Selfies Are Scary

Libby Dierker

For nearly the last decade, Charlie White has been fixated on the inner lives of girls. Back in 2006, months before the release of the first Apple iPhone on June 29, 2007, White planted five digital SLRs with the friends and family of a teenage girl. The cameras were distributed to the girl's mother, father, boyfriend and others with the idea of spontaneously and casually catching her unaware as she lived the life of an all-American 16-year-old girl. 

As it turned out, the digital SLR would never be a match for the iPhone, Galaxy or otherwise "smart" phone at squeezing into the nooks and crannies of everyday life. And despite White's compilation of several thousand images of the pretty blonde girl going about her daily routine (showering, makeup, biology class, shopping, cheerleading practice, eating junkfood and talking on the phone), exactly just what Cyrilla Strothers was thinking, feeling and hoping in her adolescent mind remained a mystery. Only a handful of the thousands of photos shot on the SLRs turned out to White's liking, and the project was scrapped in the wake of a lot of anticipation.

Possibly with some chagrin that a popular social trend would succeed where his onslaught of 8 Megapixel Rebel XTs had failed, White's new work in the exhibition SELF PORTRAIT at Berlin's Loock Galerie does not contain portraits of himself, as the title may suggest. Here White restages poses informed by the trove of selfies abundantly available on the Internet. At first glance, his hostile, geometric, stripped down photographs may not immediately come across as nods to this particular phenomenon of picture-taking. The selfie as we typically know it is an undeniable record of time and place, incorporating very identifiable and often amusing locales. The phenomenon of selfie-taking is so widespread that it is codified into separate forms and subcategories: ‘the holiday’, ‘belfie’, ‘headless’, ‘post-workout’.  Often an accessory to the recording of more prurient sentiments, the sexier varieties of the selfie may be shared directly between individuals or on sites such as Grindr, Scruff or Craigslist.  

In his new series of nudes, White injects five teen-looking models, two boys and three girls, into their own space-less, timeless voids made visible only by a pattern of gridlines reminiscent of those in creative software applications. Certain science fiction films like Jonathan Glazer's recently released Under the Skin or the dinosaur of a sci-fi, George Lucas' THX 1138, used the technique of deserting their characters in similar non-spaces. Whether a viscous black womb or a glowing white infinity, all seek to describe the pure, unadulterated self. Completely without context. Depriving a character from interacting with his or her setting, attention is focussed on minute details and subtle clues as to latent opinions, ambitions and desires. And human desire can be pretty frightening.

When free from representations tied to style, wealth, or education, what rises to the surface is a bare, raw, humiliating (or maybe not-so-humiliating) quest for our bodies to satisfy or, in most cases, to be satisfied. What the selfie boils down to is not as warm and glowing as the term “self-promotion” sounds, it is also – less optimistically – self-objectification and self-exploitation. This could explain why White's selfie-like nudes are shown paired with still lifes of extravagant feasts, everything from papayas to chicken legs to donuts stacked up in gratuitous quantities. In unison, all of these images seem to be screaming, "Eat me. Eat me.”

Maybe all along, this is precisely what Cyrilla had buried beneath those tweezed brows, copious mascara and carefully curled hair, an unquenchable hunger for satisfaction. Maybe this is what White wanted from her to begin with, to betray some secret wish of hers in some less obvious, less commercial, less stereotypical way. But let's hope that unlike the rest of us and unlike the self-pandering subjects of SELF PORTRAIT, there was one teenager out there who developed an early immunity to self-commodification.

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