All photos by Megan Koester
In much the same way that with great power comes great responsibility, with great exposure comes great narcissism. Social media has given us unfettered access to an entire world of possibility—our audience, both ever-present and endless, seemingly exists solely to validate our existence as human beings. It makes sense, given this new reality, that we as a people believe that everything we experience, every emotion we feel, every opinion we possess, is worthy of documentation. After all, there is always another soul on the other side of our overshare.
Expressing one's personal take on the latest celebrity scandal, political issue, or social injustice is now considered a requirement for using the internet. Indignation, or at least acknowledgement, over hot-button issues is the new norm. Every opinion is valid enough to be either echoed or ripped apart in a Facebook comment thread. We post, we comment, in order to make ourselves feel less alone in the complex, overwhelming jungle that is the modern world. We do so in order to prove that we exist. Sometimes, however, we are either too tired or too lazy to type words into the void. It is then that we take selfies.
The concept of a selfie is nothing new. Photographers—actual photographers, not trust-fund babies with digital SLRs they don’t know how to operate but know how to purchase with their parents' money—have taken them for decades. But with a smartphone in everyone’s pocket, and a selfish song in everyone’s heart, selfies have now become ubiquitous by both the artistic and the artless. No situation, no experience, is deemed unworthy of documentation by these snap-friendly souls.
Does a selfie deserve the same critical eye we give pieces of art? Is a selfie art, period? It is impossible to say. Capturing both the truth of life and the mundanity of the everyday carries inherent, undeniable weight. Art, of course, is the capturing of weight. It is an act of rendering the cosmically intangible tangible.
Ignoring the universe surrounding ourselves in the interest of documenting our existence in said universe, however, seems gauche. We are constantly surrounded by things beyond our control, things that exist outside of ourselves that will remain standing long after we have fallen. Nature. Monuments. Great wonders of the world. These things are larger than we are, and rightfully so.
They are things larger than ourselves, with more permanence than the bodies we inhabit. Perhaps, when confronted with all of this permanence, we feel the need to document our existence in the impermanent moments surrounding these objects. Perhaps that is why we feel the need to photograph ourselves in front of these pillars of the past that have existed long before we were born and will exist long after we have died. Perhaps, we think when we take a selfie, we are making an artistic statement. Perhaps we are standing alongside these great works of art we are witnessing, and that we are works of art ourselves.
On my most recent visit to New York City, I returned to the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, day after day, because I was entranced by the endless parade of people taking self-shot photographs on its roof.
Every afternoon I would pay my entrance fee ($1, because the “suggested” fee was an untenable $25, and as long as I at least acknowledged the suggestion but chose not to fulfill it, I felt in the right) and climb five stories to the museum’s peak, a gorgeous view of Manhattan and the not-long-for-this-world greenery that is Central Park.
I would sit on the roof, anonymously, in the largest city in America, and secretly document people photographing themselves for reasons I inherently understood and yet, in my heart of hearts, did not understand.
What were they doing with the images they took of themselves on this magnificent roof? Why did they take them? Were they inspired by the beauty below them, the floors filled with names from art-history syllabi, pieces people didn’t have the luxury of seeing in person needed to view via textbooks? Or did they not absorb the art at all? Did they find themselves more interesting, the act of sharing their existence more interesting, than a William Eggleston photograph? An Henri Matisse painting? An Egyptian statue? I could not say. The only thing I could say is that they would not stop.
Person after person, patron of the arts after patron of the arts, they came. They saw. They documented. It was almost as if the documentation of their experience meant more than the experience itself, which begged the question: “If we were unable to live in the moment before people possessed the ability to document said moment, did we ever experiencing anything at all?” It was a chicken-and-egg situation, but the chicken had opposable thumbs and an unlimited data plan.
The internet is a vast, endless wasteland of disposable content—meaningless lists, sensationalistic clickbait, and snarkily topical tweets that litter the online expanse. The amount of content we both ingest and create is overwhelming. Many can, and do, waste their entire lives in this digital void. Click begets click; status update begets status update. Lather, rinse, repeat. May as well add your face to the endless parade, I thought, because you are at least giving a human visage to this parade of nothing.
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