David 'Mas' Masumoto

David Mas Masumoto: The placed selfie

‘Selfies tell us what we’re doing, who we think we are and who we think is watching,’ writes Bee columnist David Mas Masumoto.
‘Selfies tell us what we’re doing, who we think we are and who we think is watching,’ writes Bee columnist David Mas Masumoto. Special to The Bee

The selfie. A photograph taken of yourself by yourself. Sometimes alone, other times with others, often in a special or at a unique time.

With the popularity of camera phones and sharing websites like Facebook or Instagram, people are sharing these self portraits instantly and regularly. I found many silly, typical and boring. Some are in bad taste, done for the individual’s shock value. I find these worthless but it’s hard to unsee something.

Clearly some are narcissistic: the self-centered individuals photograph themselves because they want to show off and display images of ego and vanity. Unfortunately, there’s an audience for these self-absorbed, shallow, wannabe-famous images, probably by people who are also desperate for “likes.”

But I’m most interested in the self-expression of selfies. These selfies tell us what we’re doing, who we think we are and who we think is watching. Because selfies are shared with others, they create a new type of social interaction, a conversation with images. People perform in a selfie and, in doing so, reveal something about their inner worlds conveyed to the outside world.

Sometimes they express unintended meaning. For example, the selfie at Auschwitz from last year — a young woman’s misguided tribute when she took a selfie while smiling with a World War II Jewish death camp behind.

Selfies empower individuals to claim their identities: how they wish to be perceived. These photographs are composed, distributed and reviewed. They become public documents, a mirror you hold up to the wider world.

They can become relentless self-promotion. The made-up faces may harbor low self-esteem with a dangerous self-worth based on how others respond. I try to ignore such fake glamour images, the puckered duck lips make we wonder if the subjects are just playing or in desperate need of attention.

However, the images I enjoy the most are “placed” selfies. I like to examine the background that tells me where the photo was taken, the setting of the image, the frame of the individual. These selfies explore identity and a sense of place that can reveal more of the context of an individual.

Some of these photos seem to simply announce: “I was there” — like a vacation photo. I read more into the image: the selfie is a conscious action, a branding of yourself in a specific place at a specific time.

A “placed” selfie may be a way we embrace a new way to experience locations we have been. We avoid the dreaded “let me show you our vacation photos” experience. Those images are too often very passive, a random collection of locations and, unless you’re a very skilled photographer, they tell little about that place. Instead, when we put ourselves in a scene, we actively announce that this is a locale deemed important: We share ourselves with a place.

I love the stories of places. They are the context of our lives and tell us much about who we are. The important things in our lives all took place somewhere. We can’t separate the who from the where nor should we. They are all part of the fabric of life.

The location of a first anything (kiss, loss, birth, home) matters. The stage of a turning point in our lives (a graduation, a first job, a rebound relationship) become part of the experience. Settings capture a personal moment and, in turn, help define us. I wish I had selfie photos of these occasions — the combination of the look on my face, who I shared the instant with and the setting all create a document to reinforce memory and story.

Selfies are modern-day self-portraits that document where we are and have been and help to elevate the important junctures of life. They are personal histories and a visual memoir, a record of places that mattered. In turn, they promote reflection, especially because they are publicly shared, and we receive responses.

Selfies can transform a short-term moment into long-term memory when background is taken into consideration. In a placed selfie, the photographer is attached to someplace. We collect background clues that help us identify the subject and plant them in a specific setting in which the individual can act. Then the selfie becomes a story of experience: something that is both memorable and remembered. We can get a view into a shared world.

Selfies are becoming part of the faces we wear in this modern digital age. They are wonderfully democratic: we all have a stage to perform who we really are, intended or not.

Award-winning author and organic farmer David Mas Masumoto of Del Rey writes about the San Joaquin Valley and its people.