what makes a selfie art?

As a new exhibition charting the history of the selfie opens at London’s Saatchi gallery, we speak to photographer Juno Calypso about its creative potential.

by Matthew Whitehouse
05 April 2017, 2:15pm

photography juno calypso

They've been described as empowering, degrading, icons of third wave feminism, and examples of screaming narcissism. But are selfies art? It's a question explored in a new exhibition at London's Saatchi Gallery. Charting the history of the selfie from old masters (Rembrandt) to new masters (Kim K), From Selfie to Self-Expression celebrates the creative potential of a medium often viewed through a filter of snobbery. Vincent Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, and Cindy Sherman all feature, as do a series of icons of the digital era, such as Benedict Cumberbatch and that monkey who nicked a photographer's camera in Indonesia. The very good Juno Calypso was one of the young British artists involved in the whole thing (sifting through 14,000 selfies to crown Dawn Wooley's The Substitute (holiday) winner of the event's opening competition). So we figured, who better to ask what makes a selfie art than someone who's made a career of taking images of herself? See what she reckons below.

What do you think of that word "selfie"? Do you mind your work being associated with it?
It doesn't have a very strong audio aesthetic. It sounds like a baby word. Like "meanie" or "weenie." I'd describe what I do as taking staged self-portraits. I associate the word "selfie" more with phone or laptop pictures. I don't mind my work being associated with it, though. Selfie culture is run by women and young people — people who were previously kept away from being behind the camera. So most of the negative conversation about it is just feels like snobbery and misogyny disguised as photographic critique.

Why do you think your work features yourself so much? Do you think it'll always be focused on the self?
Working with other people stresses me out. I wanted a job where I didn't have to talk to anybody. I think it helps me sleep at night knowing I'm not exploiting anybody but myself. I don't need to print out consent forms. Selfies and self-portraiture create a looped gaze. It provides an alternative to the problematics of the colonial gaze, the male gaze — framing the "other" as an object.

What makes a selfie art? Is it only art if the person taking it is an artist?
I think a selfie can become art in the same way that a diary can become literature.

How has our relationship with the selfie changed?
I guess a hundred years ago, you needed the social status to access a camera. When I was younger, all you needed was £3 and access to a Woolworths. But that was still a bit public. With digital cameras the selfie became a private act, and a more repetitive one. Simultaneously social media came along and it you could broadcast that image everywhere from your bedroom. I think regardless of the situation, the relationship is the same. People like to examine themselves.

What was the last selfie you took on your phone? Can we have a peek?

'From Selfie to Self-Expression,' presented by Saatchi Gallery and Huawei, is on view through 23 July, 2017. 


Text Matthew Whitehouse

Juno Calypso