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Mother, my vision is reduced

· ​The Selfie society ·

In the beginning was the automatic shutter. All one needed was to find a sufficiently stable place to lean on, to check that the frame was wide enough, to press the button and run. The result would only be seen a few days later: once the roll of film had finished and the necessary time had passed for the laboratory to develop and print it. Then cameras changed. Ever smaller and lighter, they even became a standard part of cell phones. Until a second eye was to be found, on the same side as the person taking the photograph.

Ileana Pazienza, “Alice Meets the Bewitched Boy” (winning photo in the “Dipende” Competition at Alberobello)

Farewell to the large albums bulging with photographs that preserved the memory of family generations which children leafed through sitting on the laps of their grandmothers, expert in giving a name even to the faces that appeared in the most faded pictures. And farewell too to the evenings with friends, summoned with the promise of a supper based on pizza and beer, and then stuck in front of a sheet hung on the wall in order to “admire” the slides of their trip out of town.

Stop. Enough. That’s it. We now simply check that the cell phone is on the right setting, stretch out our arm, click and it’s done. The selfie has proved useful. Ready to travel on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat to stockpile likes, tags and emojis. And then? And then… whoever has looked at himself has looked at himself. For often very little remains of that burst of clicks and online postings.Recollection perhaps, but without there being the time or patience to track it down in the clogged up memory of the cell phone or of a digital cloud.

Last summer a song whose refrain said: “We are the army of the selfie” was all the rage on radio and television. One could not find a more fitting expression to describe the phenomenon that was unleashed from 2011 when the first double video camera appeared on a mobile phone. At most one could correct the quantitative dimension of that expression which is approximate by default. The army is already an army, transnational and transgenerational. Uniformly subjected to a single discipline: the celebration of the self.

In 2014 a survey for a company producing cell phones calculated the number of selfies shared in the world every month to be about 29 million. In the same year the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, together with the IBSA Foundation, presented the results of a survey carried out on a sample of 150 people with an average age of about 32. Most of those interviewed (39 per cent) declared that they took selfies above all “to amuse others”. But those who take them purely out of vanity (30 per cent) or in order “to recount a moment of their lives” (21 per cent) are by no means few. The same survey showed that women have a greater tendency to take selfies than men, but with a more personal purpose. “I take selfies to show who I am and what I feel”.

Although to ascertain the universal dimension of the phenomenon it might be enough merely to look around one, it is not so easy to understand the profound needs that selfies promise to satisfy. In the liquid society described by Zygmunt Bauman, the atavistic fear of being left alone and ignored by others has become greater.The 24-hour connection imposes new behaviour in order to say “I am here”, but increases insecurities and frustrations. Narciso 2.0, incapable of distinguishing between the public and the private, is not content with contemplating the reflection of the self that appears on the screen of the cell phone. It is fed by recognition and by the approval of others. It is an insatiable hunger that can become a pathology – this has been recognized by the American Psychiatric Association – which can put life at risk: last year one university in Pennsylvania recorded 170 cases of death resulting from “extreme” selfies.

Self-portrait in the mirror of Vivian Maier (1955)

Like every means and form of communication, selfies are not neutral. The very nature of the images and the pervasiveness of the Internet make them a powerful instrument for the creation of approval: “I am someone like you” so “give me your vote”, “buy my products”, “read my books”. But they also make them an instrument for denunciations and for providing evidence. In Brazil, for example, many young people use selfies to show the violence that takes place in the favelas in which they live. In some Arab countries selfies are at the origin of winning campaigns for the emancipation of women. Moreover, for many immigrants they are a way of letting their families know that they are still alive. And the young people who, at the opening of the Synod dedicated to them, arrived to meet the Pope used selfies to say “we are not an anonymous mass, I am here too”.

Yet selfies have an objective limitation. The angle of the shot remains limited to the length of one’s arm or of the special selfie stick, focused on who is taking the photograph and little more. They are an eye directed at the self, where other people exist only to the extent that they express appreciation or disapproval.

The selfie is the expression of a society whose vision has narrowed, enclosed in itself, in its own fears and its own forms of egoism.

Vivian Maier, the nanny and photographer discovered only by chance a few years after her death, left a large quantity of images, including many selfies ante litteram, taken using the reflection of a mirror or a glass pane. Today people queue up to see the works of this woman who had a great talent: she knew how to look at people. And for this very reason, perhaps, a large part of her production was left on rolls which she never took to be developed.

In a world packed with images it is necessary to restore dignity to the face, to recognize, as Emmanuel Lévinas wished, its value as a place of encounter with others and with the history which the face conveys, in order to build relationships based on acceptance, trust and responsibility.

Yet over and above the stereotypes that adults seek to give them, the inhabitants of the digital world seem to know this. At least when they are left room to express themselves and the necessary attention is paid to listening to them, just as, for example, at the October appointment for the Synodal Assembly, so many dioceses and parishes have endeavoured to do. Among the many initiatives is also an original photographic competition organized in April by the Parish of Sant’Antonio in Alberobello which invited high school students to express their opinions on the subject of pathological dependence through photos and selfies. The results of the competition, supported by the competent departments of the local health care institutions in Bari and Taranto, were surprising. No rhetoric. Only the wish to surge ahead. Even with a selfie.

Piero Di Domenicantonio




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 20, 2019