Selfie Harm; What Do We Sacrifice To Become Social Media Ready?
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
Photos by Rankin provided by Rankin Photography Ltd.
In 2017, 1000 selfies were posted on Instagram every second and a study from that same year revealed that the average millennial will spend an hour a week on selfie duty, which involves everything from getting the ‘perfect’ selfie to editing it. It is this trend for self-editing that British photographer Rankin chose to focus on for his recent project, Selfie Harm.
Rankin’s project forms part of a new campaign from M&C Saatchi in partnership with Rankin and MTArt Agency, entitled Visual Diet. Their website defines the noun as “the visual content that a person willingly or unwillingly consumes per day”. Visual Diet aims to highlight the dangers to our mental health of being “force-fed thousands of images every day”, many of which are “hyper-retouched” and “sexually gratuitous”. The website explains that these images
“leave us feeling hollow and inadequate. These are the empty calories. The visual calories we gorge on because they’re there. Our appetite for this type of content is insatiable. It is visual sugar and we are addicted.”
Rankin created his new project Selfie Harm to
“expose the dangers of image-altering apps that are damaging people’s mental health and overrunning social media”.
To do this, he photographed fifteen teenagers (boys and girls) wearing minimal make-up and with a simple, natural aesthetic. Rankin then provided the teenagers with their image to edit using one of the hundreds of free apps that are available to download.
Rankin specifically chose young people who didn’t use these apps regularly and he and the team showed the teenagers how to use them. He explained:
“FYI it’s insanely easy and a lot of fun, which is a huge part of the issue.”
The teens were given a simple brief; to filter their image to get more social media likes. Rankin described the result as “astonishing”, continuing:
“the difference made in five minutes of tweaking is eye-opening and quite honestly, scary.”
Rankin found that most of the teenagers opted for the same techniques, mimicking their idols by enlarging their eyes, making their noses smaller and their skin brighter. He explained:
“As the apps are getting more sophisticated and the technology more polished, not only are they blurring the line between fantasy and reality, they are encouraging a disturbing culture of homogeneity.
“Selfies are less about showing who you really are and more about which celebrity you want to look like.”
The photos from the project were displayed with the original placed alongside the edited, highlighting the contrast between natural beauty and youth with the teenagers’ perceived ideals of beauty and what they deem to be socially likeable. Rankin commented:
“It’s the exact opposite of what self-portraits were supposed to be. Rembrandt would be turning in his grave!”
Rankin himself has experienced a “long and problematic” history of working with and battling against the movement of image manipulation. There have been points within his career where celebrities, brands and magazines would “demand” the use of photoshop and thus it became a large part of his job.
Despite a recent shift in the industry where the relationship with Photoshop has largely changed due to the discussion and subsequent backlash surrounding the falseness of the tool, apps and filters have become increasingly popular and easy to use. Rankin calls them “a different beast entirely” and describes them as “game-like” which he believes makes them more dangerous.
“When doing research for this project, I played with these apps a lot to understand the appeal. They’re addictive, very impressive and you can have a lot of fun warping, changing and reimagining your appearance.”
Thus far, the description of these apps seems fairly harmless and comparable to any number of games and apps that are freely available. Rankin is keen to highlight the potential dangers of playing with ones image, saying:
“But it’s when people are making an alternative or ‘better’ social media identity that this becomes a mental health problem.”
With the constant development of these kind of technologies, Rankin described the project as “the tip of the iceberg” and emphasises the importance of creating a “discussion about how we are approaching, viewing and changing our own images.”
Rankin doesn’t advocate going cold-turkey on selfie snapping and editing, acknowledging that it is a “complex issue”. Neither taking selfies nor editing them are necessarily negative practices but through Selfie Harm, Rankin hopes to open up the conversation around constructing self-images for the gratification of others, and perhaps most importantly, for ourselves:
“We need to challenge the way image manipulation is being used and abused in the wider world. Selfie Harm is my attempt to get people to talk about the issues threatening mental health today.”