Last Updated: April 9th, 2019

“A picture is worth a thousand words” is the commonly used phrase that helps elevate a picture from a mere image to a complex depiction of a moment in time.

The notion that a single photograph can not only help an individual keep a specific moment alive, but consists of multiple layers which can be brought in and out of focus to tell a story is an idea that’s widely accepted.

If we consider this expression further, however, it becomes apparent that its implications have been altered over time. The belief that an individual achieves a better understanding of a moment, scene or person by looking at a photo may be predicated on a notion that no longer holds any merit.

Photography and new media

We live in a world in which the idea of capturing a moment through photography has become less personally significant than it was in the past. The goal of taking a photograph, now, is to get a sense of approval from others who view it.

The evolution of photographs has accelerated due, for the most part, to photography’s intersection with “new media.” Individuals have become accustomed to using multiple media platforms that rely on and promote the taking and sharing of photographs. While the use of pictures provides individuals with new ways to connect and share with each other, it has also led to the “selfie” phenomenon.

One of the most prevalent types of communication between individuals on the Internet is through “selfies,” and I can’t help but wonder if this phenomenon is damaging our perception of our own self-worth.

Members of previous generations were expected, at a young age, to use their imagination. When they looked at photographs of people and places, there were few barriers hindering their thoughts. They might ponder who the person in a particular portrait could be, create alternative realities or place themselves within the stories of the individuals being displayed.

“Focus on the photo”

old picturesWhen my mother was little, my grandfather would hold up old photographs and tell her to visualize, through each picture’s unwritten words, what the pictures were telling her.

“Focus on the photo’s different attributes and imagine their implications,” was the line he’d use as she gazed at an image in front of her. Together, the two of them would create entire scenes wrought with betrayal, inspiration and adventure out of a simple image showing something like a man standing with his dog next to a tree.

While their little game relied on a somewhat romanticized notion of what a picture can be, and not everyone regards pictures in such an esteemed way, it seems that younger generations are somewhat deprived of the opportunity to partake in this creative outlet.

As today’s children are exposed to the media at an early age, their need for creativity is overshadowed by social media’s ability to easily entertain and impress. By the age of 12, most children not only have access to, but often have accounts on Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat. These mediums offer an onslaught of “selfies” for users to view and engage with.

While this would appear to offer today’s active media participants numerous opportunities to ponder who the person in each selfie might be, or create a new story, they don’t always do this. Instead, viewers often disengage and fail to appreciate any of the photos they see. There are just too many of them! We scroll through one picture after another, taking only a second to note that most of them are selfies of various types.

The camera phone

In the year 2000, Western society was introduced to the camera phone, and by 2003, more than 80 million units had been sold in the U.S.

It was during this period that the “selfie” phenomenon began to materialize. Individuals started to capture excessive numbers of photos, as cameras were now a part of an ever-evolving and expanding breadth of technology. The ability to capture any moment and view it instantaneously eliminated the previous need for planning and staging. The photographer (or cellphone wielder!) now had options—if the photo wasn’t liked or didn’t turn out as anticipated, it could be instantly deleted. Another photo could be taken to replace it in seconds.

While the desire to present the best possible version of the self has encouraged the production of self-reflective images since the inception of portraits, the main reason for producing these images has changed. Photos have evolved with the “selfie” and have become a creation of the self, rather than an extension of the self.

What was once a statement of, “I wonder what 1,000 words this picture will be able to say,” has turned into, “I wonder what other people will say about this picture.” 

The platforms that websites and cellphones provide for “selfies” encourage individuals to continually upload and showcase multiple pictures. These platforms also provide users with the affirmation that their actions and pictures are forms of positive contribution to the global community.

Whether it’s through social media itself, or the individuals who engage in it, “selfies” are recognized as an excellent form of communication. For myself, though, platforms such as Facebook make me feel like I need to portray myself in a specific way in order to be accepted in society.

Create a perfect self

woman on bed taking a selfieSocial media encourages individuals to create a perfect self. As this perfection isn’t sought after for personal reasons, but rather due to the anticipation that both known and unknown parties will judge each posted photo, it toys with a person’s sense of self-worth.

Rather than expressing my personality, I (as the “selfie” taker) am accepting myself as an object that’ll be reflected to me within the image I take. While I’m in control of the image itself, I can’t control how it’ll be received. Therefore, I’ll go out of my way to perfect it, with the hope of ensuring a positive response.

Unfortunately, the “selfie” phenomenon gives others the go-ahead to pass judgment with little to no consequences. The responses a person receives via instant message after posting a picture function as the perimeter of a social construct. They direct what physical aspects of an individual should or shouldn’t be shown.

As a result, images are deemed unappealing or unacceptable without any thought given to the message they’re depicting, and with no regard for the value each picture may hold to the photographer. This practice of passing judgment is detrimental—it strips people of their ability to genuinely express themselves and can also negatively affect how they view themselves.

Instead of listing numerous examples of how posting a “selfie” can be encouraging and boost someone’s sense of self-worth, or devastate an individual due to harsh, negative comments received, I’d like to encourage everyone to partake in my grandfather’s picture game.

The next time you see a photograph, I suggest you “focus on the photo’s different attributes and imagine its implications.” If you create a scene in which the main character’s personality shines through, you can lose yourself in an alternate reality.

By engaging in this type of creative outlet and rejecting the conventional notion of appraising a photograph based on how flattering it is, we can begin to positively redefine how we assign value to both ourselves and others.

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