A variety of ideologues routinely reduce selfies to yet another confirmation of our mass superficiality. Instagram is indeed littered with scores of us primping for our bathroom mirrors and posing at arm’s length for “ego shots”: it seems infeasible to salvage especially profound insight into contemporary society from Justin Bieber’s self-involved posing or Kim Kardashian’s often-ridiculous stream of booty calls. Nevertheless, the countless online selfies register a self-consciousness about appearance that is likely common in every historical moment, and the recent flood of online selfies may simply confirm that we know we are being seen and we are cultivating our appearance for others. After looking in the mirror for millennia, digitization has provided a novel mechanism to re-imagine, manipulate, and project a broad range of personal reflections into broader social space.
Last week a New Yorker article fueled selfie critics who lamented the apparent narcissism of selfies at Auschwitz. The page was removed after a host of media decried self portraits at the concentration camp and rejected (or simply did not comprehend) the page’s clumsy attempt to use irony to assess the holocaust’s social meanings. The Israeli page collected youths’ concentration camp selfies, and the images push irreverence and irony beyond many peoples’ tolerance: the page included typical selfie poses of pouting expressions and stylized self-contemplation, but these selfies were at places like the iconic Auschwitz gates or had sarcastic added descriptions such as “Even here I’m drop dead gorgeous!”
The strained irony of the facebook page was wasted on most audiences eager to patrol memorialization ethics or unable to fathom an ironic critique of holocaust symbolism. Countless tourists take pictures at historic sites including Auschwitz every day, though, and those pictures include numerous crass images shared with the internet. Yet selfies seem to break some unwritten codes about heritage tourism, especially in visits to dark historical spots. Tourists’ arm-length self portraits at historic sites appear to represent only a modest percentage of the countless publicly accessible selfies. Nevertheless, there are scores of selfies taken at nearly every heritage site that a tourist would snap an otherwise mundane image. A host of selfies have been taken at the 9/11 Memorial, for instance, and some photographers themselves concede that the setting is perhaps awkward. Numerous visitors to Washington DC pose in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial for a selfie, in some cases reproducing King’s iconic statuary stance. Totem and Taboo collects images of gay men’s Grindr profile images taken at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial.
In the case of Auschwitz there are genuine codes against some photography (e.g., of the human hair on display or the Block 11 cellars), but most historic sites’ photography rules simply focus on collection preservation. Some selfies may violate the unspoken ethics of respectful memorialization, and perhaps a selfie at Mount Vernon, Hadrian’s Wall, Graceland, Dealy Plaza, the Parthenon, or Monticello has somewhat different ethical dimensions than an image from Auschwitz, Treblinka, or Mauthausen. Nevertheless, it is simplistic to reduce all those tourist images—including selfies—to ego exhibitions. It also makes some sense to examine the distinctive social work of tourist selfies that contrasts to the broad range of self-taken images that get classed as selfies.
Many historical places are already in our visual memory because of the photographers who went before us: for instance, Auschwitz’s iconic gates, approaching train tracks, and razor wire fences are rooted in our collective visual imagination because of wartime photography and a host of popular cinematic depictions. Photographer Roger Cremers suggests that Auschwitz is so well-known visually that he chose to document tourists’ photographic experience at Auschwitz with an eye toward illuminating how visitors visually document a place that is simultaneously familiar while its meaning is rooted in unimaginable evil that is difficult to articulate. Not surprisingly, many tourists at Auschwitz reproduce familiar settings and normatively document the same visuals; many selfies at historic sites likewise seek out the familiar vista on a site like the US Capitol, Big Ben, Disneyland, or the Statue of Liberty.
In the wake of the New Yorker article a few people on the Auschwitz facebook page lobbied to eliminate photography at the site altogether, but this position probably underestimates the anxious self-consciousness many photographers feel at contested historical sites. In his study of youth visiting Auschwitz, Thomas P. Thurnell-Read found that every visitor he interviewed was conflicted by photography, but all apparently still took photographs. A 21-year-old Canadian tourist acknowledged that “I didn’t want to turn it into a spectacle because that would bother me later. But I wanted to know, like I wanted to remember. I almost regret it but I took two photographs in the crematorium…and, I was, like, what am I doing? But, I did.” For Thurnell-Read’s subjects, simply seeing Auschwitz was insufficient, even though many indicated they knew the visual images of camps from wartime photography and popular sources like Schindler’s List. Their camp photographs were meaningful and even authentic because they were based in a personal experience of the camp space and were not simply a series of disembodied images.
Elizabeth Losh’s study of the Selfiecity database argues that selfies are a transnational phenomenon that is about place-making and not simply the exhibition of faces and bodies. Like a host of tourist pictures that preceded them, the selfies and digital photo albums are partly place-making projects in which the sense of a historic place is fabricated around a tourist’s gaze. A selfie essentially writes its subject into history and visually invokes a heritage without articulating its meaning; in many of these most complicated histories, a picture of the Auschwitz gate or the 9/11 Memorial panels invokes much more fluid and personally idiosyncratic meanings than a textual narrative of the experience.
Many observers seem to consider selfies a uniquely narcissistic generational transgression of appropriate historical solemnity. The critique of youth behavior at historic sites perhaps betrays a deeper anxiety of the perpetual identity fabrication that Sherry Turkle argues many adolescents are engaging in on facebook, Instagram, snapchat, etc. The tendency to document experience and self visually and instantly rather than in a text-driven narrative may indeed be generational, and selfiecity’s research confirms that the average age of selfy photographers is indeed young (23.7 years of age).
The heart of selfie photography in historic sites is perhaps personal imagination; it is less what we look like—and what a historical site “really means”—than it is about what we imagine we look like and what a historical site means. One of Thurnell-Read’s subjects touring Aushwitz focused on imagination and said he “liked that it was underdeveloped, the fact that it was in ruins, again, the faculty of mind, it helps, because you had to conjure up images yourself which made you think more.” Historical selfies certainly harbor some normative ideological effects ranging from visual representation of the self to the guise of attractiveness that shapes how many people view selfies, and in some spaces we may expect some codes of dignity. Nevertheless, historical selfies simultaneously reflect a telling if idiosyncratic effort to visualize and give meaning to a personal tourist experience.
For more on selfies, see Katie Warfield’s project Making Selfies, Making Self, which focuses on young women’s experience of taking, seeing, and making social sense of selfies.
The facebook group The Selfies Research Network marshals a ton of good scholarship and popular thinking.
Russell Belk, Joyce Hsiu-yen Yeh
2011 Tourist photographs: signs of self. International Journal of Culture, Tourism and Hospitality Research 5(4):345–353. (subscription access)
2014 Imagined Data Communities. Selfiecity
Patricia G. Lange
2014 Facing the Selfie. Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing (CASTAC) Blog, 24 June.
2005 Families Seen Sightseeing : Performativity of Tourist Photography. Space and Culture 2005 8(4):416-434.
Iris Sheungting Lo, Bob McKercher, Ada Lo, Catherine Cheung, Rob Law
2011 Tourism and online photography. Tourism Management 32(4):725-731. (subscription access)
2014 Know Thy Selfie. Global Social Media Impact Study Blog, 1 April.
Thomas P. Thurnell-Read
2009 Engaging Auschwitz: an analysis of young travellers’ experiences of Holocaust Tourism. Journal of Tourism Consumption and Practice 1(1):26-52.
Theresa M. Senft
2014 The Epistemology of the Second Selfie: What Queer Teaches Us About Digital Display, Surveillance and Power. Paper delivered to the International Communication Association. 22 May.
2014 The Selfie and the Self: Part 1 – Hiding and Revealing. dmlcentral 16 June.
2011 Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books, New York.
Selfies at the Acropolis image from Rob
Selfie at the Lincoln Memorial image from Joe Flood
The postwar suburb seems painted in our collective imagination as a White nuclear family standing proudly in front of a standardized tract home and a chrome-accented American car. Fortunately a rich scholarship on postwar suburbia has complicated or utterly unraveled that and many other suburban stereotypes, underscoring the material, social, and historical diversity of suburban landscapes: we know suburbia included a multitude of architectural forms beyond the interchangeable Levittown box; the roots of the suburbs reach well into the 19th century; working-class families predominated; and we are paying increasingly more attention to the suburban experience along the color line.
In 1947 Henry and Della Greer were among Indianapolis, Indiana’s first African-American suburbanites, and in many ways the story of the Greers and their neighbors might be told in many more places. Henry was a former hotel porter who worked as a salesman and real estate agent before opening the Demi-Jon Liquor Store on North West Street in December, 1935 (and eventually selling life insurance). His wife Della was an art teacher at Crispus Attucks High School, where she taught for 20 years beginning in 1936. The Greers blazed a trail into rural Washington Township that would find them neighbored within a decade by a series of African-American subdivisions. That suburban African-American story has been untold in many communities, swept aside in a broader moral narrative that decries suburban conformity and material homogeneity and seems unable to fathom how the suburbs have been so alluring to so many Americans. There is no shortage of outstanding scholarship on Black suburbanization (for instance, Andrew Wiese’s Places of their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century), but as these communities transform and in many cases deteriorate their histories risk being ignored and lost on the contemporary landscape. Despite some wonderful preservation projects in communities like Addisleigh (New York), Berkley Square (Las Vegas), and Conant Gardens (Detroit), many communities seem slow to comprehend the consequence of Black suburban life in the postwar American experience. Read the rest of this entry
Albuquerque’s Rebel Donut is among a wave of doughnut shops offering up a host of novel flavors, seasonal or organic ingredients, and culinary standards that aim to upset the caricature of the conventional mass-produced doughnut. Their donut gallery includes such flavors as Red Chile Chocolate Bacon, Nacho, Water Melon, and their Breaking Bad tribute, Blue Sky. Many of these gourmet doughnut shops go beyond novel flavors alone and embrace a philosophy of food consumption that is rarely extended to the prosaic doughnut. For instance, Seattle’s Mighty-O Donut’s vegan offerings include French Toast, Chocolate Raspberry, and Lemon Twist doughnuts made from certified organic ingredients. Few bakeries can rival Mighty-O’s philosophical assessment of the doughnut, noting that when they started the business “our intention was to make an honest living while being mindful of people and respectful of the environment. We weren’t interested in producing anything that would just end up in a landfill or contribute to the pollution piling up in the world. … We couldn’t find anyone making a donut the way we envisioned. A sweet treat with no chemicals, no genetically modified organisms, and no animal products—something everyone could enjoy.”
As we approach Doughnut Day on June 6th, the artisan doughnut shop has carved a foothold in cosmopolitan marketplaces. Gourmet doughnut shops appeal to a consumer imagination that relishes superior flavor, embraces culinary creativity, and fancies that the consumer has a discerning and educated palate. The gourmet doughnut invokes food as a culinary, political, and intellectual consumer experience.
That vision of food is routinely projected onto products ranging from craft beers to cheese to chocolate. Perhaps the distinction between gourmet doughnuts and a host of many other artisanal foods is the distinctly plebian nature of the doughnut: Doughnuts are routinely caricatured as mass-produced fare that lacks the complex ingredients of gourmet dishes and is beneath the consideration of skilled chefs. Doughnuts are often viewed as violations of body discipline, a conscious (if not conflicted) embrace of desire for a food that seems to possess little or no redeeming quality. Doughnuts are sometimes cast as “downwardly mobile” consumption, an embrace of the common by otherwise bourgeois consumers who see the mass-produced doughnut as a bridge to the masses or ironic consumption. We spend little time questioning the concept of a craft beer, artisanal charcuterie, or organic olive oil; however, because the doughnut is rhetorically constructed as a junk food characterized by its lack of redeeming qualities, the gourmet doughnut is often a target of popular curiosity. Read the rest of this entry
In September 1903 The Indianapolis Journal reported that Oliver S. Clay and his mother Charlotte “for years have lived in their home at 1405 East Sixteenth street, but on account of reverses, financial and otherwise, were compelled to mortgage their property for several hundred dollars, which, on becoming due, remained unpaid.” In many ways, Clay’s story of ill fortune might well be told of many of his early 20th-century neighbors. His father J.H. Clay had been the Pastor of the Bethel AME Church in Indianapolis until his death in 1892. After his father’s death Oliver was an advocate for African-American education and a Black political party, and in the 1902 election he led an African-American movement to vote a blank ballot, telling The Indianapolis Journal that “if the white politicians will give the negroes recognition then he will advocate voting.” However, like many Americans entertaining the American Dream, Clay’s ambition and hard work ended in tragedy as he was evicted, institutionalized, and eventually relegated to a potter’s field. The ultimate fate of his mortal remains punctuate both his unfortunate end and the way contemporary society routinely ignores the unpleasant histories at the heart of American life.
In 1901 the Public Library Bulletin reported on Clay’s aspiration to turn his home into what he dubbed the Claysonian Library. Clay’s collection included “the 315 volumes comprising the library of his father, the Rev. J. H. Clay, deceased, to which have been added by donation a sufficient number of books to make the collection 521 volumes, besides miscellaneous magazines and periodicals. The object is to cultivate a taste for literature among the young colored people, especially of the immediate neighborhood.” Oliver Clay’s neighborhood library was dedicated in April 1901 on what would have been his father’s 51st birthday, and several months later he received a gift of 50 volumes from Congressman Jesse Overstreet. The library subsequently hosted regular events at the Clays’ home and local venues, such as a lecture on the Emancipation Proclamation’s 40th Anniversary in January 1903.
In August, 1903, though, the Indianapolis Sun reported that Clay “has, with the furniture of the institution of which he is founder, been ejected into the street.” Clay moved his things back into the home and told the newspaper that “`You may say, mistah, that the Claysonian will be re-established in other quatahs soon and that the good work started by me will never die.’” In September a realtor returned in an effort to eject the Clays and once again “started to move the furniture out into the street. When he looked up he was gazing into the barrel of a revolver held firmly in the dusky hand of the Claysonian. `Claysonia forever!’ cried Oliver Clay, `and if you dare to move anything from this house you will forfeit your life.’” Read the rest of this entry
When visitors tour the newly opened National September 11 Memorial Museum this week they will be greeted by the relics of one of the world’s most traumatic shared events. The Museum opens to the public May 21st, and its collection of material artifacts, images, and oral memories documents the September 11 and February 2003 attacks on the World Trade Center and examines the broad consequences of global terrorism. The museum sits in half of the World Trade Center’s 16-acre shadow, a space that may perpetually play out the tensions between its roles as memorial landscape, history museum, forensics repository, cemetery, and tourist trap.
Much of the discussion about the museum has recently revolved around whether the site is an appropriate temporary or permanent resting place for human remains. Of nearly 3000 people who died September 11, about 1115 remain unrecovered and perhaps represented somewhere among thousands of unidentified human elements recovered from the site. In August 2011 the Medical Examiner held just over 9006 pieces of human remains (skeletal fragments as well as tissue), most of infinitesimal scale that an examiner described as the size of “a Tic Tac.” In February 2013 this figure was reported as 8354 human remain samples, and on May 10, 2014 7930 remains were ceremoniously transferred to the 9/11 Museum to be placed in a “repository at bedrock on the sacred ground of the site.” Those and any remains subsequently recovered will be subject to continuing forensic examinations “temporarily or in perpetuity.” Read the rest of this entry
Few dimensions of the material world have more sensory, tactile, and visual impact than food, a point that seems confirmed by the rich food studies scholarship, food advocacy groups ranging from sustainable agriculturalists to local food champions, and the avalanche of desserts on Pinterest. Nevertheless, somewhat less attention has focused on diners’ experiences of institutional foods: that is, mass-produced foods like the cheese pizza and tater tots clouding elementary school cafetoriums; the nutritionally balanced but unsightly purees scooped onto hospital plates; and the reheated frozen food adorning plastic prison trays and military mess halls. Observers have long dissected a widespread sentiment that such meals are perceived as unappealing and discarded in massive quantities, but much of this attention fixes on food waste and does not always confront why we find some foods so unappetizing in the first place.
An enormous amount of food photography acknowledges the desires projected onto food and the depth of emotional sentiment invested in images. A 1996 survey of institutional diners examining negative perceptions of such foods found that consumers rated the “manner of food presentation” lower than every other factor; despite recognizing that many consumers found institutional foods visually unappetizing, though, the study focused on how that reception mirrors our negative stereotypes that precede their consumption, devoting little attention to the ways our visual and sensory interaction with food shapes its consumption. Observers often seem unable to fathom the idiosyncratic ways we actively perceive, eat, and discard food, and they routinely fail to understand that much of the desire we deny institutional foods is linked to their visual aesthetics. Read the rest of this entry
Much of the lure of archaeology rests in the seduction of things: we are fascinated with the texture, color, heft, and odor of material artifacts that invoke antiquity, the allure of the alien, and the sensory richness of material life. Yet we often cannot physically experience artifacts that are in distant places, and many objects are too fragile to be handled. A variety of technologies now make it possible to produce exceptional 3D digital models of artifacts that can be rendered as visual and even material recreations: now archaeologists can visualize or handle a perfectly accurate scale model of, for instance,a 20th-century cap gun, a butchered dolphin bone from Jamestown, a Roman oil lamp (this example is from a 17th-century context at Jamestown), or an effigy pipe, all scanned by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Virtual Curation Laboratory and included in their Virtual Curation Museum.
For archaeologists, much of the attraction of 3D artifact scanning is its documentation of artifacts in distant repositories; scanned artifacts can be accessible to scholars even if they remain in private hands; and virtual documentation can assist us in conserving especially fragile things. Increasingly more archaeologists are no longer wedded to the expectation that their career rests solely on digging sites that are “theirs”; instead, increasingly more of us are working with museum and archival collections, and 3D artifact scanning would allow increasingly more work with curated collections in distant places. Nevertheless, some of the most interesting implications of 3D scanning may be the new “artifacts” it produces in the form of scans and recreated objects and the ways these digitized things illuminate what archaeologists and audiences consider to be “authentic” artifacts. Read the rest of this entry
A mobile billboard is rolling around Indianapolis Indiana until April 20th pleading for help finding Boomer, a poodle thieved from the car of his owner Eddie Williams. Williams purchased the billboard to circulate through the city for five days offering a $1500 reward for the return of Boomer, no questions asked. The billboard rental cost $1950, in addition to the cost of hiring a private investigator to assist, but Williams dismissed the cost, indicating “I don’t care about the money. What I care about is Boomer.” Williams is a truck driver who travels with his dog, and he said that “He’s not a dog to me he’s a little human. My little human, and he’s my travelling companion.”
The lengths Williams has gone to secure Boomer just a week before Lost Dog Awareness Day probably do not surprise many other pet owners. Boomer is simply one of many pets granted a status that places them firmly alongside humans while illuminating the philosophical complexities of human and natural relationships, childhood, public health, and consumer culture. Boomer and his peers are distinctive if not unique material things quite unlike prosaic commodities, cast as anthropomorphized “family members” endowed with nearly all of the fundamental characteristics we associate with humans. Read the rest of this entry
This week an FBI art crime team announced that it is investigating a collection from central Indiana that includes a vast range of material things from all over the world, ranging from World War II items to stone tools to human remains. I have absolutely no connection to this project that happens to be in my neighborhood, but archaeologists and FBI officers who have surveyed the collection have publicly confirmed that it has astounding global and temporal scope and includes thousands of objects. For archaeologists and observers committed to preservation, the most important implications of the investigation are perhaps not about the specific things in the collection and their ultimate disposition. Instead, we might be more alarmed by the public response to the investigation, which has rallied to defend the legal footing for such collections, attack the role of the government and archaeologists patrolling artifact trade, and ignore the moral dimensions of human remains as collectibles.
After a news conference this week, the blogosphere theatrically lit up with property rights defenses, conspiracy theories, racist xenophobia, and attacks on the President. Rather than illuminate how materials such as human remains and mortuary artifacts might be best preserved under genuine museum conditions or returned to legal descendants, the press and blogosphere have fixed on painting the state—and allied archaeologists—as a step away from raiding all our coffee cans of arrowheads. This is probably an emotionally satisfying response to creeping wariness of the state, but it avoids the moral issues at the heart of this and many more cultural patrimony cases: human remains, mortuary artifacts, and unique culturally specific artifacts have been reduced to the status of property no different than any other thing and accorded no dignified treatment or preservation that is informed by descendants. During a week that many people raced to ensure that National Geographic did not air a show with World War II German soldiers’ remains, the Indiana investigation has been greeted by a contrasting defense of personal property and nearly no commitment to the dignity of human remains now claimed as collectibles. Read the rest of this entry
In 1855 the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum opened, and by the time it moved in 1935 thousands of patients had been buried on the hospital grounds. The Mississippi asylum’s story is by no means unique: A vast range of mentally ill, developmentally delayed, and chronically ill Americans found themselves captive in dehumanizing institutions, lost to desperate and distant families and unceremoniously buried by the state. Much of archaeology’s mortuary landscape is peopled with similar lives that ended in asylums, battlefields, slave quarters, distant workplaces, prisons, and long-forgotten cemeteries.
At its best, archaeology dignifies these lives by treating their stories and forlorn remains with scientific rigor and moral respect. When the University of Mississippi took aim on the former asylum grounds Mississippi State University’s Nicholas Hermann led a team that surveyed the site to document and preserve the scores of dead patients now consigned to unmarked graves alongside the contemporary Medical Center. It is this moral notion of dignity that was violated by National Geographic Channel International’s “Nazi War Diggers,” which released (and then retracted) a promotional video last week on the four-episode series documenting the recovery of wartime dead who “lie rotting under World War Two’s Eastern Front.” This week the channel abruptly placed the series on “indefinite” delay (and removed all traces of it from their web page), awkwardly acknowledging that it was reviewing the series “while questions raised in recent days regarding accusations about the program can be properly reviewed.” Read the rest of this entry