Selfie Control

Different questions about consent emerge when the photographer is both subject and shooter

On January 22 of this year, the Associated Press announced that it had severed ties with Pulitzer Prize–­winning photographer Narciso Contreras after he admitted to altering an image of a Syrian opposition fighter filed with the AP. The controversy stems from the industry-wide policy of only accepting completely unaltered images, on the basis that photojournalism should reproduce reality without intervention.

The controversy of Contreras’ photo­shopping reveals the stubborn faith in the photograph as evidence, as being worth a thousand words. We are offended by the fake ­because we assume the photograph to be more than real. The photograph is the truth and needs no further explanation.

So what was the object removed from Contreras’ photograph to create a more perfect composition? Another photographer’s camera.

Contreras’s intervention was to remove the accidental trace of the meant-to-be-invisible presence of the photographer, the functionary of the gaze in conflict photojournalism. The soldier is fighting, the soldier is taking cover, and the photographers are taking his picture: They are in the same tableaux, part of the same reality. The reality that Contreras created through his small act of alteration was the expected parallax of photojournalism. The photographer is an invisible seeing presence, he is not seen and he does not affect the scene.

The specter of the unintentional object, particularly an object of action—the lens of a camera, a blurred hand in motion, the barrel of a gun—in conflict or atrocity photography carries the viewer’s gaze into the margins of the photograph and outside it. Who is acting in the margins? Whose gaze do we occupy? The image bleeds, it fails to be constrained to the still capture of history and becomes active, present, and we become part of the scene.

There is a photograph on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum of an Einsatzgruppen murder by firing squad, in which the barrel of the executioner’s rifle protrudes into the shot—evoking the similar intrusion of Contreras’s lens. In this photo (and in others taken by anonymous Einsatzgruppen members and spectators), the gun and the camera occupy the same space in the landscape. As visual-studies scholar Marianne Hirsch points out in The Generation of Postmemory, the spectator unwittingly occupies the “Nazi gaze,” in which “the photographer, the perpetrator, and the spectator share the same space of looking at the victim,” and the victims “are shot before they are shot.”


This ominous gaze is disrupted, and the predicament of the documentary photographer-subject relationship complicated, via a selfie—in particular, a selfie tucked among vacation snapshots and baby portraits in an exhibit at Auschwitz-Birkenau euphemistically titled “Before They Perished.” The exhibit compiles photos found after liberation in a suitcase in the vicinity of Kanada, believed to have been brought to the camp by families traveling together from the ghetto in the area of B?dzin and Sosnowiec and either forgotten amid the piles of stolen goods or stashed as a souvenir by a member of the SS.

In the photograph, a girl, in her late teens or early 20s, kneels in front of a white-painted metal bed and behind a small wooden table. She holds a box camera steady atop a book on the table. She is looking down at the camera, intent on the act of creating the image. Both from the positioning of the camera and a glare of light in the top left corner of the photograph, it’s clear that the picture was taken by the subject herself, in a mirror. Like Roland Barthes scrutinizing the photograph of Lewis Payne, the handsome assassin, I am “lacerated” by the knowledge that she is going to die, by the ‘“defeat of Time’” in the historical photograph. And yet I am relieved of the burden of the Nazi gaze. I look at the photographer as subject rather than the victim, interpellated differently by this looped encounter in which I yearn for our eyes to meet and am frustrated by her lowered gaze, by the historical accident of a too-slow look. The woman looks into a mirror, back at herself, but also (not) at me. The open lens of her camera is pointed at her own image and (not) at me. There is no perpetrator, there is no spectacle. This is the devastating part; our eyes (do not) meet.

I wonder, would the inevitability of the death of this unknown woman be more terrible if I knew for certain that she was a Holocaust victim? Would I be less moved by this photograph if I found it in an antique shop in ­Bielsko-Biala, or in New York City, instead of in this exhibit of photographs of perished Jews? It is easy to create a romantic fiction for the selfie of the unknown woman at Auschwitz—separated lovers, a cherished photograph in the dismal ghetto—as easy as it is to “like” an Instagram selfie and then keep scrolling.

Is what inspired the unknown woman to turn her camera toward the mirror similar or the same as what prompts smartphone users to rotate their cameras toward themselves? What limited circulation did her ephemeral snapshot find before it became an artifact? How do we compare this to the reach of the approximately 35 million selfies on Instagram? How do we parse through this transient superabundance, to locate what “should” be archived, what images will become history? Should we even try?

Critics debate whether selfies are narcissism or empowerment, whether they are vaguely embarrassing, belong in art museums, are evidence of some generational failing, or a revolutionary act of self-love. One thing that emerges out of these debates is a question of the looped gaze, in which the photographer and the subject occupy the same position—indeed, are the same person.

Hirsch argues that particularly in the context of atrocity photography, “the identity of the photographer—perpetrator, victim, bystander, or liberator—is indeed a determining element in the photograph’s production” that “engenders distinctive ways of seeing and, indeed, a distinctive textuality” in the object of the photograph. Selfies conflate those positions.

The rise of the selfie coincides with revelations of mass surveillance: We have all started taking more photos of ourselves as we’ve become subjects to the government’s massive recording apparatuses. Being photographed and monitored constantly, whether by friends’ cell phones or the NSA, is shattering already unstable subject positions around the photograph, not to mention the value of differentiating between public and private space. Domestic wiretaps and corporate targeted marketing is accompanied by the increasing use of biometrics in security cameras and social media alike. The technology that makes the selfie possible is also the technology that makes mass surveillance simple.

Responses to this surveillance range from limited attempts to remove oneself from the virtual milieu to intentional hypervisibility. For example, University of Maryland professor Hasan Elahi’s project of photographing and tracking his own every move, after being wrongfully targeted by the FBI, intentionally produces a surfeit of data that effectively renders itself unreadable. Elahi notes, “A lot of work is required to thread together the thousands of available points of information. By putting everything about me out there, I am simultaneously telling everything and nothing about my life. Despite the barrage of information about me that is publicly available, I live a surprisingly private and anonymous life.” Adam Harvey’s “CV Dazzle” project similarly invokes simultaneous hypervisibility and concealment, through avant garde makeup and hairstyling tutorials that would make one more noticeable to others in a “real” landscape, but makes one virtually invisible to facial recognition algorithms.

But the photographic gaze is not so total that the ­tactical production of invisibility is the only way a subject’s absence can be maintained. In the contemporary deluge of images, what Nathan Jurgenson calls “visual oversaturation,” such absences are difficult to spot unless you start looking for them: the black zones, the sites where an Instagram geotag turns up nothing, a web search garners no hits. In Family Secrets, Annette Kuhn asks, “What happens, then, if we take absences, silences, as evidence?” When even the definition of selfie contains a critique of its ubiquity, the lack of access of this kind of self-representation is obscured or de-emphasized. At the same time, what is a modern subject in a world without mirrors, a world where the gaze is tightly controlled and you are always the object of that gaze?

Ariella Azoulay argues that

it is the terms and conditions of the civil contract that explain people’s compliance, again and again, in being made the objects of a violent act—photography—without necessarily receiving any immediate reward. The photographer—who is usually on the edge of another, different institution—turns the photographed individual into his or her object, shapes him or her without allowing the individual to have any direct control over the result.

If we view the selfie as a kind of pinnacle of photographic consent via the looped gaze (the photographer is the subject, the subject is the photographer), we can depart from this civil contract to interrogate different breakdowns of permission, of recognition—who doesn’t get to take a selfie, and what does that reveal about the conditions that keep them from doing so.

Among the concessions gained in the 2011 hunger strikes by the prisoners in California’s Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit, many of whom have been in isolation for over a decade, was the right to an annual photograph. This is thin comfort, and yet many of the families of prisoners in lockdown only have 20-year-old photographs of loved ones. The prisoners may not have seen their own faces in years. Under these conditions, a single snapshot against a white backdrop is a kind of proof of continued existence, of time passing in an otherwise completely liminal space. Without the photograph, the body seems to disappear completely, and without the selfie, or rather any control over one’s image, the self is evacuated.

At Guantánamo—in a perpetual state of closing since 2008—the U.S. military stopped disclosing information on hunger strikes in December, but a similar trajectory exists. Starting in 2009, the U.S. military began allowing the Red Cross to take images of detainees to send to family members as assurances of their well-being, and the Guantánamo Public Memory Project began archiving narratives of individuals who have worked or been incarcerated at Gitmo. One cannot help but be suspicious of these projects, in a field of tightly controlled information and after the prosecution and imprisonment of defense attorney Lynne Stewart. The images that “leak” out from these black holes are entirely controlled. The smiles of political prisoners, intended for their parents, wives, and children and released to a U.S. public, obscure the horrors of their daily realities, the faces of those who have died in custody and those who are designated for indefinite detention without charge or trial. Men who disappear, without self(ie).


In this perplexing landscape of saturation and vacancy, the selfie captures fatal negotiations between hyper­visibility and disappearance, self-representation and appropriation. In Lebanon, 16-year-old Mohammad Shaar is dead. He was killed by a piece of shrapnel from the car bomb that killed former minister Mohammad Shatah and five others in downtown Beirut last December, a bombing connected to the war in Syria and the targeting of anti-­Hezbollah figures. The photograph that went viral, that traversed the twitterverse and made it into the Associated Press, onto Reddit and Buzzfeed, is a teenager’s selfie, holding the camera angled down and to the left to include three friends in the shot, boys in hoodies hanging out on a public bench. The side and top of the boy’s head is cropped by the corners of the image, as is the gold SUV behind them, which will explode shortly.

The boy taking the selfie is not Mohammad Shaar; Shaar is on the bench, in the middle in a red sweatshirt and glasses, almost smiling. Is it still a selfie if the ­photographer-subject is the not the only subject of the image? Yet press coverage insists on “selfie” for this photo that is not a selfie of the dead victim but one of the survivors. In these English-language articles, the word selfie precedes the words slain teenager in the headline, the selfie is the subject of the article, the action is the ability of the ­selfie to “capture” the “slain teen’s last moments.”

Consent is superseded by death. The selfie is released into networks of mourning and memorialization, amended by hashtags (#we_are_not_numbers and #we_are_not_martyrs and #we_are_all_Mohammad in Arabic and English) and appended to images of the slain body. The dead teenager as a figure—not only Mohammad Shaar, but 17-year-old Malak Zahwe, 17-year-old Ali al-Khadra, 18-year-old Maria Jawhari—coheres to galvanize the nation to uncertain ends.

This is the tragedy of the historical photograph: we see the death coming, we cannot prevent it. Mohammad Shaar is about to die and he is already dead. And then, this is the elision; the past is not past and violence is not constrained to the photograph. Azoulay writes, “The photo acts, thus making others act.” What is the impetus for a (dead) subject of a history-making photograph to make themselves available for follow-up? What is the statement of consent, the grievance, the injunctive, in Shaar’s historicized gaze?

Mohammad Shaar is dead and we are left with his image, a “selfie” that is not a selfie, a photograph which pins him in time and summons us to act, at the same time. Shaar sits for the portrait, he participates in the selfie and our gaze follows; the boy who did not die is taking a picture of himself, our gaze meets his, our gaze is distracted by the boy who did die, who consents, and then disrupted by the delivery system for his death, in the margins of the photograph. We are carried outside, into a conflict for which we have some culpability.

The selfie is affixed to the scene of the death (who stitched these two images together?)—the boy who takes the selfie is replaced by the frantic first responder, who does not take the picture, who does not consent. The first responder is treating the dying boy, and the photographers are taking his picture: they are in the same tableaux, part of the same reality. Shaar lies bleeding on the sidewalk, the smoke extends upward, out of the image, as if to engulf the selfie above it.