All By My Selfie: National Geographic Photographers Muse on the Word of the Year

Selfie: A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.

The Lord of Words, aka, the Oxford English Dictionary, has anointed “selfie” the word of the year for 2013. The term sprinted past other short-list entries like twerk (a sexually provocative dance), olinguito (a small furry mammal found in South America), and bitcoin (a form of digital currency).

Although the hashtag +selfie appeared on the photo sharing website Flickr as early as 2004, usage wasn’t widespread until 2012, OED editorial director Judy Pearsall told the Guardian newspaper.

When it comes to selfies, some National Geographic photographers confess to being enthusiasts. Others, not so much.

Underwater photographer David Doubilet has been ahead of the curve for years. He reports taking a selfie in a shark cage in the waters off of South Australia in the 1970s.  “We shoot [selfies] all the time, because there is nothing else to do when you are decompressing after a deep dive,” he says. Selfies have several built-in advantages, Doubilet reports. “You don’t have to credit anyone else and there is always the delete button.”

But Ira Block says the idea of a selfie—which he likens to looking in a mirror—never crosses his mind. “Maybe it’s generational,” he says. “To show myself in some location is irrelevant.”

Deputy Director of Photography Ken Geiger says a selfie documents an “I don’t believe I’m here” moment. “I do it to share with my kids,” he says. He shot a selfie video several years ago when he was up in a sequoia tree 200 feet off the ground on an assignment. “It’s not about making your picture. It’s to show yourself in a situation.”

You might say a selfie is a digital post card. But for Pamela Chen, a senior photo editor at the magazine, the post card is self-addressed—or for friends and family only. “I don’t post them online,” she says. “It’s like a scrapbook. I am taking notes about my life and it’s the quickest way for me to know where I’ve been and if I want to remember a feeling.”

Self-documentation is not for everyone. Jodi Cobb doesn’t do selfies. “I haven’t been able to find a flattering angle,” she says. “All I have been able to show are my feet.”

Can a selfie hold a surprise?

“Oh, sure, especially if there is bear running up behind you,” says Joel Sartore.

But while it might be difficult to imagine Ansel Adams taking a selfie in front of the Grand Canyon, Stephanie Sinclair points out that self portraiture is a serious art form, “so perhaps you could say this is a fun and modern take on that.”

If you think about the documentation of self, what does it matter what camera is used? she asks. “But then, there is a big difference in what Cindy Sherman does and a person putting selfies on Instagram.”

Tips for Taking Selfies:

*You want to be well or dramatically lit, says Pamela Chen. One indicator: If you can see light reflected in your eyes on the camera screen—it’s known as “catchlight.” (Related: “Tips for Better iPhone Photography.”)

*Make sure nothing is coming out of your head in the background like telephone wires or trees.

*Don’t shoot from a lower angle; shoot from higher. If you shoot from lower, your chin becomes wider than your forehead. Most unflattering.

To which David Doubilet adds:

*There should be something fabulous in the background…or maybe you are trying out a new mustache or lip gloss.

*It helps to have arms as long as Shaquille O’Neill!

Human Journey

Meet the Author
Cathy Newman began her career writing for the Miami News, before joining the staff of National Geographic Magazine where she was Editor at Large. In addition to dozens of articles for the magazine, she is the author of three books for National Geographic. Perfume: The Art and Science of Scent, Women Photographers at National Geographic, and Fashion. She is a regular contributor to Smithsonian Journeys.