can become muddled. Beyond the awareness that everyone from our siblings to our employers to our exes might be able to see whatever images we put online, the most important recipient of the self-image telegraph we send through sharing photographs is ourselves. Photos become proxies for what we believe to be true of ourselves, and seeing a photograph of ourselves can serve as assurance that we are who we think we areor, as anyone who has ever felt their heart fall a little upon seeing an unflattering photo of themselves knows, that we aren’t who we think we are.

But because photographs are often shared beyond our most important audienceourselvesit feels important to “keep it real” and not put forth unrealistically beautiful images of ourselves either. If, as Tina Fey put it, feminist Photoshopping is retouching that makes you look “as if you were caught on your best day,” then social-media photo curation is making sure we’re shown in what appears to be a somewhat-but-not-remarkably-better-than-average day. The idea is that we’re captured as-is (even when we’re not); it’s part of the seamless sharing of self Facebook is designed for. And because of the supposed seamlessnes of our online and offline lives, if I put forth only my most luminous, well-styled, color-corrected portraits, the people who know the real-life non-color-corrected me can privately call bullshit on me, and I know they can. We each become our own photo editor, striving to make sure we look good but not too good in the photos we put into the world. (For the record, I have done the math and my public photos have a 12% bias toward being flattering. Those of you who haven’t met me, please adjust your mental image accordingly.)

Yet the question of how pretty or not pretty we look in the images we release to the world has become secondary to the question of self-curation. I don’t mean to say that we’re all anxiously poring over our photographs with a constant eye on our public imagebut I’ve gotta say that when I looked at the photographs that I’ve actively shared of myself on Facebook, they don’t really resemble my actual life. (Arguably the photos others have posted and tagged me in are more realisticbut then, of course, I’m out on the town or in another situation that calls for a camera.) The pictures I’ve posted of myself reflect a side that I’d like to shine more brightly than it actually does: a seasoned traveler who’s up for anything, whether that be eating a horse burger in Slovenia, pouring a tray of mojitos for my coworkers, or riding a mechanical bull in midtown. (Ahem.)

In fact, my very favorite photo of myselfand yes, it’s on Facebook, and indeed is my profile photo on The Beheldwas taken toward the end of a trip I took to Vietnam. I was sitting alongside Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, and a small boy started playing peekaboo with me. He seemed interested in my camera, so I took a couple of photographs of him, but he was less curious about that and more interested in operating it himself. He snapped this photograph of me:

It’s a good portrait of me because I am smiling the way I’d smile at a child with whom I’m having a delightful exchange; it reminds me of an adventuresome time in my personal history. It also happens to be a superbly, perhaps unrealistically, flattering photo. Who am I to say why I love the photo so much? Is it the memory, the light, the smile? Whatever it is, it’s become a talisman for what I would like to be true of myself: that I am not annoyed when a four-year-old wants to play with me, that I have unlimited time to lounge about southeast Asia, and, yes, that I’m constantly illuminated by a subtropical glow that emphasizes my suntan. I can’t claim that image is an accurate representation of me, but it’s what I offer myself. And it’s what, today, I offer to you.


  1. We'd better blog well, because soon our social media profiles will be embedded in our tombstones and that's the only way anyone will remember us.

  2. That first picture just looks like the kind of picture of awesomely-peopled 90s grrl bands that are still so beloved.

    I don't mean to dimiish your dislike of it, and please dont think I didnt read ad digest your whole post! Because I did.

  3. After almost two years of being an anonymous blogger, I finally had a "coming out" day where I introduced my real self complete with image and OY! Trying to take a picture of yourself that had the right blend of my flawed authenticity while still trying to be flattering was a challenge! I discovered I wasn't trying to hide all of my flaws per se, but merely present the flaws *I* was ok with. I hope I chose wisely but my friends haven't lambasted me so I think I'm good.

    I consider Facebook, blogging, social media, etc. like a visual memoir. A written memoir doesn't include every banal detail about a person's life, but the parts that make the most impact for that person (or the parts they want to portray as the most impactful). You can't help but curate your life but no one but you can really know how authentic it is.

  4. I love the 20-y.o photo! I have so many like that from those days. Pre-digital. Crazy!

    This post really spoke to me because I just worked on some self-portraits for a future blog post (one of the photos is my current avatar on my blog) and I was laughing at the process the entire time because I know that what I deem acceptable vs. what I deem unacceptable looks virtually the same to others.

    While the last photo of you is absolutely gorgeous, the middle one looks just as much like you (to me) as the last.

    Do you think we have an ability to see beauty beyond the flaws of others more easily than we can when viewing ourselves?

    I am sure that the photos that accentuate my eye-luggage look pretty similar (to you) as the one that I got in the right light thus obliterating the majority of the puff. To me these are 2 different looking you, they are both me.

    Sort of depressing actually...

  5. This is so fascinating to me. I've never met you in real life, so these few photos that you've shared on this blog constitute what I imagine you look like. And I've often wondered about your profile picture, it seems so candid and unposed compared with the others you've posted here (like the one with the glasses and the before and after bombshell pair), and by that virtue so unlike my mental image of 'you.'

  6. "...the most important recipient of the self-image telegraph we send through sharing photographs is ourselves."

    Yes. Like mirrors, I'm endlessly checking photos to find out what I Really Look Like, then panicking and destroying evidence that suggests I Really Look Like Jeff Bridges.

    Really, everyone BUT me knows how I really look; they can walk up and eyeball me without thinking "But are the eyes too close together? Is that overbite too much? Does this nose stand between me and happiness?" They get to see me, think "Oh, it's Rebekah," and move on. Lucky devils!

    I've always liked your avatar pic; it looks happy and natural, not vain or overly posed. Ah, but do I like it because of how it APPEARS to me or because that appearance SIGNIFIES to me "honest, natural person!" Mystery.

  7. This is interesting to me because I don't share pictures of myself online. I constantly amuse myself with the thought that if I was ever kidnapped, no one would know what I looked like because I don't take pictures of myself. Like, unless it's a necessity. Even when I was abroad, the only reasons I have pictures of myself is because some one else took them. So it was a form of subtle coersion.

    Even my FB picture is that of an animated character. And I FINALLY changed my Twitter avi to a picture of a cat - I HATE having my face up on the internet. It made me uncomfortable. If anyone has any pictures of me, it's because I took them partially against my will. I do not volunteer to have my photo taken. Ever.

    I love knowing what other people look like, but I loathe having people know what I look like. It's part of that ugliness thing I blogged about. So I've never concerned myself with "how I come across" in my photos; I simply don't take them.

  8. Cynthia, I am amaz'd. Digital tombstones? Is this something that makes sense to digital natives?!

    Claire, thank you! Let's call it "Bratmobile chic."

    ModernSauce, I love how you put that--a visual memoir. It also speaks to the idea that doctoring photos actually goes to an interpretative vision of ourselves, more like an oil painting instead of a snapshot. With the way technology shifts we don't necessarily need to use it all as a straight-up documentary; there's room for the visual memoir aspect, which needn't be tell-all.

    Cameo, I do think we don't view other people's "flaws" as flaws, because nobody is as invested in our supposed perfection as ourselves. I think this is part of why it's easier for me to watch video of myself rather than look at a photograph--when you talk to me, you see me when all my angles and features are "right" as well as "wrong" (eyes half-closed, weird expression, etc.). To you, it's all just who I am and you don't think much of it. But when I see myself frozen in something I don't like it's mildly upsetting--but with video everything is loosened up a bit and no one frame is definitive.

    Emily, that's interesting to hear, and don't be surprised if we meet someday and I put you on the spot by asking which is more "authentic"! I'm guessing the one of me in the pink dress above is the most representative, as nobody else seems to dislike it but me.

    Rebekah, everyone else gets off the hook easy, right? Imagine having to be a model booker, you'd have to do that all the time! Worst job ever. After driving a semi. (How do they do that?)

    Parisian Feline, there's something mysterious about not displaying what you look like--there's actually a glamour to it, as glamour is, in part, defined by distance. Let's just say you're terrifically glamorous, then!