Here’s looking at you, kid

Most of us associate selfies with the advent of mobile phones. The truth is, they go a long way back.

Last May, Team Sweden (and the New York Rangers) superstar goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was sitting in a press box at the Globe Arena in Stockholm, watching his teammates play an exhibition game against Russia, when suddenly a group of small boys caught a glimpse of their idol.

The group got closer, slowly but surely, and then one of the boys mustered up enough courage to walk up to the box and talk to Lundqvist.

“Hi, Henke, what’s up? Why aren’t you playing? Where’s your brother?”

Lundqvist had almost gotten to the end of his reply when the boy went on.

“Can I take a picture?”

“Sure,” Lundqvist said.

The boy turned his back on his idol,

raised his arm and aimed his camera so that they were both in the frame, and snapped a photo. In front of him, a line was beginning to form, and they all did the same – greeted Lundqvist, turned their back on him and snapped a photo. The last boy in the line also wanted his little brother to get a photo and instead of taking a photo of his brother, he lifted him up so that he could take the photo of him and Lundqvist himself.

A selfie, that is.

CHANCES ARE YOU’VE taken a selfie. Or, to paraphrase Eddie Murphy’s character in Trading Places: “Selfiessssss, sss, plural.” Of course you have, we all have. Anybody with a camera phone has taken some sort of a selfie. It may not have been exactly according to Cosmopolitan’s guidelines, with pouted lips and from the perfect upward angle, but you have flipped the phone’s camera, stretched your arm out and snapped a photo of yourself – and maybe another one until you’ve got one you’re happy with – to share with your friends.

Because, let’s face it, without sharing, there’s no selfie. Yes, humans have always been interested in the concept of self, even 2,000 years ago in ancient Egypt, but the purpose hasn’t always been purely self-reflecting. And there were few self-portraits all through the Middle Ages. True self-portraits in fact, didn’t come about until the Renaissance as the attitudes toward inner reflection changed and the concept of art also changed toward individuality and the person of the Artist.

A self-portrait is a reflection, even in its most literal interpretation and the invention of glass mirrors conveniently coincided with the European Renaissance and the changes in attitudes.

The center of luxury Italian glass-making in the 14th century was the island of Murano, or “The Isle of Glass.” The Murano mirrors were the preferred mirrors of European royalty, creating an arms race in the business, and improving the quality of all mirrors.

ONCE THE ARTISTS got mirrors, they turned their attention to the person gazing back at them. Advanced technology has also always pushed artists into making more and more accurate self-portraits. Even Rembrandt painted his famous self-portraits, according to the latest theories, with the help of both flat and concave mirrors which he used to project the images onto surfaces, for better precision, and to be able to look at his subject – himself – while painting.

And then, in 1839, an amateur photographer Robert Cornelius got an idea while working at his father’s lamp shop in Philadelphia. He took his camera outside behind the shop, took off the lens cap, and sprinted into the frame. And then he waited, sitting down, holding his pose for a few minutes before putting the cap back on again.

In 1914, Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia made history – without knowing it – by taking a photo of herself in front of a mirror. She was 13 at the time.

Those were early self-photos. Were they selfies? They weren’t then, but they are now. The term “selfie” was coined in Australia in the early noughties. It follows an Australian tradition of shortening words and adding the -ie suffix, such as barbie, postie (for postman) and tinnie (for a can of beer). Coincidentally, a few tinnies may have contributed to the birth of the “selfie” since the person who posted the word on an Australian public broadcaster’s website described his injuries after falling down at a friend’s 21st birthday party.

“I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie,” he wrote.

There were some Polaroid selfies in the 1960s and 70s, and cameras had timers so that the photographer could run into the frame (like dad every Christmas Eve) but selfies caught on when cameras became ubiquitous and when sharing became easy. Today, there are more than 400 million photos tagged “selfie” on Instagram, 25 million “#selfies” and millions of other variations from “selfie Monday” all the way to “selfie Sunday.”

WHILE THE TREND shows no signs of flattening out, on an individual level there may be such a thing as selfitis, a condition of compulsive selfie-taking. In 2018, psychologists Janarthanan Balakrishnan and Mark Griffiths surveyed people in India, the country with the most Facebook users and most selfie deaths per capita, on six components of selfitis – environmental enhancement (taking selfies in specific locations to feel good and show off to others), social competition (attracting ‘likes’ on social media), attention-seeking, mood modification (to feel better about themselves), self-confidence and subjective conformity (taking selfies to fit into a group).

According to the study, those who felt compelled to share selfies, were “more likely to be motivated to take selfies due to attention-seeking, environmental enhancement and social competition.”

We take selfies to share parts of our lives with our friends (and fans). We do it to say “We’re here doing this. We’re looking good, we’re drunk, we’re having fun. We’re beautiful, we’re happy, we’re together.”

Back in the pre-selfie era, getting Henrik Lundqvist’s autograph would have been a nice memento, a proof of a meeting with someone famous, but a selfie beats that, because seeing is believing. You were there. With That Person. You. Him. Her.

Click. Click. Share.

First published in Scandinavian Traveler, October 2019

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