Selfies take social media by storm.
By Achlys Xi
If you have a social media account and you have checked it today, the chances are you will have seen a selfie in your feed. The term “selfie” started to appear in 2005 when people began to post self-portraits on social media like MySpace and Facebook. With newer versions of smartphones incorporating front-facing cameras and the popularity of photo apps like Instagram, the taking and sharing of selfies grew into a worldwide phenomenon.
In 2013, Oxford English Dictionary picked “selfie” as the “word of the year” – just a year after it was selected as one of the “top 10 buzzwords” of the year by Time magazine. On Instagram alone, the word is used as a tag for over 220 million photos. Meanwhile, the hashtag #selfie appeared in more than 150,000 tweets on Twitter during a single week in October 2013.
Photographer Daniel Lau became an international a sensation when online media published pictures of him atop The Centre, a 346-meter, 73-storey building. The 23-year-old and his friends had scaled Hong Kong’s fifth tallest building last August and online footage shows Lau swinging his monopod – otherwise known as the “selfie stick” – to film his friends munching bananas with Victoria Harbour and Central’s high-rises as their backdrop.
Considering himself an explorer, Lau aims to take photos that are extreme but aesthetically pleasing, and taking selfies on the rooftop is a way to combine the two. “They are daring, but at the same time, they are beautiful,” Lau says. “People are always saying my selfies are so extreme, and maybe people are looking for those extreme selfies that they can’t take.”
Lau shares photos of his adventures on his public account on Instagram. With over 200 posts, he enjoys a following of over 55,000 from all over the world.
Armed with his selfie stick and a GoPro, a compact camera used for sports and action filming, Lau travels to various cities and takes photos on the rooftops of the tallest buildings and down below ground on construction sites. In Lau’s hands a selfie is like a passport stamp, proof that he was there, especially in extreme and dangerous environments. “This is the sense of presence. I am telling people I am really there,” he says.
Few people would go to the extremes Lau does to take a selfie, but some do think of selfie-taking as a form of self-expression. Christine Fung Hiu-tung posts selfies of herself doing sports and working out because she feels that is when she is expressing her authentic self. “There’re some beautiful moments I see in girls,” says 25-year-old Fung who works in marketing for a sports company and sometimes engages in freelance modelling. “When they work out, when they sweat, it’s the best moments for us to see.”
She is not concerned about what others think of her selfies and is not a frequent poster on Facebook and Instagram. When she does post a selfie, it would most likely be of her running or practising yoga. She wants to convey a lifestyle that is “sporty, natural, strong and healthy”.
“There are a lot of messages that one can convey [through selfies], but I choose to tell people the life that I sweat,” Fung says. “That’s how I define myself. It shows my personality, my character, my attitude towards life.”
Fung does not post selfies to keep her followers entertained and is not bothered about constructing an image of herself on social media. “I usually say what I feel when I’m taking that photo,” she says, “If I feel like I want to post a selfie, I just go ahead.”
Jade Lam, on the other hand, does care about her image on social media. The beauty blogger has more than 65,000 followers on Instagram. Scrolling through her page, you will see Lam’s numerous selfies showing her choices of clothing and make-up, along with snippets of her daily life.
Lam, together with her friend, produces videos for their own YouTube beauty channel, ArmourBeauty JM, to offer advice on make-up techniques. After the channel became popular, Lam noticed more and more people following her status updates, and she responded positively. “I think my life is indeed colourful, so I don’t mind sharing with others. I like doing it.”
But Lam does not just share anything, she often strives to choose the right pictures to upload. She wants to share her happy moments and avoids sharing the unhappy ones. Meanwhile, she also uses apps like BeautyCam to enhance her photos. She thinks a prettier photo will give strangers a better first impression of her, especially when she is posting selfies on a platform where most visitors are strangers.
“These apps can produce better photos, as your skin will be whiter, your eyes will be bigger, and your face thinner,” Lam explains, “Everyone should be very happy to see a prettier self in their photos.”
Yet, no matter how Lam wants to share happiness online, her selfies are inevitably subject to scrutiny by the public. Some people question her age and criticise her make-up; some even speculate about whether she has had plastic surgery.
Lam realises she cannot please everyone, but admits she was once troubled by the critical comments. In particular, she feels upset when people discuss her age online. “I don’t like others talking about my age. I don’t want others judging me from head to toe because of it,” Lam says.“Nobody would like to be judged in this way.”
With people trying to show the best sides of themselves through their selfies, perhaps it is natural for people to expect praise instead of criticism. Professor Louis Leung Wing-ci, of the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says people always present their ideal image in order to be recognised and included in social circles. Leung believes the do-it-yourself (DIY) element of selfie-taking allows people to take the image they want other people to see.
This DIY feature is also emphasised in many of the city’s selfie studios. Unlike traditional studios, these self-service studios allow customised self portraits using professional photographic equipment and a wide range of props. Customers take their own photos using a remote control which connects to the shutter of the camera.
Since the first selfie studio appeared in 2013, the photo-taking business has witnessed a revival with a growing fanbase on social media. SNAPARTY in Mongkok is a selfie studio founded by three young people. Here, customers can take unlimited photos in an hour-long session. They can then collect their photos immediately afterwards without having to wait for printing.
The studio has all types of customers including couples, office ladies, models, students, mothers with their babies and even elders. On average, people usually take around 200 photos in an hour but three girls once took a record 3,000 plus photos in just 53 minutes.
The studio’s founders attribute the popularity of selfie studios to the fact customers have full autonomy of the photographic process. Without a professional photographer, they can play and enjoy the time without anyone watching. “It’s more valuable and special to hand-make your own memory, different from one that is created by others,” says 24-year-old Vien Wong Wai-ying who co-founded the studio.
Wong’s partner, 23-year-old Nala Li Ka-lun, believes social media also creates a new demand for visual content among the younger generation. Li says visual communication is the dominant mode of communication on the internet. People use images to record and share their memorable experiences with others. “People are unresponsive towards everything except visual content,” Li says. “Facebook and Instagram give you the urge to upload the photos, whereas in the past you didn’t see the necessity.”
As selfie-taking has become a widespread and “normal” activity, local visual artist Rachel Ip Hiu-yin has launched a project called “100 Self-Portraits of Hongkongese”. Through the project, she hopes to probe the question of Hong Kong people’s identity by asking people to take selfies while at the same time promoting photography.
From an artistic point of view, Ip sees the selfie as a special way of seeing, as the photographer is more aware of the presentation of the image when he shoots his own picture. She hopes this project can help people to reflect on the way they are taking selfies and the way they see themselves amidst the flood of selfies on social media.
To Ip, the selfie is a tool for people to record their own history through images.
“It is in fact producing the world’s greatest ethnography, an in-depth and penetrative one that has never been seen in human history,” Ip explains. “Everyone writes his own history. Everyone is a contributor.”
Humans have a long history of making self-portraits. Ip says it has always been people’s wish to record their own images. The emergence of the selfie has merely rekindled and elevated this impulse. “People have always had this desire [to record their own image]. It has never stopped. It’s just when the tools become more accessible, people can achieve this more easily.”
Edited by Brian Wong
* In the print edition of this story, Daniel Lau’s age is incorrectly given as 25. We apologise for the error.