While it is a popular perception that the rise of online self- presentation has created a more artificial or overly constructed relationship to self- expression, as Sherry Turkle6 points out in her earlier writings, humans have in fact always lived within roles and frames. We may think of online postings as curated or even performed for an audience, but it is also important to note that, at least since the time of Erving Goffman, academics have understood that individuals are always constructing, performing and presenting themselves consciously in particular ways.

This would be very obvious in studies of clothing, for example. Indeed it is entirely possible that some people will feel they can appear more

natural online, where they are engaged within their own peer groups, independent from some offline interactions that made them more self- conscious (for example, meeting an anthropologist).

The selfie is often criticised as merely a form of narcissism.7 In fact selfies may also be viewed as an important genre for better under-standing issues of identity, aspiration and social expectations. Certainly in taking selfies individuals actively craft the impressions they hope to give, making such images a significant form of self- expression.8 The term narcissism, however, suggests an orientation towards the self, whereas selfies are mostly used in relation to specific audiences and to maintain social relationships.9 For example, in our English field site young peo-ple posted on Facebook five times as many selfies featuring groups than they did images of individuals. Furthermore, as an element within social media, selfies, alongside other photographs, are more engaged in acts of sharing and circulation. Both in terms of content and of what happens to them, selfies may represent a more socialised and less individually focused activity than traditional photography – almost the opposite of what is commonly claimed.10 This circulation of images reinforces shar-ing current experiences, as well as sharshar-ing memory.11

In comparing the material presented in the respective third chap-ters of each of our monographs, we found that, while it is a common observation that people may want to create ‘idealised’ versions of them-selves through the images they post, these all relate to particular social and historical contexts.12 In particular it seems that both the terms ‘aspi-ration’ and ‘idealised selves’ mean quite different things across the field sites. In industrial China posts of future aspirations around consump-tion dominate – hardly surprising, given a populaconsump-tion of migrant factory workers who see this work as a stage towards obtaining wealth. Creating fantasies of consumption, young men post images of cars, beautiful women and branded clothing, while young women post princess- style bedrooms. For youth in particular posting these images shows a fantas-tic world that contrasts with lives mostly spent in factory work. Visual images also allow them to convey emotions, when they might not feel especially confident or articulate either in textual posting or speaking.

By contrast in our rural Chinese field site economic aspirations intersect with conservative traditions. Posts of babies at significant milestones are a dominant genre, including a tradition in which parents spend a substantial amount of money on studio photographs. These pho-tographs, especially those taken after the baby’s first hundred days, also reference a child’s debt to their parents and the obligation that children are expected to have towards their parents later in life. Along with posts

V I SUa L I M aG E S 159 (a)


Fig. 11.1 Images of fantasies of consumption posted on QQ


Fig. 11.1 Continued

concerning babies, posts about love and marriage emphasise the impor-tance of enduring relationships as the foundation of family life, while others express affection and gratitude, ostensibly towards parents.

Although the primary focus is on traditional values, social media pho-tography is also starting to express individual aspirations – for romance expressed in the relationships of couples, for instance, or for young peo-ple’s autonomy from their parents.

In the cases of Brazil and Trinidad achieving greater social visi-bility is an aspiration in itself and appears predominantly on Facebook.

In the Brazilian field site social media parallels the church as a space that gives visibility to new wealth or the aspiration to it. The story of Sandra in Chapter 9 is relevant here. Evangelical Christians believe that wealth achieved through hard work represents one of the public virtues of a person; they consequently embrace a visible materialism as a sign of religiosity, not of superficiality. In Trinidad people see the cultivation of external appearance as a testimony of the truth of that person reflecting their actual labour, rather than viewing this as a distortion of a natural, authentic self. People therefore take considerable effort to create images showing their commitment to this craft of beautification, again reflect-ing the idea that appearance is profound.

In southern Italy the visibility of a person on public social media is heavily intertwined with social position. People perceived to be higher in the local social hierarchy post more photographs of themselves than

V I SUa L I M aG E S 161

those at lower levels. Nicolescu argues that this phenomenon is related to older traditions of visibility for those in the upper levels of Italian society. Yet this tradition is challenged by the new tendency for teenag-ers and young people to post selfies on Facebook. Young women spend hours staging a ‘good’ selfie. They select from multiple photographs they have taken, edit them online and finally upload one as a profile picture.

This passion for self- expression online decreases with marriage. After this Italian women post less about themselves and more about their fam-ily, including children’s accomplishments and scenes of different family gatherings.



Fig. 11.2 Images of babies taken at professional studios and posted by parents on QQ



Fig. 11.3 Selfies posted on Facebook by young Trinidadian women

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Curating how one appears on Facebook was also important in our south Indian field site. Here it was viewed in terms of building a per-sonal identity, often as part of a claim to status associated with one’s work. Several people posted images of themselves in work outfits or in apparently professional settings, even though their actual work was something entirely different from what these visual images implied. In all of these cases, therefore, we can say that people use visual images to express aspirations, but we can now see that the nature of those aspira-tions is quite local and specific.

In some cases the normative rules of self- presentation are not about looking your best, but simply about presenting the self in line with social expectations. This emerged very clearly in the contexts of northern Chile and the English village field sites; here it is the prev-alence of a simple ordinariness that is most striking in the posting of images. Typical selfies in northern Chile, even for young people, are usu-ally taken in their home or a friend’s, at work or during a brief outing;

they do not give the sense of much glamour. Teens and young adults often post several pictures a day, usually of mundane items such as new gym shoes, breakfast, their freshly washed car, selfies taken at school


Fig. 11.3 Continued

or work and photo collages made with another app, all giving a sense of the everyday monotony of life and often including hashtags such as

#bored #aburrido or #fome.13 A few photographs even express the ulti-mate boredom: waiting in line while running errands.

One common version of the selfie is the foot photo, or ‘footie’, almost always taken in a lounging position while watching television or playing a video game. Not only does this give the viewer a sense of the mundane life that they wished to capture; it also demonstrates the fact that it is simply not necessary to pose. The ‘footie’ is so casual that the photographer does not even have to move from their resting position.



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In southern Italy the same genre appears, but is almost always taken on the coast or with the feet directed towards the sea. Here the

‘footie’ symbolises the presence of the individual within the spectacle and beauty of nature. The vast majority of postings by adults in the English village seem to display no attempt to have dressed or prepared oneself for the image. Social media photography seems to be associated with the decline of make- up and the ubiquity of clothes such as jeans and T- shirts as a landscape of unpretentious modesty. Indeed adults in the village usually only started posting selfies when an apparently charitable cause based on posting ‘no make- up selfies’ helped them to create a distance from the prevalent association between the selfie and narcissism.

There are elements of both continuity and change here compared to prior uses of analogue photography. In Bourdieu’s study of peasant photography in France in the 1960s he noted that the most common photographs captured are from weddings and social festivities  – yet these images were mainly kept in boxes, with only a few formal wed-ding photographs on display in the home.14 He argues that these types of photographs are ‘sociograms’, providing visual records of social roles and relations. Such ceremonies are deemed to be worth photographing because they lie outside everyday routine. They also solemnise and mate-rialise these ‘climactic moments of social life’ wherein the group reasserts its unity.15

By contrast most social media photography is now mundane, and on sites such as WhatsApp is related more to transience than to memory.

However, we can also find examples of continuity, for example when Facebook is used today as the place to record occasions that are either special in some way or celebrations. The photograph has also now been associated with the greeting card. People acknowledge relationships through sending and sharing photographs, but also send greeting- style memes on special occasions, especially in Trinidad and south India.

Diwali, Christmas and New Year holidays, birthdays and a gradua-tion are all events where tradigradua-tionally one might have sent a card in Trinidad; such occasions are now often marked by circulating images on Facebook.

In our south Indian field site, in addition to special occasions, everyday greetings are posted – almost ritualistically, as the common belief, based on the Hindu concept of karma, is that positivity must be shared with a person’s social networks to balance the negativity that

also exists around them. These posts are usually words on a plain back-ground or with a scenic image, accompanied by a status that reads ‘Good morning’, ‘Have a grt . . . dy’ or ‘Have a good day’.

Social media does not just represent a shift towards ubiquitous vis-ual images. In some cases this results in people today posting up to hun-dreds of photographs of themselves that were previously kept strictly outside of the public gaze. This may represent a major shift not only in personal photography, but also in how people understand their social relations. We see this in our field site in southeast Turkey. Here, prior to social media, photographs were intended to be private, with the excep-tion of formal portraits or wedding photography displayed in the home or carefully stored in albums. Images kept in boxes were more infor-mal and featured family members dressed more casually, as images (a)


Fig. 11.5 Holiday greetings shared by Trinidadians on Facebook

V I SUa L I M aG E S 167 (a)


Fig. 11.6 Afternoon and evening greetings circulated on Facebook in Tamil Nadu

were only circulated among those within the house – effectively in lim-ited and controlled situations. With Facebook, however, ordinary family events such as lunches and dinners have become much more important as visible events. Yet because of the limits and local conventions around making photographs of people public, many Facebook users started to find ways that allow them still to express their attachment to other people and the quality of time spent together, but without focusing too much on people’s faces. As a result at family reunions they prefer to pho-tograph different dishes served throughout the evening and tables set up beforehand. In this way they have responded to the new possibilities of circulation, but, mindful of traditional concerns with privacy, they have taken the precaution of lowering the gaze from the face to the food.


Fig. 11.7 Images of food taken at family gatherings in southeast Turkey

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Fig. 11.7 Continued


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