There is a selfie I ought to have deleted years ago but have not. It was taken on a Diwali eve when I was home alone and none of my close friends lived near enough for me to invite myself over. I dressed up nevertheless, putting on trinkets, a touch of make-up. What next?
I turned to the mirror and photographed this woman with her barely concealed ache—all dressed up and nowhere to go. On impulse, I shared the image with a friend. At the time, I never shared pictures of myself for non-professional reasons. In sharing the selfie, I was reaching for something. Affection? Witnessing? Reassurance?
I cannot say. What I can say with certainty is that that selfie is forever marked by loneliness and betrayal. That friendship ended in bitterness, but through its ending and in my loneliness, I found myself taking more selfies and even more, until my own self-image as a snooty selfie-naysayer lay in tatters.
Subject in control
Once upon a time, I was judgmental about selfies. From film stars to your third cousin, everyone was pouting, clicking, and uploading selfies on social media, and I was disapproving. A photograph taken by others captures more of the physical environment, a more uncertain expression, a likeness that you cannot fully control. Selfies, on the other hand, give their subjects too much control. The selfie-taker is intent on being seen as they see themselves rather than on capturing memories. And how much memory could a selfie possibly contain?
I bit down on my disapproval though, and read scholarly commentary on the sociocultural implications of relentless self-portraiture: what does it say about our generation? What does it say about societies where women are unsafe when they become visible, or where self-fashioning comes with a side of grievous harm? Perhaps selfies were good for something after all, if they could help us understand ourselves?
“My selfies were attempts to get out of my own head, to disentangle my gaze from the mess and judgement within, and to observe myself dispassionately.”
I cringe now to think of that former self—so blinkered, she didn’t even know how to look at herself squarely in the eye. How, then, did I get to a point where I have a folder full of goofy selfies and where my own self-portraiture is unapologetic?
The answer lies buried in an analogue photo album. I discovered a photo of myself from 2003 that looked like a selfie and I wondered where it had come from since I did not have a smartphone at the time. Then I remembered: I was at a party and looking around at what people wore, how they smiled, danced, flirted. I felt my separate-ness keenly—from the lace of my crochet jacket to the beads of my necklace to my single status. Whilst taking photos of others, I surreptitiously turned the bulky camera around, pretending to clean the lens, and clicked. The roll was developed, the photo printed and stuck in an album. Fifteen years later, it emerged to prove me wrong: a selfie serves very adequately as memory.
Scenes from a rough year
My attitude began to shift in 2017 but there is an abashed quality to my first few selfies. There are some photos taken on a campus visit. I was in the habit of using my phone as a mirror to check that my kajal was not smudged, and in the course of checking, I realised that I liked what I saw and was overcome by a desire to capture this moment: a rare day in the life of a woman who is learning to appreciate herself before she grows old, before her hair thins, before she stops wearing clingy shirts and jeans. I did capture it but I also clearly remember how anxious I was not to be seen taking selfies.
That was a rough year. I can see it in the selfie I took lying down, my eyes done up. A friend in Delhi had mysteriously sensed that something was wrong and had insisted that I put on make-up, take a selfie, and send it to her. She made me do it not as self-portraiture but as an act of self-preservation. To fashion the self—to look at yourself—and then to share it with someone else, was to commit to oneself. In obeying her, I was affirming my place in the world.
Soon I began testing selfies as a form, taking photos of myself in profile or from across the room. These were not attempts at showing the world my best face, for I rarely bother with make-up or nice clothes. These were attempts to get out of my own head, to disentangle my gaze from the mess and judgment within, and to observe myself dispassionately.
During the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I also used selfies to witness myself: alone, fever-ridden, unwashed, and with uncombed hair, but alive. Once I recovered, I started to use my selfies as templates to test photo-editing features. Could I add whiskers to my face? How might I look with an elaborate tika or with multicoloured hair?
More recently, I find myself using the “self” as a prop for elements that I truly want to capture: a blue sky, the way light slices across my window, a dress my mother begged me to buy, a sweater I knitted myself. I also take selfies to use as an author photo for media requests, partly because there is usually no photographer around whom I can afford and partly because it is another way of looking back at the world out of my own eyes.
Occasionally, I share my selfies with trusted friends but rarely on social media. Still, I now know why the taking, and sharing, of selfies is significant. It reveals a self that exists not because of but despite all the other things that define you—kids, parents, friends, jobs, sickness, impending death. It is just you, alive and wanting to live. It is proof of life.
Annie Zaidi is a writer and filmmaker.