Text by Tyrone Siu, the Chairman of the Hong Kong Press Photographers Association

In the film One Hour Photo, Robin William’s character says of family photo albums, “No one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget.” People are forgetful, yet they want to preserve memento of precious moments. In the past, we stored personal memories privately, such as in diaries or family albums. By contrast, collective memory involves more momentous incidents such as historical, political, environmental and societal matters. As we more actively use photography to preserve what we see, the social function of photography rises in leaps and bounds. When photos are uploaded to various social media sites, the relationship between people and collective memory becomes ever more intertwined. Behind social media sites are memory storage systems that function in different ways than private diaries and family photo albums. Even though you may not intend it, the photos that you uploaded on the internet will be viewed by scores of strangers, and the internet becomes the repository not of your personal memories, but collective memories.

Who do we shoot photos for?

Every day, more than 300 million photos are uploaded and shared on Facebook. These images, videos and texts are arranged chronologically, and once we go online, we can revisit gatherings with friends from months ago or selfies from last year. These personal photos may not concern the public, but once they are uploaded on the internet, they become part of collective memory. In the past, we take pictures to record important events such as graduation, weddings, travels and children growing up. Each photo is usually backed up by events that we wish to preserve. Nowadays, with the cost of photography having fallen greatly, the motivation for taking pictures has become irrelevant and the meaning of photos has been blurred. Whether it is a cup of coffee we are holding or this morning’s breakfast, we want other people to see these items. Such photos embody our desire to attract attention even though they only have meanings for ourselves but not for others. To people living in this day and age, photo taking is a way to capture the moment and preserve fleeting feelings, yet the photos are meant for other people to see.

Most smart phones nowadays contain two camera lenses. Usually, the back camera is used for capturing what is in front of us, while the front camera is used to take pictures of ourselves (alone or with our friends.) It is hard to know how many of the 300 million photos uploaded on Facebook each day are taken with the front and back cameras, respectively, but it is safe to assume that many millions of them must be selfies. If we simply want to capture our immediate situations, we can simply use the back camera. Why do we feel the need to take pictures of ourselves?

Selfies from 1365 B.C.

Selfies are not something new. In 1840, a French financial official Hippolyte Bayard, upon losing the recognition by the French Academy of Sciences as the investor of photography and thus the sponsorship that came with it, wrote to the Academy in protest and attached with it the first selfie ever taken, titled “Self Portrait as a Drowned Man”. The picture shows a half naked man (Bayard) with his eyes closed; it is not a simple self portrait, but also contains elements of role play. Selfies did not appear out of the blue, but followed a tradition stretching back centuries. A selfie is a type of self portrait, and as early as 1365 B.C., Bak, an Egyptian sculpture working for the pharaoh Akhenaten, had produced a stela showing himself with his wife Taheri. Even though the anatomical proportions and sculptural techniques are not very sophisticated, it nevertheless carries the revealing qualities of self portraits. Later, in the 15th century during the Renaissance, artist Jean Fouquet produced a self portrait that is generally agreed to be the earliest painting of its kind in the Western tradition. When artists produce self portraits, they rely on mirrors to paint what they can see. American social psychologist Charles Horton Cooley’s concept of the “looking glass self” suggests that human beings act as mirrors for one another, reflecting each other’s self image, and that our sense of self is based on other people’s perception of us. The act of taking a selfie becomes a circular relationship whereby the painter observes himself in the mirror to create a self portrait, which then becomes a reflection of reality, and the cycle of self exploration begins anew. To a certain extent, self portraits record one’s identification with one’s alienation, with the self taking on the double role of creator and subject. In selfies, our various expressions and poses are the articulation of our subjectivity: we desire to be seen, but at the same time are afraid of losing ourselves.

What are you trying to say?  

Guo Mei Mei, the self-claimed China Red Cross Commerce general manager, showed off her wealth by posting pictures of brand-name handbags, watches, sports car and holiday home parties; actor Edison Chan showed off his sexual prowess with explicit photos of him and his female friends. One of the social functions of photos is to express oneself, which means expressing one’s situation and condition at a certain point on time. The motivation for taking pictures can be voluntary or involuntary. For example, if you are obliged to attend social functions like weddings, and whether you like it or not, you will need to pose for photos with the newly-weds with a smiling face. These photos serve a function to show that you are happy for the married couple. Such displays, like Guo Mei Mei’s show off pictures, or an image of a political refugee’s suffering, can be good or bad. As Austrian writer Stefan Zweig pointed out, people have an urge to create and preserve themselves, and use the self as a means to know oneself. Zweig thought that in order to know ourselves, we explain ourselves to others. Selfies contain within them the desire to be seen, and to a greater or lesser extent, also contain messages that people want to convey.     

Photos can be about myriad subjects, but “smiles” are probably among the most common. When facing the camera, no matter what our current mood is at the time, most of us can conjure up a smile for a the camera. When we open up a family photo album, it is a full of group photos of people smiling. Whether or not such smiles are genuine, the photos represent our aspirations for a better life, and most people would say they want to take a “better” picture. According to U.S. photography historian Geoffry Batchen, the way family photos are composed and the subjects’ poses are evidence of how people respond to social situations. Probably no one wants to see pictures of themselves or family members quarrelling, divorcing or dying. Smiling pictures can be used to convince ourselves that happier times occurred, even though there can be false memories involved. We use such photos to describe our versions of the ideal life, and expunge from our memories less ideal moments.

What happens if we happen to photograph unhappy incidents? Simply delete the photos, of course.

This article first appeared in Ming Pao (12 May 2013).
Translation: Simon Chung