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Seven selfies for the serious-minded

By Alice Northover

Self-portraits are as old as their medium, from stone carvings and oil paintings, to the first daguerreotypes and instant Polaroids. Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013selfie – indicates the latest medium: a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website. Our editors found that the frequency of the word selfie in the English language has increased by 17,000% since this time last year and given its new ubiquity, it isn’t hard to find selfies in a variety of settings. While it’s not always appropriate to snap a quick picture of yourself, there are wonderful instances of selfies that provide context and reflection.

Historical selfies

Many early photographers — whether famous impressionists or First World War servicemen — felt the familiar compulsion to capture themselves on film. Robert Cornelius made arguably the first selfie in 1839 in the early days of photography. As Melissa Mohr stated: “after 174 years and billions of tries, this has never been improved upon.”

Robert Cornelius, self-portrait, 1839. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Robert Cornelius, self-portrait, 1839. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Scientific selfies

As scientists pioneer new fields of study they record their work — and sometimes themselves performing it. Astronaut selfies like NASA’s Aki Hoshide or ESA’s Luca Parmitano add a new dimension to the documentation of space exploration. NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover is also fond of showing off at work.


Political selfies

Politicians are no strangers to the arrangement and control of images, so it isn’t surprising to find many using selfies to present their programs, their events, and themselves. First Lady Michelle Obama assisted National Geographic in compiling the largest animal photo album. Chelsea Clinton tweeted a selfie with her mother Hillary Clinton. Bill Clinton and Bill Gates broadcast their attendance at the Clinton Global Initiative.


Religious selfies

It may be a stretch from silent prayer and contemplation or offerings at Shinto temple, but cameras are now omnipresent in scared spaces and on sacred occasions. When one is able to meet a world religious leader and has a smart phone in hand, the temptation for a selfie religious experience is too great. Fabio M. Ragona is now well-known for his photographic encounter with Pope Francis.


Cinematic selfies

In an industry dominated by the image, it’s no wonder that many films feature characters who photograph others and themselves. Recently The Bling Ring featured several teenagers taking traditional party selfies, but self-portraiture features in classics as well. And of course, actors are not afraid to mock the ever-watchful eye of the camera.


Sporting and gaming selfies

The “game face” is hardly a new phenomenon, but can you imagine Instagramming it to the opposing team before a game? Whether taking mascot selfies for fans or documenting your game progress, selfies are becoming part of the athlete and gamer repertoire. Would you want to cross the Golden State Warriors?


Literary selfies

With traditions of autobiography, essay-writing, and thinly-disguised fiction, it’s difficult to see the need for photographs in literary circles. Yet from beloved characters, to publisher logos, to authors themselves, literary self-analysis isn’t limited to words.


What selfies would you add to the list?

Alice Northover is editor of the OUPblog and Social Media Manager at Oxford University Press.

The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013 is ‘selfie’. The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is a word, or expression, that has attracted a great deal of interest during the year to date and judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance. Learn more about Word of the Year in our FAQ, on the OUPblog, and on the OxfordWords blog.

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