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That’s Not a Selfie

Alyssa Bereznak
National Correspondent, Technology
Yahoo Tech


That’s not a selfie; that’s just a group photo of some shirtless men. (Last Week Tonight with John Oliver)

Recently, evidence has surfaced that we are experiencing peak selfie. And it seems that — because of the selfie-saturated feeds, headlines, and references that have seeped into our pop culture — otherwise intelligent people have taken to mistaking regular photographs as selfies. Put simply: An innocent canon of work is being unfairly lumped into a modern offshoot of ego-driven, eye-roll inducing photography. And it must stop.

Before I go any further, let’s define a selfie. The word began sprouting in mainstream vocabulary around 2000. Photographer Jim Krause offered a basic definition in his 2005 instructive book, Photo Idea Index.

“A selfie is one of those images that is taken by aiming the camera at yourself,” he wrote quite simply. “The guesswork that goes into taking selfies often results in serendipitous photographic surprises.” He adds in the book’s notes that, “One of the best things about selfies is that they can be taken just about anywhere, anytime.” True words that we eventually understood to be both a blessing and a curse.

Related: 8 Photos That Are Not Selfies

Yes, you people took selfies with your actual cameras, digital and otherwise. As those cameras shrunk, it became easier to curve your arm in front of your face, aim the lens in your general direction, and snap a photo without accidentally dropping your $600 equipment. But it wasn’t until companies like Apple began slapping high-quality front-facing cameras on their phones, around 2010, that this category of photography really exploded. Everywhere you looked, there was a photo of a person in front of a mirror, holding a rectangular gadget off to the side, pouting or flexing for her followers.

Woman taking a selfie in a mirror with an iPad

iPad selfie: one of the most ridiculous breeds of selfie. (Gawker)

Though each selfie was different, one thing threaded them together: the presence of the photo subject’s arm and hand, acting as a flesh-made camera stand. It was this detail that gave selfies a certain uncomfortable realism. Yes, that girl in the photo decided, all alone, to slather on some makeup, wiggle into a tight dress, and photograph herself in her bathroom mirror. Yes, that person took the time to look away from the stage at a Beyoncé concert, all to get a photo of her face next to her sparkly stilettos. Yes, that person traveled all the way to London, just to turn around and snap a picture of himself in front of the Rosetta Stone.

Selfie of girl with Beyoncé in the background

(Tumblr)

Selfies are limited to the length of your arm and, as a result, always produce uncomfortably close, angled-down images of your face. But they’re also a way to prove that you are wherever you say you are, whether that be a party, a movie premiere, a funeral, or a plane crash. Ellen DeGeneres’ Samsung-funded Oscar selfie, which featured some of the most beautiful and talented people in Hollywood just off the high-profile event’s center stage, probably communicated that better than any other image.

But then something funny happened. The American people, overwhelmed and hypnotized by the buzzword, just started calling regular photos selfies.

Take, for instance, a recent episode of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, which featured a segment titled “Newscasters Misidentifying Photographs as Selfies.” The brief Sept. 14 supercut chronicles the many images that news anchors have inexplicably described as “selfies.” No, that photo of a baby with a lemur is not a selfie. It’s just a photo of a baby with a lemur. That close-up of a tortoise’s face is simply a portrait. And that video footage of a pickup truck in an Oklahoma storm doesn’t even scratch the surface of the genre. It was a clever clip that, on the surface, exploited the typical newscaster buffoonery that’s so expertly mocked on late-night comedy. But it turns out that they’re not the only ones guilty of the problem.

Photo of a sleeping baby with a ring-tailed lemur

Very cute, but not a selfie. (Last Week Tonight with John Oliver)

Earlier this year, Daily Dot editor Cooper Fleishman wrote, “Calling a random celebrity photo a selfie is like burping into a trumpet, uploading it to SoundCloud, and then tagging it with #jazz to make sure people click on it.” He went on to praise Robert Kessler, a writer who identifies himself on Twitter as a #selfietruther, who regularly posts photos to clarify that they were, in fact, not selfies.

Photo of Ellen DeGeneres

Ceci n’est pas une selfie. (Robert Kessler)

But what was once a buzzword aimed to get clicks or delight viewers now seems to be coagulating into plain horrible language. As I was skimming through Apple’s new Tips app, which is meant to teach you how to use your phone, I was startled to see that the behemoth company had adopted the gratuitous use of the word. After all, it’s our tech companies who solidify the verbiage and vocabulary related to our gadgets. And this tech company had made its stance on the word “selfie” known.

Photo of couple in Apple ad for camera timer

I wrote, “apple, this is not a selfie,” and tweeted the image, to which the CEO of the music app Songza replied, “It is though. It’s talking about the ability to put the phone away for auto-shoot so you don’t have to hold it yourself. :)”

But, you see, we’ve had this ability all along with digital cameras and most Android phones; it’s just one we’ve chosen to bypass. We are no longer bothered with what a selfie looks like, but that doesn’t mean it’s the same thing as a posed photograph.

Journalists taking a selfie with a selfie stick

Media using a selfie stick outside the Flint Center before Apple’s Sept. 9 product announcement. (Alyssa Bereznak/Yahoo Tech)

So let me lay it out nice and clear. A photo you take of yourself with a timer is not a selfie; it’s a portrait. A photo you take of yourself while holding your physical camera up with your hand is a selfie (even if it does include other people in the frame). By extension, it follows that photos captured with the use of a selfie stick may also be placed in the selfie category. The moment your phone or camera leaves your hand and is balanced on a rock or a fence, you have traveled into a different genre of photography. For the love of photography, would you pass along the message?

8 Photos That Are Not Selfies

Follow Alyssa Bereznak on Twitter or email her here.