Cover Story: The Indian Selfie

(Co-written with Sharmista Chaudhury)

Forty-five-degree tilt. Check. Double chin in. Check. Perfect pout. Check. Eyebrows raised. Check.

Clicking a picture of himself is serious business for Shayak Munshi. The 31-year-old from Delhi would give 16-year-olds a run for their money when it comes to clicking a selfie.

It doesn’t stop at the perfect pose. Munshi’s selfies go through a rigorous screening process before they go online. He takes photos with his BlackBerry, edits them using Picasa and first uploads them on BlackBerry Messenger. On receiving good comments from friends, he posts the picture up on WhatsApp and Facebook.

“I am more than happy to admit that I am self-obsessed,” says Munshi. “It is good to love yourself.”

With the constant urge to express oneself, how one feels, what one does and thinks—be it on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram—youthful human behaviour today is all about projections. And what better word than ‘selfie’ to define it. In it lies the sum total of youth experience.

Chosen as the Oxford Dictionary Online’s word of 2013—courtesy a 17,0

Shayak Munshi Photo By Aayush Goel
Shayak Munshi
Photo By Aayush Goel

00 per cent increase in its usage online—a selfie is defined as a “photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media web site”.

The numbers are baffling, with 90 million (and counting) Instagram pictures grouped under the hashtags selfie and me. So much so that even US President Barack Obama was caught in the act, and that, too, at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. The partners in crime were Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who clicked the snap, and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

A few months ago, Pope Francis did it. He appeared wide-eyed in a group selfie with three Italian youngsters inside St Peter’s Basilica.

Television celebrity Kim Kard-ashian has gone a step ‘behind’ with belfies—portraits of her backside. And singer Justin Beiber shoots music videos in selfie mode.

Indian stars can’t be far behind. We have Priyanka Chopra pouting her way through her selfies, Shah Rukh Khan clicking himself on delayed flights, and Sonam Kapoor sharing her workout moments. They claim to be giving fans a peek into their daily lives—the “real” them.

The history of the selfie is, in a way, the history of the camera. According to Wikipedia, the first selfie was probably clicked by American photographer Robert Cornelius in 1839, when he produced a daguerreotype of himself in front of his shop.

As the camera grew compact, the ease with which one could capture oneself increased. The digital camera and later the iPhone 4, which introduced the front-facing cameras, made the drill easier. The urge to experiment increased. And social media gave people a new obsession.

So, why do we take selfies? “I take them when I feel ‘Oh, my God! I look so pretty!’ and I have to put it out there for others to see,” says Aayushi Soni, 17, from Mumbai. Midhun Srinivasan, 32, of Mumbai, uses them for a more practical reason. “They create self-awareness. If you are, say, putting on a little weight, you realise it,” says Srinivasan, who started hitting the gym after a selfie highlighted a double-chin.

Photo by Ramesh Hunsur
Elizabeth Betsy Joy with her friends Srinidhi Sardar and Shweta Chandran
Photo by Ramesh Hunsur

For Elizabeth Betsy Joy, 21, of Bangalore, selfies are a great way to keep in touch with friends. “When my best friend went to Canada, we started sharing selfies so that we did not miss any special moments in our lives,” she says.

Sometimes, the selfie just gives you that much-needed pat on the back. As Abhishek Thukral, 25, puts it: “Selfies are just a way of self-appreciation”.

Anisha Sharma of Mumbai feels it is no big deal. It is pure fun, she says. The impluse to click a quirky pic grips her at just about any time. And she has clicked just about everywhere, including a beauty salon. “I was bored and then I saw the image in the mirror; I could not let go of the opportunity,” she says of a photo of her sitting under a dome hair-drier.

It looked as if she was in a spaceship, and Anisha wasted no time to inform the cyber world that she was being captured by aliens! For her, selfies are about capturing the memory, without worrying about the quality of the photo.

While self-clickers give various reasons, critics link selfies to narcissism. But Dr Pamela Rutledge, director of US Media Psychology Research Center, California, disagrees. “Just because a selfie is a photograph of oneself, it doesn’t mean that the intention is primarily self-representation,” writes Rutledge, on email. “Selfies do not lead to narcissism. They can be a visual journal, sharing and celebrating the process of life.”

Documentation has been essential to mankind. The selfie takes it to the digital space. The selfie is a form of communication, too. It makes the process of sharing experiences richer.

“Images are processed by the more sensory side of the brain, evoking emotions and experience,” says Rutledge.

For instance, she says, a selfie at a beach ‘speaks’ volumes compared to a text that says “at the beach :)”. “What would the text have to say to include the same amount of information that seeing someone’s smiling face against a bright sun, blue sky, sand, waves and maybe awesome new sunglasses?” she asks.

For some people, selfies can be a form of self-exploration. Akin to holding a mirror in the digital space. Says Sahil Bhagat, founder, Vebbler.com, a social networking web site: “Selfies can be a great mode of self-exploration, especially among youngsters, who experiment with outfits, hairdos, poses and places, all of which could form a part of their identities.”

Agrees Faiz Ullah, an assistant professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai: “One always managed to steal that one last look in the mirror before leaving for college. I feel that is the purpose selfies serve today—surveilling the self.”

For many people in this cyber age, first impressions are no longer based on personal interactions. Today, there are parents who check out Facebook profiles of prospective brides and grooms for their children, and employers who surf through walls and posts of potential employees. Online background checks of the ‘cute-guy/girl-we-met-at-the-party-yesterday’, too, are also common among the youth.

A study by Seoyeon Hong and Kevin Wise of University of Missouri School of Journalism notes how important it is to “present yourself strategically on Facebook”. People who posted profile pictures with “extensive social cues”, supported by positive comments, were perceived more positively.

So photographs convey your story best, the reason why Faiz Ullah feels “selfies are more about actively fashioning an identity, a self-image, in the digital realm”.

Anita George, 27, of Chennai, says she takes a lot of selfies, but never uploads them on social media for the “fear of being judged”.

Pallavi Sharma, 18, of Mumbai, on the other hand, feels selfies are the best way to put her “sense of style out there”.

Both, the shying away and the zeal, show how much thought goes into online identities.

The rise of the selfie can, perhaps, be attributed to the increasing awareness of one’s social image. “When you take a picture of yourself, you can make it look exactly the way you want it to,” says Dr Anjali Chhabria, psychiatrist and founder of Mumbai-based counselling centre Mindtemple. “It may be to project one’s true personality or an extension of the person which one desires to be.”

There is also a great sense of control and power attached to the selfie. In his essay on art criticism, Ways Of Seeing, John Berger makes a pithy observation: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” The selfie, to an extent, subverts this idea. When a woman clicks herself, she takes ownership of the image. Selfies, says Rutledge, have unleashed a flood of “real women” on the internet.

“The selfie cult celebrates regular people,” says Bhagat. “There are more photographs of normal people now than models, and they may reset the industry standard of ‘beauty’ to something more realistic.”

But can this obsession with your image have a negative effect in real-world relationships? According to a study conducted by Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University, “increased frequency of sharing photographs of the self… is related to a decrease in intimacy”.

Aaditya Naik, 25, from Delhi, however, disagrees. “My girlfriend is not a self-obsessed person, she is just very confident and sure of herself,” says Naik, who has been in a relationship with a “selfie-addict” for four years.

Aayushi Soni Photo by Janak Bhat
Aayushi Soni
Photo by Janak Bhat

Rashi Vidyasagar, a researcher in Mumbai, who has taken up “30 days of selfies challenge”, too, is far from being self-obsessed. She took to selfies for a different reason: “I tend to get very self-conscious, and this challenge is my way of breaking that behaviour pattern.”

The idea of the ’30-day challenge’ was put forth by Google engineer Matt Curtis, whose theory is that if one does something continuously for 30 days, it becomes a habit.

“I just want to be able to post a photo and not care about the number of likes it gets,” says Rashi. “The challenge has been a liberating experience.”

Selfie patrons say it gives them a sense of validation, something they do not derive from their offline environment. Like Shalini Rao, 34, from Hyderabad (name changed), who used selfies to reclaim her life.

Rao, a mother who works from home, says she went through depression post-delivery. “I felt lonely,” she says. She missed her husband’s attention. And Facebook provided solace.

“Every time I uploaded a selfie, there were so many ‘likes’ and comments that I was overwhelmed,” recalls Rao. “My friends tell me my obsession is unhealthy, but I think it has helped keep me sane.”

Chhabria says that Rao’s friends are right—obsession or addiction of any kind can be damaging. “Depending on others’ positive reactions towards one’s selfies to make one feel good is emotionally unhealthy,” she says. “This can be a sign of one’s insecurity or feelings of inferiority.”

And Rao must know that the virtual world is fickle. Once the online attention dips, people like her will struggle to cope with it, points out Chhabria.

Grabbing and retaining attention is crucial in the world of advertising. And, of late, several brands are using the selfie trend to hook on consumers. Ronita Mitra, senior vice-president, brand and consumer insight, Vodafone India, feels it is all about communication. The company’s recent ad, which showcases a woman’s selfie journey from heartbreak to happiness, was an instant hit.

“The youth of today are constantly sharing their photographs with each other through their mobile phones, anywhere and anytime, and this forms a significant bulk of their communication,” says Mitra.

Turkish Airlines played with the idea of a selfie competition between football sensation Lionel Messi and basketball star Kobe Bryant across global destinations.

In fact, many brands are positioning themselves in this space of sharing personal experiences. Suvajyoti Ghosh, managing director and co-founder of Brandmovers India, a digital communication agency, talks about a promotion he ran for the music festival NH7 Weekender using Instagram uploads.

The group made a music video using the happy festival moments submitted by users. “We received over 800 photos from six days of the festival in Bangalore, Delhi and Kolkata,” he says.

Selfies, however, are not just about fun and the feel-good factor. They are becoming a mode of protest in these times of online activism.

The Filipinos recently protested public transport fare hikes by posting selfies with messages. The Kurdish Men For Equality ran a campaign with cross-dressed men posting selfies to protest an Iranian judge’s idea of punishing culprits by parading them in women’s clothing. India had the Gay For A Day campaign to protest the criminalisation of homosexuality.

WITH THE ICONIC images of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei giving the finger to the White House and to the portrait of Chairman Mao at Tiananmen Square, the selfie has been elevated to high political art, too.

Artist Riyas Komu says Weiwei, who was put under house arrest, is one of the contemporary artists who have used the language of selfies effectively. He stung the system with selfies.

“With his images from the hospital bed [after he was beaten up by the Sichuan police], Weiwei made a point,” says Komu. “At a time when his freedom of expression was curtailed, he used social media, and selfies in particular, to protest. He used it to penetrate his language.”

Komu is glad that selfies are gaining “celebrity status”. “They are a way of reinventing one’s body and using it as a vehicle to make a point,” he says.

Psychologists and sociologists say that the selfie trend is too young to be judged or labelled. “It took almost 30 years after the birth of the internet for the internet addiction disorder to be formally seen as a diagnosis,” says Mumbai-based clinical psychologist H’vovi Bhagwagar. “Similarly, social media is a relatively infant concept and we should not pathologise it too soon. We need to analyse it better.”

Meanwhile, one thing is certain: selfies are here to stay. The pope, the Obamas and their pet dog Bo can’t seem to agree more!

Be app-to-date
Move over ‘likes’, go for the ‘WOWs’. Fashion photographer Atul Kasbekar has designed an app which will help you make a “fashion statement” with selfies. Signature Selfie is a free beta app through which you can edit and upload pictures of yourself, and the person who gets the highest number of WOWs—the new like in social media terminology—could win a portfolio shoot by Kasbekar. The app has one-touch photo enhancement tools such as #DazzleLook, which softens the focus of your pic, #IbizaLook, which, Kasbekar says, gives it an “I-just-came-back-from-an-awesome-beach-vacation” feel and #ArtzyLook, which will render a black-and-white charm to your selfie.

Chemical reaction?
There could be some chemistry behind the rise of the selfie. “Serotonin is the neurotransmitter responsible for emotions such as happiness, confidence and satisfaction,” says Dr Anjali Chhabria, psychiatrist and founder, MindTemple. “High levels of serotonin lead a person to seek situations that increase their self-esteem and feeling of worthiness. The attention or validation that comes with selfies, coupled with the release of this neurotransmitter, may have led to the rise of this trend.”

However, no studies have found any the link between the selfie craze and reactions in the human brain. “A person’s attitude or reaction to selfies can be significantly attributed to the ‘mind’ and less to brain chemical changes or neural activities,” says Chhabria. “When a person has obsessive compulsive disorder, there is irregularity found in the serotonin levels, but no such neurotransmitters have been proven to be directly responsible for the selfie phenomenon.”

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