How the selfie has shifted the boundaries

Taking pictures of yourself may seem narcissistic, but it can also be empowering.

Powered by automated translation

When camera phones first became widespread, there was a palpable fear that our privacy was under threat from rogue photographers. But today it is the opposite phenomenon that plagues us: excessive exposure of individuals not by others, but by themselves. Enter the selfie.

A selfie is a self-portrait photo, usually taken with a camera phone and shared on social networks. These have increased in quantity in recent years.

But it's not just the trend of taking selfies that has become mainstream, we are talking more about them and the word itself is now commonplace. It's a concept that encapsulates the growing focus on promoting the self, and it is the self that is hallowed in a world of Facebook-status updates and tweets about our obsessions.

Many have commented that this is simply a reflection of today's "me me me" culture. But what are more interesting to explore are the questions the prominence of the selfie raises about the changing ways we express ourselves and, indeed, who controls how we express ourselves?

Take a recent case in India where clerics have denounced "Facebook selfies" as un-Islamic, and have forbidden Muslim girls from posting pictures of themselves on social networks. They say public photos attract the wrong kind of attention.

But this is a red herring. A more pertinent question is whether this is an attempt to control how women express themselves in public, particularly as they become more independent? India is seeing a rise in educated, financially solvent women as part of the booming middle class. It's possible that for some, publishing pictures of themselves living lives their foremothers could only have dreamt of, is itself a way of breaking traditional gender oppression and of finding their own place in society. If this is the case, with the caveat of exercising caution, why should self-expression be tempered if the photographs portray the women simply as they might appear at school, work or out with friends and family?

As for the risks of publishing pictures publicly, more emphasis should be placed on those who misuse innocuous pictures in perverted ways. The shame and social constriction should be on the propositioners.

The traditional gatekeepers who wielded control over who had the right to individual expression are losing their grip: the elders, parents, publishers, editors and religious leaders.

The social control that once limited the expression of individual difference is diminishing. Blogs, self-publishing and social media have given power to individuals to make public statements with no external controls. But it is the selfie, more than any other phenomenon, that epitomises the importance of individuality. This is me, the selfie declares. And this is my stamp on the world. Subversive ideas and nonconformist self-expression can be easily promoted. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.

The mere existence of such photos moves boundaries about what is acceptable, bringing into the mainstream what might once have been hidden. It subtly changes our social boundaries.

Selfies are undoubtedly narcissistic, but they are also a social experiment in understanding how a human being constructs an identity when every aspect of its creation and public expression is within the individual's own control. A selfie allows us not only to see the subject, but to understand how the subject wants to be seen. This is not something to be controlled, but rather something to be understood.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at