A number of well-respected publications such as TIME, The Telegraph and The Independent (and many more lesser-known ones) have taken notice of a new course at City Lit, an adult education college in central London. City Lit has over 4000 part-time courses in areas such as the languages, visual arts, humanities and more.
The course is called ‘The Art of Self-Portraiture’, and for £132 (with concessions) you can “improve your critical understanding of the photographic self-portrait… and develop your ideas to produce a coherent body of work”. The course covers aspects such as “notions of identity, selfhood and memory”, and help you “explain ideas of space, place and surrounding issues” as well as improve technical skills like lighting.
So what, right? There’s nothing striking about the course description itself, but the way in which publications have interpreted it reveals a lot. The Independent’s headline reads, “It’s 2015, so of course you can learn how to take selfies.” The Telegraph’s headline is, “London college offers course in selfies”, and the Entrepreneur’s assessment is, “There’s now a course on the Art of Selfies”. TIME concludes in its piece that, “in other words, yes, it’s a selfie class”. This is genuinely incredible, because not once does the word ‘selfie’ appear in the course description, and it yields no indication that course focuses only on ‘selfies’.
What this means is that, apparently, in 2015, ‘Self-Portraiture’ equals ‘selfie’, which says a lot about our modern age. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a ‘selfie’ as, “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media”, while a ‘self-portrait’ is simply “a portrait that an artist produces of themselves”. The ‘Selfie’ first appeared in 2002 and became increasingly popular through the use of social media and the rise of smartphones, while, on the other hand, self-portraits have existed in art for a very long time. The first photographic self-portrait was taken by Robert Cornelius in 1839.
If this course had appeared before ‘selfies’ came into being, nobody would have raised an eyebrow. It would have been a standard course on an important aspect of art and photography—the self-portrait. However, because selfies are, today, notorious as the primary way in which we take self-portraits, a course with a focus of ‘self-portraiture’ is assumed to be, in fact, concerned only with the trend.
No doubt the course will cover the phenomenon, but it doesn’t claim to focus on it solely. We should not use ‘selfie’, which is almost always associated with smartphones and social media, to replace ‘self-portrait’, a term instead associated with a much longer history which implies both artistic skill and talent. This is not to say that selfies are entirely negative, as sometimes they can explore issues of representation and subvert stereotypes. Nevertheless, a ‘selfie’ is a very specific form of self-portraiture, while a self-portrait is not exclusively a ‘selfie’. They should not be confused.