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Review: Writing the book on selfies — sociologist reframes social photos

A young man snaps a selfie with his smartphone on a city street.
A young man snaps a selfie with his smartphone on a city street.
(Getty Images)

How serious is a selfie? Why circulate a shot of your dinner plate?

Defenders of photography as an art form tend to quake at what’s happening with their beloved medium. The casual way shots are taken and indiscriminately shared feels like a thinning and cheapening of the camera’s purpose. A debasement, even. I confess that this was my defensive posture when I picked up Nathan Jurgenson’s “The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media.” Would the book harden my stance, I wondered, or broaden my mind?

Prolific preening and posting isn’t watered-down art, Jurgenson argues, but augmented communication. The social photo is ephemeral, informal and yes, often banal, but such criticism is irrelevant. Nobody expects poetry out of “talking and hanging out,” social photography’s closest kin.

Jurgenson, a sociologist employed by Snap Inc. (more on that later), normalizes the phenomenon of snapshot saturation by erecting a historical, contextual scaffold around it. The social photo fulfills a fundamental human impulse to document experience, he writes, an impulse that takes different forms as technology evolves. The tools we see with affect what and how we see; they shape our “documentary consciousness.” This has ever been so, but because digital images are largely ephemeral, they upend our assumptions about what a photograph is, and what purpose it serves. Social photography, according to Jurgenson, is more about appreciating the present for its own sake than compiling a permanent visual archive. Attributing a be here now sensibility to a practice that interrupts engagement more than it intensifies, it feels overly generous at the least, specious at best.

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Another innate impulse, having to do with defining and performing the self, also finds a ready vehicle in the networked camera. The articulation of identity, too, bears the ever-changing accent and grammar of new technology. The extent to which digital media conditioned behavior can be witnessed everywhere, as we press pause on the everyday bustle around us to better frame our selfies. The line between shooting the style in our lives and styling our lives for the shoot has become increasingly blurred. If this yields a sort of onscreen inauthenticity, Jurgenson doesn’t buy it. “The Social Photo” is grounded in his rejection of “digital dualism,” the notion that online and offline worlds are mutually exclusive. He scoffs at the term “IRL.” It’s all real life, he contends. The digital and material are continuous and interwoven. There is no pure state of innocence and integrity away from our devices. Those who proclaim, self-righteously, “I am real. I am the thoughtful person. You are the automaton,” Jurgenson says, are mere fetishists, romanticizing a false ideal, and maybe even profiting from the promotion of it — think digital detox manuals, the wellness industry and so on.

“The Social Photo” makes for a lively and provocative read. Jurgenson peppers his discussion with references to theorists on culture and photography, Walter Benjamin, Jean Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson, Georges Bataille and more, but manages to strike an accessible tone just shy of academic. He bounces his thoughts about the reflex to chronicle our everyday doings against Susan Sontag’s “photograph-trophies” and Roland Barthes’ “certificates of presence.” He discusses insightfully how we use social photography, but is less broadminded when assessing how social photography is using us, what losses might incur from the conflation of private, public and performative. He acknowledges that social media has reshaped cultural norms about exhibitionism and voyeurism, but dismisses as alarmists those who scrutinize the costs, individually and collectively, of our compulsions. Because the offline/online binary is false, his thinking goes, any toxicity identified with the digital sphere cannot reside only there, but is a reflection of larger social problems; it might be a symptom, but can’t be blamed as the cause.

Which brings us back to Snap. The company employs Jurgenson and funds “Real Life,” his cheekily titled online journal about living with technology. He notes that “Real Life” is editorially independent, but it’s hardly necessary to claim the same of “The Social Photo,” when Jurgenson’s own glistening take on the networked camera aligns so neatly with Snap’s upbeat mission (as stated on its website) to “contribute to human progress by empowering people to express themselves, live in the moment, learn about the world and have fun together.”

Even though “The Social Photo” reads more as apologia than critique, it reassured me, in places, expanding my faith in the resilience and adaptability of the expanded field of photography. The book also served, throughout, as a worthwhile goad, spurring me to test its assertions against my own uneasy re-experience — as both avid user and resistant consumer of social photography.

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“The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media”
Nathan Jurgenson
Verso; 144 pp., $19.95

Ollman writes about art for The Times and Art in America.


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