Pixel Perfect: Performativity and Self-Portraiture


Session Title:

  • Social Media and Digital Identities

Presentation Title:

  • Pixel Perfect: Performativity and Self-Portraiture




  • With the increasing number of mobile devices equipped with camera technology, many urbanites have the means to spontaneously document moments of the everyday. Digital images are used as evidence to construct identity and illustrate personal histories on blogs, photo-sharing and social networking sites. While these images are framed as representations of lived experience, they are fraught with fabricated cues. Vamping for the lens, or averting their gaze towards a fictional distraction to suggest ‘candid’ shots, subjects use performance to compose their preferred visual narratives. This paper looks at contemporary cultural and technological influences that come into play during the making of amateur self-portraits, and offers a case study of the web-based photography projects, At Arm’s Length and Viewing Pleasure.

    In the context of social media, the ‘profile picture’ calls for the production of a thumbnail-sized self. As building and tending to an online identity is often a solitary activity, the individual may act as both subject and photographer. Without the aid of a tripod, self-portraits are experiments of head and body angles framed by the confines of the subject’s own reach. Viewed through a web browser, At Arm’s Length begins with a set of self-portraits reflecting those commonly found in online profiles. Clicking on these initial images reveals the matching series of wide-shots exposing the contrasting environments existing beyond the boundaries of the subject’s framing. A sultry gaze is shown to be cropped out a backdrop of clutter and flannel pajamas. Bikini straps and sunglasses seem miscast on a cloudy autumn beach. A glamourous headshot is revealed as an instance of reflection in a dreary apartment lobby. Building on the theme, Viewing Pleasure contrasts stills from a woman’s seductive video chat session with wide-shots of her unlikely surroundings.

    In contemporary culture, narratives can be assembled from clusters of mobile uploads to build a documented, social self—independent of the lived experience of the subject, and made fluid through the filters of Adobe Photoshop. Looking at cultural archetypes and the visual cues chosen for online identity, this research works to provoke a discussion around subjectivity, performativity and the construction of visual narrative in digital photography.

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